Lethal Impulse

NORFOLK, Neb. -- Kay Hardin will never know for sure why her son took his life. Why he drove home early from school one Tuesday, ignored his brother who was home sick, threw his dental retainer on the floor. Why he found his hunting rifle and shot himself.

But in the days after Charlie Tschacher died on Oct. 9, 2001, his mother started putting the puzzle together.

Charlie, 16, left his friends six weeks earlier when the family moved from Chadron to Norfolk. He also felt detached from his new hometown because his family's trailer was seven miles from the city. And he was teased at school about his weight. Some students called him "fat boy."

There were rumors that he was rejected by a girl, too, but his mom never really considered them. Her oldest son was dead, and questioning the school or Charlie's new classmates for a precise answer wasn't going to change that.

When he was alive, Charlie hadn't mentioned problems at school. Once, he asked his mother whether she was happy in Norfolk, but that was it.

"It maybe bothered him more than I ever knew, " Hardin said.

In the World-Herald's interviews with parents who lost 37 Nebraska teens to suicide, nine knew for sure that their children had been seriously bullied or teased shortly before their deaths. Whether this pressure directly influenced all of these deaths can't ever be known. Teens thinking of suicide are often withdrawn, and that can make them targets for teasing.

Bullying, in and of itself, wasn't the only issue. Its influence appeared strongest when teens felt they didn't have friends or family who could sympathize.

One of the strongest protections against attempting suicide is to feel connected to school, according to a study published in 2001 by researchers from the University of Minnesota. Their conclusions were based on interviews with 13, 110 teenagers.

Teens are more likely to have that connection if they feel a part of the school, if they feel safe, and if they are treated fairly by students and teachers, said Dr. Iris Borowsky, the lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics.

The opposite is to feel ostracized in school, to feel threatened and to think that students or teachers are out to get them.

Eight of the nine teens who were bullied before they killed themselves had lived outside Nebraska's metropolitan counties, where the overall rate of teen suicides is higher compared with metro areas.

Teens in smaller communities have fewer ways to feel a sense of belonging, especially when they don't fit in with the popular crowd among peers.

It likely was an issue when 15-year-old Michael Fisher overdosed on pills in McCook. He had tried an overdose once before his death on Sept. 21, 2002, and that attempt and his depression already put him at risk. But he was teased about his first attempt, and that probably didn't help.

Bullying isn't exclusive to small towns, obviously. A March teen suicide forum in Omaha focused heavily on bullying, which was a factor in the suicide by a Westside High School student this January. Westside has lost three students to suicide in the past two school years.

Isolation can exist in busy cities, too. Teens struggling with their sexual orientation, for example, don't often turn to family or friends for advice.

The Minnesota study found that teens are about three times more likely to attempt suicide if they are gay. It also found they are about four times more likely if they have problems in school and about five times more likely if they are victims of violence.

Hardin doesn't know whether bullying alone pushed her son to suicide. His father suffered from depression, and Charlie might have shown some symptoms she didn't recognize.

His younger brother, Logan, believes that the fat jokes were Charlie's problem.

Logan and his mother have moved from Norfolk to McCook, where Hardin is nervously raising her younger son. He was the first person to see his older brother dead, and he is now the age at which Charlie killed himself.

Hardin believes Logan has come to terms with his brother's death, but she knows it still affects him. Logan exercises and lifts weights to stay thin, so he doesn't look like Charlie.

"He's so obsessive about being skinny, " Hardin said, "and I know that's why."


Help teens cope with bullies

Encourage children to talk with you. Don't blame them.

Don't support fighting back. Suggest walking away or seeking help from an adult. Help them practice what to say.

If problems persist, let them know you're going to help. Tell your children you're responsible for protecting them. Without promising secrecy, tell them you'll work out a plan to inform the school in a way that doesn't worsen the abuse.

Talk to a teacher, guidance counselor or principal. Most schools have policies that take bullying seriously.