Each teen suicide is a puzzle with pieces missing. Gone is the only person who might know the exact reasons. But taken together, these deaths reveal much about the social forces contributing to teen suicide. Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald in May, 2005.
Smaller Cities, Bigger Problems
For every teen suicide, there is a story, though it usually goes untold.
There's one for Michael Fisher and one for Lindsay Whitaker. They would have graduated from McCook High School today. Instead their headstones sit near a tall pine in a local cemetery.
There's one for Michael Weber, whose room in North Platte remains unchanged six years after he shot himself. His mother sleeps with his unwashed shirt under her pillow.
There's one for Jason Altstadt. After he shot himself, his father took 20 guns from their home in Fort Calhoun and hurled them into the Missouri River.
There are plenty of stories to tell, considering that every year, 15 to 20 Nebraska teenagers kill themselves. Only accidental deaths take more teenagers in Nebraska, where the teen suicide rate is one-third worse than the nation's.
To find out why, The World-Herald studied federal and state death records dating to 1994, interviewed the nation's leading experts and talked extensively with the parents of 37 Nebraska teens lost to suicide.
Each teen suicide is a puzzle with pieces missing. Gone is the only person who might know the exact reasons. But taken together, these deaths reveal much about the social forces contributing to teen suicide. Consider:
Teen suicide is most common outside metropolitan areas of Nebraska and the nation. It is not necessarily a rural problem, though. The highest rate of teen suicides in Nebraska occurred in counties with small or midsize cities such as McCook, Fremont and Beatrice.
Guns are used in most teen suicides, especially outside metro areas. In fact, the higher rate of gun suicides is key to the higher overall rate of suicides in less populated areas. Most victims in Nebraska had easy access to the guns they used.
Boys commit four of every five teen suicides even though girls are more likely to attempt suicide. Nonfatal attempts usually involve poisoning or cutting. Teens seldom survive attempts with guns.
Teens who kill themselves usually have reasons to feel estranged from parents, peers or both. Common is the stress of divorce. Rare is the daily presence of a stay-at-home mom or dad. The teens often have just endured romantic rejection, bullying or other problems at school or home.
Abuse of alcohol or drugs is common. Separate studies show that teen drinking is a bigger problem in Nebraska than in most states and that, nationwide, teen alcohol and drug abuse is worse outside metropolitan areas.
For every teen suicide, there is a teenager in pain.
Suicide is often called a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The teen isn't necessarily trying to end life, but rather to end his or her pain, whether it is emotional, physical or mental.
Most mental health professionals say teens who die by suicide suffered from depression or had other deep-seated problems. But only a fraction of people diagnosed with depression kill themselves. Among teens especially, the experts say, the actual impulse to attempt suicide does not last long.
"Teen suicides are very impulsive, " said Dr. David Grossman, a Seattle pediatrician whose research links gun safety and lower teen suicide rates. "The suicidal urge tends to be transient, and it dissipates pretty quickly."
Nationwide, the rate of teen suicide was 37 percent higher outside metropolitan areas than within metropolitan areas.
This isn't explained by the high teen suicide rate among American Indians, a problem widely discussed since the murders and suicide in March by a teenager on Minnesota's Red Lake Indian Reservation.
Indian teens do indeed kill themselves at nearly twice the rate of white teens, and they live mainly outside metropolitan areas. But their numbers are too small to account for the disparity.
Eight of 10 teen suicides in the United States involve white adolescents. Nebraska, for example, has recorded only two teen suicides by Indians since 1994.
Overall, 166 Nebraska youths (all but three of them teens) killed themselves in the 10-year period ending in 2003. Most of the 166 (90) had lived outside the state's nine metropolitan counties even though most Nebraska teens live within those counties.
The state's small towns and rural areas suffer more than urban areas across the nation. But the worst problem in Nebraska and Iowa is in midsize communities -- counties called "micropolitan" by the U.S. Census Bureau. Each is centered on a city of 10, 000 to 50, 000 residents.
American teenagers in small and midsize communities face a combination of social pressures that adds to the suicide risk.
First, there are simply fewer outlets for teens if they don't fit in with the popular crowd or meet social expectations. That makes them isolated. Second, there is an expectation in such communities that people handle their own problems.
It's a dangerous combination to feel like an outcast and to believe that you can't talk about it. But Dr. James Fish sees this frequently in the kids coming to him at the Richard Young Hospital in Kearney, Neb. It is one of the state's few mental health centers outside Omaha and Lincoln.
"The value is more 'You're independent, you take care of yourself, you deal with your own problems, '" Fish said. "'And if you can't, there is something terribly wrong with you.'"
Traditionally, strong families have helped teens cope. But that strength is weakening. The divorce rate is highest in Nebraska's midsize communities. And compared with the nation, there are more Nebraska children being raised by a single working parent or by two parents who both work. That means teens have more time alone and less time with parents.
Rebecca Hartford had a long drive to work ahead of her one Thursday morning, and her two boys were fighting over a video game. So Hartford yanked the plug out of the socket and took the game console with her on her 17-mile commute.
Home alone in rural Bladen, her sons were bitter. One of them, 17-year-old Dustin, had reached a breaking point after months of depression, failures at school and frustrations trying to find a job. He wrote a note suggesting that he was a burden to his mom and that it was time he "did something" about it. Dustin shot himself with a handgun his mother had borrowed for security. He died April 7, 2003, at age 17.
For every teen suicide, there is a mystery.
Some families read and reread pages of journals or long suicide notes left by their children. They find no answers. It is likely that some despondent teens themselves don't know why they end their lives.
Among the 37 teens whose families spoke with The World-Herald, nearly half had just broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and one in four had been bullied or teased by classmates. One in four had gotten in legal trouble or been disciplined sternly.
Mental health experts said the key is to see things like breakups -- which are common among teens -- in context with other problems. If such teens are withdrawing from normal activities, abusing drugs or alcohol, or talking about hurting themselves, then the combination of problems suggests a risk for suicide.
"Not everyone who breaks up attempts suicide, " said Fish, the Kearney therapist. "The question is why do" some teens do it? "What's different about them?"
The answer is often depression. While only a fraction of people who suffer depression die by suicide, major depression is widely accepted as a common risk factor.
In 11 of the 37 Nebraska cases, the teens who killed themselves had been clinically diagnosed with depression or some other mental illness. Most were prescribed antidepressants.
In 10 other cases, parents say they now suspect their children were depressed, but at the time they figured they were just moody teenagers.
Consider the deaths of Lindsay Whitaker and Michael Fisher, the two McCook teens who would have graduated from high school today.
Everyone knew Michael struggled. He took antidepressants. He tried to overdose when he lost a girlfriend. School officials made him promise to get help if he was tempted again. But problems persisted. Classmates even teased him about his prior suicide attempt: "How the hell can you not succeed at that?" someone asked him. One Saturday night, Michael overdosed on pills. He died Sept. 21, 2002, at age 15.
Lindsay, 14, had no such history. She stayed home from school on Thursday, March 29, 2001, and hanged herself. Afterward, her parents found a list she had written, with one column of reasons to live and one column of reasons to die. Her father remembered how she lay motionless on the couch one night before her death, how he stroked her hair and tried to comfort her. He also found out Lindsay had told a friend of her plans the day before, but then laughed it off when the friend questioned her.
For every teen suicide, there is a means.
Guns are the means in nearly 60 percent of U.S. teen suicides, and that number jumps to more than 70 percent outside metropolitan areas in Nebraska.
The problem might not be the guns themselves, but how accessible they are to adolescents.
The World-Herald found a close statistical link between states with high suicide rates and states in which a higher number of teenage boys say they handle guns regularly.
In interviews with 28 families of children who killed themselves with guns, the newspaper found that only three of the children had to break into locked gun cabinets. The rest had keys, or had the guns in their rooms, or knew where the guns and ammunition were stored.
If the guns were locked, and the ammunition locked in a separate location, some teens may have found another way. But researchers say at least some deaths wouldn't have happened.
Tammy Weber still wonders why her popular, athletic son killed himself six years ago. Maybe in part he was disappointed over a girl who wouldn't go steady with him. Maybe his uncle's suicide five years earlier influenced him. Many teens who die by suicide have family histories of mental illness.
Michael found a gun his mother forgot was even in the house. The family still owns guns, but every one is locked. Only Tammy and her husband, Robert, know where the key is hidden.
For every teen suicide, there is grief.
Like the rage inside Donald Altstadt when he piled all of the guns he owned into his pickup, drove a dozen miles and dumped them into the river.
He then negotiated for three months with police to get the gun used by his oldest son, Jason. He dumped it in the river as well. It was a shotgun Donald had bought for Jason.
After their children's deaths, at least seven of the interviewed parents started taking antidepressants. Many siblings and friends have needed counseling. Some have attempted suicide themselves or thought seriously about it.
Donald Altstadt is divorced. He lives a nervous existence raising his only other son. He questions every parental decision, weighs every word. His son wants to go hunting, but Donald won't ever go hunting again.
Jason, 19, died more than five years ago.
"It ruined my family, it ruined our life, and it ruined my life, " his father said. "I'm still trying to pick up the pieces, and I don't know how."
Please stop reading now. Ask for help. Talk to a parent, friend, counselor, clergy member or doctor.
Or call the Girls and Boys Town National Hotline, (800) 448-3000. Or the Hopeline Network, (800) 784-2433.
Average annual rate, ages 10-19, per 100, 000
SOURCE: World-Herald study of mortality data from the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1994-2002.
Midsize areas worst in Nebraska and Iowa
Metropolitan areas are counties containing large urban and suburban areas.
Midsize areas are the counties called "micropolitan" by the U.S. Census Bureau. Each is centered on a city of 10, 000 to 50, 000 residents.
Small town/rural areas are counties without a city of at least 10, 000 residents.
Annual suicides per 100, 000 youths (ages 10-19)
Midsize areas (micropolitan): 6.20
Small town/rural: 7.05
Small town/rural: 6.15
Small town/rural: 6.88
Metro: 76 (40%)
Non-Metro 90 (54%):
Midsize areas: 52
Small town/rural areas: 38
Nebraska youth population: 263, 843
SOURCES: Nebraska state death certificate database 1994-2003; U.S. Census Bureau, National Centers for Disease Control data 1994-2002
Pills Prescribed by Psychiatrists Have Triggered Safety Concerns
HUMPHREY, Neb. -- Studies suggest that antidepressants, such as Paxil, and strong acne medications, such as Accutane, can heighten a teenager's chance of attempting suicide.
So imagine the questions nagging Leslie and Nancy Vosteen of Humphrey, Neb., whose son shot himself early Monday evening, Aug. 27, 2001.
Lance Vosteen, 16, had been taking Paxil for sleeping problems, a generic acne prescription to clear up his skin and a third medication for a poison ivy rash. While the teen had other pressures, his father now wonders whether the drugs played a role.
"You wouldn't point your finger at him and ever think he would commit suicide, " Leslie said. "I mean, he had it made."
The role of prescription medications, especially antidepressants, in teen suicide is controversial. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last fall slapped a "black box" warning on antidepressants with even slight links to increased suicide risk. It's the agency's strongest safety alert.
The move upset some psychiatrists. They fear it will discourage the use of antidepressants -- even though research also suggests the medications can lower suicide risks among teens. The teen suicide rate nationally has dropped by onethird since 1988, shortly after doctors began dispensing the medications for the treatment of child depression.
The Vosteens have consulted with an attorney. Meanwhile, an Omaha family that lost a child to suicide is suing two drug makers in federal court. The parents of 11-year-old Jacob Jackson believe the antidepressants Zoloft and Effexor may have contributed to his death in 2002.
The legal and medical quandary is that depressed children by definition have a heightened risk for suicide. One theory is that the medications take depressed children from utterly listless to hyperactive or agitated. Child psychiatrist Chris Kratochvil called it an "inner restlessness."
"When people start getting better with their depression, they can have an increased risk of harming themselves, " said Kratochvil, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. "Maybe they finally have the energy to implement a plan that they had."
Kratochvil believes in using antidepressants. He was part of a national study published last summer that evaluated suicide risks in 439 severely depressed teens. They received prescription antidepressants, or therapy, or both, or neither
The study found the least suicidal feelings and most improvement among teens receiving both drugs and therapy. Teens taking drugs without therapy also experienced fewer depressive symptoms, but they also were more likely than teens receiving therapy or nonmedical placebos to consider or attempt suicide.
Kratochvil said the key is frequent monitoring of children on antidepressants by their psychiatrists, especially in the early months. This is one of the ways depressed Nebraska teens may be at a disadvantage if they live outside the Omaha or Lincoln metropolitan areas. The rest of the state has a shortage of psychiatrists, child psychiatrists and even pediatricians.
Leslie Vosteen advises parents to ask tough questions about prescriptions for their children and to seek second opinions when dissatisfied with the answers.
Drugs or no drugs, Lance Vosteen was under stress. Insomnia left him with only minutes of sleep every night -- to the point that he missed school and football practices for a week. He had also been accosted by a female classmate's father for making an insult that, Leslie Vosteen said, turned out to have been made by someone else.
Lance's death stunned Humphrey, a town of 800 located 23 miles north of Columbus. His football team dedicated its first game of the season to Lance and broke the school's five-year losing streak. The game was on a Friday, four days after Lance's death. His funeral was Saturday.
Of 37 teen suicides
Extensive interviews with their Nebraska parents showed:
28 used a gun
25 found gun unsecured
21 had a diagnosed mental illness or symptoms
19 came from divorced or single-parent homes
19 had family history of mental illness or suicide
18 used alcohol frequently
17 just had romance trouble
16 had talked of suicide
16 were on antidepressants or acne drugs with suicide risk
15 used illegal drugs frequently
9 had been teased or bullied
7 attempted suicide before
4 had been abused physically or sexually
Youth suicide in U.S.
Sparsely populated states have higher rates
Average annual rates per 100, 000 youths, ages 10-19, 1994-2002
SOURCE: Study of mortality data from the National Centers for Diseaase Control and Prevention
Stress of divorce
Teens are particularly at risk for suicide when they feel detached from their families. Comparing a sample of teens who killed themselves with ordinary teens:
Family split apart
Suicdie teens: 48.3%
Ordinary teens: 33.3%
Poor communication with mom
Suicide teens: 16.1%
Ordinary teens: 7.5%
Poor communication with dad
Suicide teens: 31.2%
Ordinary teens: 12.8%
SOURCE: Psychosocial Risk Factors of Child and Adolescent Completed Suicide, 1996, Archives of General Psychiatry
Nebraska divorce rates
Like suicide rates, divorce rates are highest in midsize areas.
2000-2003 (Annual, per 1, 000 people)
Metro areas: 3.6
Midsize areas: 3.9
Small town/rural areas: 3.1
SOURCES: Vital statistics reports from Nebraska Health and Human Services System.
Family Helped Tean Beat "Beast" of Depression
Call it dumb luck or a mother's intuition.
Maureen Irwin jumped up from watching TV to check on her 14-year-old daughter, stirring upstairs.
"Cait! Are you all right?" she shouted up the stairwell.
Jolted, Cait plucked the silver artist's knife off her bare wrist and crawled back into bed.
Her mom's voice triggered the one thought keeping Cait going: Her suicide would hurt everyone around her.
Mom interrupted the voice pounding inside Cait's head. The lethal voice haunting Cait for weeks. The voice that said: "This is it."
Cait called this voice the beast. She drew the beast in her sketchpad, journaled about it. Later, she would publish a book about depression.
It took a year of hard work for Cait to beat back the beast. Along the way, she leaned on her Council Bluffs family, a trusted psychiatrist, patient teachers and friends. She endured five changes in medication.
The beast had begun whispering to Cait in eighth grade. She slogged through school. She didn't care about the things that used to matter -- volleyball, swimming, friends. Her vision blurred. Noise bothered her. She was tired all the time, and sleep did not come easily.
By summer, Cait told a psychiatrist about the X-Acto knife.
She spent nine days at now-closed Richard Young Center in Omaha, undergoing tests and treatment for depression.
Maureen Irwin took a leave from her job and taught Cait at home, until Cait could ease back into ninth grade at St. Albert High School.
A year later, Cait's uncle self-published Cait's musings and sketches. Random House picked up the book, calling it "Conquering the Beast Within."
In high school, Cait flew around the nation to talk about the book. She also landed mural-painting jobs in Council Bluffs.
Mike Irwin couldn't talk about depression with his daughter, although he struggled with his own melancholy. He got her hooked on restoring a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle with him. Cait drove it in the St. Albert homecoming parade senior year.
College took Caitlin Shea Irwin to Lake Superior's shore in northern Wisconsin.
At age 25, she makes her living there helping disabled people live independently.
Cait also makes and sells her art. She carves figures into wood, paints and is working on another book. Free time is spent kayaking, dog-sledding or just enjoying the outdoors.
She takes the same mix of Wellbutrin and Zoloft and uses the same Omaha psychiatrist, keeping up by phone.
Though she gives talks on depression, it seems far in her past.
"That's so done right now in my life, " Cait said. "You wonder how it happened."
Blake Schinkel, 15; Chelsea Bonsell, 16; Scott Robinson, 12
Blake Schinkel, 15, of Sutton died Dec. 7, 1999.
He had been playing a game online with a friend on Friday night when he sent a strange text message: I've got something more important to do. That didn't sound like Blake, so the friend called another of Blake's buddies, and they drove to his mother's house to check on him. They already had been worried. Blake's mom and stepdad had separated badly, and he told his friends that the back and forth wore on him. His stepdad was strict, his mother carefree. Blake had been cutting on his arms. He took medication for depression. The friends found Blake had hanged himself in a closet. His melancholy was discovered on his computer, where he wrote poetry and kept his diary. His stepdad, Mike Svoboda, said the family tension weighed on Blake. He also struggled to fit in in a small town. Sutton, a town of 1, 500 residents, is on U.S. Highway 6 about 30 miles east of Hastings. "You have a lot less outlet for expression, " his stepdad said. "Blake was a very complex, deep individual. Trust me, we're not living in Greenwich Village."
Chelsea Bonsell, 16, of Omaha died Aug. 10, 2002.
Her parents were outside on Saturday evening, enjoying the last of the summer fireworks. The booms masked the sound of a gunshot. Chelsea had been found cutting herself at age 14 and was being treated for depression with Prozac. The parents had argued with her the night before, but Chelsea seemed excited about the new school year. She had just bought all new clothes. Before going outside, her parents saw her. She seemed happy, writing a note. Later they realized it had been her suicide note. Chelsea had likely hidden the gun for some time, because it had been missing from the gun cabinet. All guns in the house are now locked away and equipped with trigger locks.
Scott Robinson, 12, of Sidney died Feb. 3, 2003.
He had to go to the school principal's office that Monday after being caught in class with fake photocopies of passes that award extra privileges to students. The passes had been given to students for Christmas. Scott asked many times to call his mom but was denied. Several possible punishments loomed. His sixth-grade class happened to be discussing suicide prevention. After school, a cousin took him home and left him there for the hour or so before his mother could arrive. Scott called his mom and told her he loved her. He found a gun in a cabinet upstairs, shells in the garage. He scribbled on a sticky note and shot himself. Scott was a good student, despite being dyslexic, and was on a traveling basketball team. His family saw no signs of depression. The parents blame the school for what they viewed as carelessly excessive discipline. They tried to get the principal fired, but the superintendent and school board rejected their pleas.
Please call the Girls and Boys Town National Hotline, (800) 448-3000
Or the Hopeline Network, (800) 784-2433
What Saved Tyler: His Best Friend
McCOOK, Neb. -- Week in, week out, Tyler Bieck listened to his mother's wishes to die.
Through fifth grade, sixth grade and half of seventh, Tyler served as his mother's confidant.
He heard about her boyfriend trouble, her weight-loss struggle and her chronic pain from a 1991 car accident.
Tyler locked her pain and her wishes in his heart. There was no one to tell.
A custody battle loomed between his divorced parents, and it was messy. Tyler didn't dare tell Dad. It would jeopardize his plan to leave Dad and move in with Mom. His two brothers? Forget it. Shy at school, Tyler kept to himself.
At first, Mom told him she hoped God would take her. Maybe an embolism would pop in her brain.
Soon she talked of suicide.
Whenever it came up, Tyler countered with a threat: "If you kill yourself, I'll have to kill myself, too, " he'd say. "You're my life."
"Tyler, " she would respond, "just let me go."
Tyler couldn't fathom life without Mom.
She was his best friend. The only person with whom Tyler felt completely himself.
On good days, she'd pick him up from McCook Junior High and treat him to Mac's Drive-In.
Sitting inside her white Mercury sedan, Tyler felt safe. Appreciated. Chatty, even.
Over sodas -- she always got diet -- and mozzarella sticks -- he liked them dipped in ranch dressing -- Tyler could open up about his day.
He told her about the older boy at school who called him fat.
That stung. It wasn't like grade school, when kids said he looked like Drew Carey. Then, Tyler laughed about his round face, black-framed glasses and blond buzz cut.
"You're not fat, " Mom told him. "People like that? Don't even listen to them. Jerks."
Tyler soaked up their time together, riding his bike to her latest rental in McCook.
He felt honored that she counted on him, a 13-year-old. The two talked at night in her bedroom. Tyler phoned often.
Knowing the extent of her pain made him sad -- and it scared him.
Once, a couple of years back, Mom flopped to the floor and shook.
Tyler, a fifth-grader then, called 911. He didn't know her address but directed paramedics to her door by giving the operator familiar landmarks.
What a change from the days when the five of them lived under one roof like any ordinary family. That started slipping after the 1991 accident.
Mary Jo Bieck was hit from behind. Slammed so hard she left her teeth marks in the steering wheel of their Buick LeSabre. She walked out of the car without a bruise but couldn't talk to anyone, couldn't respond. She was flown to Lincoln in a medical helicopter for tests.
No one could make sense of it.
Tyler's dad, Bill Bieck, was bewildered.
"She looked fine, " he said.
She didn't act fine. She would drive the car but forget where she was headed. She'd call Bill at the golf course where he supervised the grounds and say: Come get the boys.
Bill took his wife to every specialist he could find while folks from the Evangelical Free Church in McCook pitched in. Church members brought meals, watched the boys. Mary Jo stayed three months at a brain-injury center outside Kansas City, Kan. Two weeks at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Her diagnosis remained unchanged. Mary Jo had a head injury like a concussion. Possible brain damage. It could be managed.
Mary Jo took pain pills and antidepressants. She saw a therapist. Her head pounded. Her back ached. No one seemed to care.
Mary Jo told her husband: I think I need a place to live. It's nothing about you. I just need my time alone.
Bill talked her into staying. He picked the kids up from school, cooked dinner, tried to keep the house up. He couldn't believe his wife wasn't getting better, wondered how real her pain was. He wondered whether he somehow enabled her.
In frustration, he moved out.
Bill had meant for it to be temporary. He bunked in the employee lounge at work. He still drove the kids to school, paid bills, ran the house.
But separation turned into divorce as the boys -- Ryan, almost 12, Tyler, 8 1/2, and Tony, 3 -- bounced between their parents. Bill eventually got the house and the boys. But Ryan moved out in a huff and settled in with Mary Jo. Tyler wished to be next.
Tyler didn't have Ryan's problems with Dad or his rules. He just wanted to be close to Mom. He and Mom got each other -- she told him so.
She told him the accident had made her realize how tough Tyler had it at age 4. How tough he had been when he was diagnosed with a rare bone disorder that required sleeping with his legs in traction.
Tyler felt special around Mom. But he had no idea how to relieve her pain. They cried together. A lot.
When Mom spelled out her plans -- she'd drown her misery for good with wine and pills -- Tyler acted. When she fell asleep, he crept into her kitchen.
Tyler grabbed the wine bottle and snuck outside to the backyard shed. In the darkness, he placed the bottle behind the lawnmower.
The following week, Tyler was at Mom's watching TV when Dad called.
Time to go home.
As always before parting, Tyler gave Mom a kiss.
"I love you, " he said. "Always."
"I love you, too, " Mom replied. "Goodbye."
Home at Dad's, Tyler picked up the phone at 11 that night and called Mom. No answer. But it was late.
That next morning, he tried again. Twice he thought he dialed the wrong number, because a strange man answered.
He tried a third time. Connie Jo, Mom's friend, answered, saying she'd be right over.
"I knew it, I knew it!" Tyler cried.
For two days, Tyler wasn't allowed to go to Mom's.
Once there, he ran past relatives cleaning up.
Ran to the shed.
The bottle? Gone.
Nastasha Meyer, 14, of Fremont shot herself Nov. 6, 2000.
She had battled depression, an illness that runs in the family but also resulted from her being molested at age 10. A couple of months earlier, Nastasha had tried to kill herself by drinking a toxic solvent. Her parents, Roger and Dubie Meyer, said doctors seemed preoccupied with medication more than getting her to open up about her problems. One drug had been working, but it was taken off the market. Dubie Meyer left strict instructions with the school not to let Nastasha leave, because she feared what Nastasha would do. But the girl left school one Monday, and nobody noticed until after a class was over. By then it was too late. She found the family's gun in a bedroom closet and the bullets atop a kitchen cabinet. A week earlier, Dubie Meyer told her husband she hated guns. They discussed getting that gun out of the house.
Ryan James, 19, of Beatrice shot himself Aug. 28, 1999.
He had chafed from teasing he endured through high school and after graduation. He was a target for pranks, the most severe culminating with a deer head dangling from a rope in the family's back yard. Ryan also had lost two major influences in his life: his grandfather and a boss who had played a fatherly role. The night he died, he fought with the girlfriend who was moving with him to a new apartment. But his thoughts of suicide seemed more planned. A week earlier, he told his sister that soon his family wouldn't have to worry about him. The Saturday night of his death, he gave away his compact discs. He talked with friends by phone; his last call was to his girlfriend. Ryan had his gun locked up, but he was the only one with the key. His parents didn't want a gun in the house but said OK if Ryan completed training.
Thomas Carlson, 13, of Omaha shot himself Dec. 3, 2003.
He used a family-owned handgun found in a closet. His mother, Laura Carlson, didn't see any signs of depression or immediate reasons for taking his life. He failed a science test that Wednesday, but it wasn't the first bad mark at school, and a lot of kids failed the test. He was going to have his first date. His suicide note had a calm and reasoned tone, making it all the more troubling to his parents. "It's time for me to go home, " he wrote. "My work here is done." Thomas' father, David Carlson, believes his son was depressed but concealed it. A psychiatrist told Laura Carlson that a spontaneous suicide can happen, and it can be like a runaway train for the child.
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What Saved Tyler: Hidden Keys
All he could think about was the hole in his heart and how to end his pain.
Tyler Bieck rifled through Dad's stuff to find the two keys to the metal gun cabinet. McCook Junior High had dismissed for the day. Dad was at work, tending the golf course greens.
Tyler started with Dad's bedroom. The gun locker stood in the bedroom closet. Later, when Dad got home to cook dinner, Tyler would go through his truck and the garage.
It had been a year since Mom killed herself. The conversation they shared still haunted him.
"If you kill yourself, " Tyler told her over and over before that January day in 1998, "I'll have to kill myself, too."
"You don't have to do this, " Mom replied. "You have a future."
Hard to imagine a future without his best friend. He and Mom shared everything, from sodas at Mac's Drive-In to long talks about his adolescent struggles and her grown-up ones.
"She was my life, " Tyler kept thinking. "It's just going to be a lot of pain from here on out."
Tyler didn't blame her for leaving. For rolling up her pills in slices of bread and washing it all down with the bottle of wine. He had hid the wine bottle, but not well enough.
No, he -- more than anyone -- knew what kind of pain she suffered. He watched her shake with seizures and take pills for the throbbing headaches, pills for depression. They had cried together a lot during those seven years after her bad car accident, after the divorce that followed.
Mom left it all. Tyler wished to follow.
Could he share his wishes with Dad? With Ryan, who found Mom the night she died and struggled with his own issues? With Tony, who was 8, just a kid?
Tyler couldn't talk to them. He had talked to Mom, and she was gone.
He just wanted out.
Dad's shotgun would work. Tyler could hardly shoot a pheasant with it before -- he had missed wildly one hunting trip and masked his relief. Had he hit the bird, Tyler would have cried.
The hitch, though, was Dad. His caution. The man had grown up on a Nebraska farm where rifles stood with brooms in the pantry. But after Ryan and Tyler were born, Bill Bieck got a cabinet and a lock. He wasn't against guns. Just had read too many articles about kids and guns. He taught the boys to shoot and made sure they went to hunter safety.
He hid the keys.
Bill knew Tyler was sad -- they all missed Mary Jo. But Bill worked two full-time jobs: the golf course and home. He also had to contend with 17-year-old Ryan, who fought his rules.
Bill didn't like being the heavy. He liked the days before, when the family was intact, when the golf course doubled as a playground for the boys. Now two had outgrown their fort-making and exploring days at Heritage Hills. The Bieck boys had spent a lot of time on that 18-hole course after Mary Jo's car accident, her many doctor visits and her depression. They got to hit balls and drive carts.
Rarely did they get into scrapes, although Bill did like to tell the story about how Tyler took all the ignition keys out of a barnful of mowers, tractors and carts.
When asked, Tyler, then 7, spun quite a yarn. He saw a strange man enter the barn, remove the keys and dump them in a 30-gallon oil drum.
Bill fished out 15 keys. He laughed each time he remembered it -- the well-lubricated keys!
Now it was gun cabinet keys that Tyler sought.
Bill never knew.
His middle son earned good grades, didn't break rules, aimed to please.
Tyler felt lost. The letters he got from Aunt Lisa in Iowa seemed long ago. He had leaned on Mom's younger sister after her death. She had picked him up from school when he couldn't stop crying his first day back. When Aunt Lisa's family left for Missouri Valley, Iowa, Mom's hometown, Tyler wrote letters and called.
Aunt Lisa reached out.
"I really am missing your mother terribly, and I know you are much more than I, " she wrote a month after Mom died.
Aunt Lisa told Tyler about when Mom was a teenager.
Once Mary Jo chased after a cute boy, peeling the car out of a gas station before Lisa could close the door. Lisa had nearly fallen out.
"We laughed about that a lot, " Aunt Lisa wrote. "Your mom is still great!!!!!"
Aunt Lisa, a school counselor, put Tyler in touch with Mary, a seventh-grader.
"We might have more in common than we think, " Mary wrote Tyler. "My mom has written two letters threatening to kill herself. What should I do? . . . How are you holding up? (Your Aunt Lisa) said she thought you were feeling a little down and depressed."
Tyler wrote to them often. Writing let him pour out his thoughts.
And those thoughts were growing despondent.
Tyler decided to write to a girl from his eighth grade science class, a girl with honey-brown hair. He hardly knew her.
Pretty, popular Shannon Moore bubbled with life. Shy, self-conscious Tyler Bieck thought only of death.
In his house, after school, Tyler once again looked for the keys. Then he headed for the basement. Notebook and pen in one hand. Kitchen knife in the other.
One Teen Can Set Off a Wave of Copycats
Dustin Foster started his suicide note like this: "Dustin killed himself. I bet you never saw that coming."
His mother, Diana, found the letter turned face down in Dustin's room in Papillion. She started reading the back of the page, so it didn't make sense. That's when she heard her husband's scream from the basement, and everything became clear.
The 17-year-old had forced open the gun cabinet and shot himself while his mom and stepdad were grocery shopping.
It was a tragic end. And a tragic beginning.
One year later, Justin Knight found his brother's shotgun and killed himself. He didn't know Dustin, but his mother worked closely with Dustin's mother.
One year after that, Matthew Hansen shot himself. Matthew and Justin were best friends, and lived in the same neighborhood in northwest Omaha.
It's called the contagion effect: the way one teen suicide can incite other suicides and nonfatal attempts.
Contagion struck the Omaha area in February 1986, when three Bryan High School students killed themselves in five days.
It swept through Harlan, Iowa, in spring and summer 2001, when two teens took their lives and about a dozen others tried.
It weighed on Millard Public Schools officials in 2003 as they dealt with the suicides of three Millard students -- one from each high school -- and two other teens in the area.
It was a fear in Lincoln in October 2004, when rumors of a suicide pact followed the death of a 13-year-old boy.
Now, contagion is a worry for Omaha's Westside Community Schools, which lost two students this school year and one the previous school year.
Researchers estimate that 1 percent to 5 percent of teen suicides are influenced by the deaths of other teens or by publicity after suicides. But the problem isn't always so explicit. Sometimes the knowledge that someone actually completed a suicide may be enough to incite a mere acquaintance.
The apparent suicide of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain prompted fears that despondent fans would kill themselves. And that has happened since Cobain's 1994 death in Washington state. But that isn't the type of contagion that is most concerning to Sue Eastgard, a suicide prevention coordinator in that state.
"We actually worry about clusters or contagion at a much smaller level, " she said.
Death certificate data show other clusters of teen suicides in Nebraska, including four in the Fremont area in 11 months of 2000 and 2001.
Dustin Foster had been depressed, though he had only recently confided that to his parents when they discovered he had been smoking marijuana.
His problems had nothing to do, really, with Justin Knight, whose mother had long worried that he was at risk for suicide. Justin was often delusional and heard voices telling him to kill himself, said Darcy Knight.
She nonetheless believes that the idea of suicide became more real to him after she went to Dustin's funeral and talked with Justin afterward. She had wanted to make sure he wasn't upset by the news.
In his note, Justin told his mother to give his stuff to a friend. He signed "Love 4 ever. Peewee, " his nickname. Then he wrote "Sorry Mom."
Darcy had tried hard to keep her son safe. At one point, she made him sell his gun because she worried it could be used for suicide. He ended up using another gun that had been mistakenly left in the house.
Justin did sell his gun, as his mother had asked -- to his best friend, Matthew. One year later, Matthew used that gun to kill himself.
"Justin was his best friend, " said Matthew's father, David Hansen. "He had no inkling or hint (of the suicide) and it just gutted him. "
Matthew's drug use became more frequent and harmful in the year after Justin's death. David Hansen kept the gun Matthew bought out of the house -- not fearing suicide, but that Matthew might use it against someone in a meth-induced rage. Matthew, after all, swore he would never kill himself after seeing what happened to his friend.
David later allowed the gun back into the house, because Matthew said it was the only possession he had that once belonged to Justin. He turned a corner in his life, too, when he completed drug rehabilitation. But then he lost a job. And a girlfriend.
"I can't take the pain anymore, " Matthew wrote. He shot himself outside a neighborhood church.
Schools: Limit memorials of teens who killed themselves and remove reminders such as empty chairs or lockers.
Parents: Talk to your children when someone they know dies by suicide.
Teens: Listen for talk of self-harm among friends. Stay with a friend at risk, and suggest you go together to get help.
CAP Laws are Often Effective Deterrents
Teen suicide rates are dropping nationwide. But they are dropping fastest in the states with laws aimed at restricting children's access to firearms.
Eighteen states have enacted child-access prevention laws, or CAP laws, that hold parents criminally liable if their teens have unrestricted access to firearms in the home.
Some states hold parents accountable only if children use guns from their homes to commit crimes, while other states' laws are more restrictive. Some states require restrictions until children are 18; others apply only until children reach 14.
But as a group, these states have seen more progress in reducing teen suicide than states such as Nebraska that do not have CAP laws.
The World-Herald compared two periods -- 1994 to 1998 and 1999 to 2002 -- and found that:
The overall suicide rate among youths ages 10 to 19 dropped 22 percent in CAP law states compared with 16 percent in states without CAP laws. Nebraska dropped only 5 percent.
The rate of teen suicides involving firearms decreased 38 percent in CAP law states compared with a 31 percent drop in the states without CAP laws. Nebraska's drop: just 19 percent.
The role of CAP laws also was studied recently by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. After factoring out differences between the CAP and the non-CAP states, such as poverty rates and racial makeup, the researchers found the CAP states made more progress.
The study found that the laws particularly reduced suicides among teens ages 14 to 17.
Other gun restrictions -- such as minimum age for purchase laws -- did not have an impact on suicide rates, said Dr. Daniel Webster. He was the lead researcher of the Hopkins study, published last August in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Most importantly, the rates of teen suicide by means other than guns did not increase in the CAP states, Webster said. That addressed the concern that suicidal teens will simply find another way if guns aren't available.
Gun cap laws don't follow tradition in terms of gun control politics. New York has no child access law, but otherwise it has strong gun control laws. Texas is more of a pro-gun state, and yet it has a child access law.
CAP laws aren't a cure-all. Iowa has one, but its rate of firearm-related suicides is only slightly lower than Nebraska's.
Although there is no CAP law in Nebraska, the state is using a federal grant to hand out trigger locks to gun owners who ask for them.
Webster said it is important to recognize the efforts in states such as Nebraska, although he believes CAP laws ought to be considered in every state.
Police aren't going to do random checks for compliance, so the effect of CAP laws is more psychological.
"There is an extremely low likelihood that any gun-owning parent that doesn't abide by the law is going to get caught, " Webster said. "For a law like this to work, it's publicity and it's a statement of social norms."
Suicide rates dropping
Average annual rates in 1999-02 compared with 1994-98, Ages 10 to 19.
Changes in rates
SOURCE: Study of mortality data from the national Centers of Disease Control and Prevention
Firearms Major Factor
BEATRICE, Neb. -- Two different teenagers. One common way to die.
Ryan Schramm was the popular freshman at Diller-Odell High School. Preston Keefover was the mischievous eighthgrader at Beatrice Middle School.
Ryan had good grades, athleticism, popularity. Preston had a team of counselors and educators trying to keep him from flunking.
Ryan became upset the morning of March 3, 2001. His dad had decided Ryan couldn't stay home alone while his parents were away.
Preston got mad the day of May 18, 2001. He found out that he had to go to summer school and that his mom had discovered he had been abusing amphetamines.
Ryan, 15, walked out to a shed on the family farm, scribbled a note on cardboard and shot himself with a hunting rifle.
Preston, 14, climbed up to the attic, scratched his final words into a section of drywall and shot himself with a shotgun.
Two months and 18 miles separated these deaths. The teens didn't know each other. It does not appear that Ryan's death led to Preston's. But the two teens had similarities. Each had deeper problems than the frustrations of his final day. And both -- when they felt the lethal impulse -- had easy access to guns.
Nearly six of every 10 teen suicides in the United States from 1994 to 2002 involved firearms. Outside the nation's metropolitan areas, two of every three involved firearms. Take the guns out of teens' hands, research shows, and more suicidal teens are bound to survive that impulse to kill themselves.
Sure, some depressed teens may find other means. But suicide rates are lower when teens have less access to firearms.
Restricting access is not that simple, though. Some families don't lock away their guns or hide the ammunition, because they want both handy for protection. Others want their children to learn to hunt and to respect guns, and feel it would be hypocritical to hide them.
Laws can help encourage gun safety in the home. But some lawmakers and suicide prevention experts fear the ramifications of trying to curtail a constitutional right many Americans hold dear.
"The mere implication that guns might be an issue nearly sank our first suicide prevention legislation six years ago, " said Christy Letsom, a suicide prevention coordinator in Virginia. "Since then, we've been very careful to avoid language that specifically addresses firearms."
There were 166 Nebraska teenagers who died by suicide in the state from 1994 to 2003, and 107 used firearms. The World-Herald interviewed 28 families that have lost children to firearm-related suicides since 1999 and found:
Twenty-five of the youngsters had easy access to the guns they used. Only three had to force open locked gun cabinets. One knew how to manipulate the lock. Another pried the hinges with a claw hammer. None of the guns had trigger locks on them.
Fourteen parents said their children had unfettered access to guns in the home, because they had succeeded at firearm safety training or had shown respect for guns.
Eight parents hid their guns separately from the ammunition, but their children knew the supposedly secret locations of both.
Three parents said they forgot that guns were in the home.
The problem with guns is they are among the most deadly and immediate means of suicide. Guns send children to their graves. Pills, hanging and other methods can be lethal, too, but state hospital records show that teens are much more likely to survive those kinds of attempts.
Nebraska hospitals in 2003 treated 553 children for selfinflicted injuries or suicide attempts. The hospitals discharged 386 children who swallowed pills or toxic substances, but only three who used guns.
"If we can get them to take pills instead of a gun, it is more likely to turn a suicide into a suicide attempt, " said Dr. David Grossman, a Seattle pediatrician whose research connects greater gun safety with lower teen suicide rates.
Grossman co-authored a study that was published this February in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It found that fewer safety measures were in place in 106 homes in which teens used guns to kill themselves compared with 480 randomly selected homes with gun owners and children. The researchers found out in each case whether guns were locked and unloaded, and whether the ammunition was stored separately.
Gun suicides are almost entirely the reason for the higher rate of teen suicides outside Nebraska's metropolitan areas. There is little difference between the metro and nonmetro rate among other types of suicides, but the nonmetro rate of firearm-related suicides is 46 percent higher.
Ryan and Preston are two of 10 teenagers from the Beatrice area who died by suicide between 1994 and 2003. Eight of those teenagers used firearms. Gage County, as a result, has one of the highest teen suicide rates in the nation for the past decade.
Ryan's father, Darrell Schramm, said his son might be alive today if the guns on their farm had been locked beyond his reach. But hunting had been part of Ryan's upbringing, and he had shown that he could safely handle firearms.
"It's kind of a way of life, " Schramm said. "I suppose if I wouldn't have ever owned a gun, he might be alive today. But the gun didn't kill the boy. The boy killed the boy."
Schramm's regret is that his son had been struggling with the aftereffects of a car accident five weeks earlier and that his family had been too busy to notice.
Ryan complained of blurred vision and headaches, and the Schramms would later learn of their son's strange behavior at school, such as drifting through the hallways during class time. He suffered dizzy spells and often couldn't see the blackboard.
Schramm believes the accident and the death are connected. He also carries the guilt of being a strict parent. His last words to his son were orders that he accompany the family to his brother's basketball tournament.
"I said, 'You're going with us, case closed, '" Schramm said, "and, see, I should have sat down and talked with him."
The permanent reminder is Ryan's suicide note, which stated he wasn't sure "how much longer" he could put up with his father. Schramm didn't show it to police and won't look at it anymore. It's too painful.
The end of the note, Schramm said, shows that his son didn't understand the finality of his actions.
"Bye for now, " the 15-year-old wrote, "but not for long. Love always."
By limiting access to guns, Grossman said, parents may delay their children until they have time to rethink their plans. The most effective means -- other than removing guns from the home -- is to lock them up and keep them unloaded, or to lock ammunition in a separate place.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore reported last summer that firearm-related suicide is 11 percent less likely in states with laws requiring parents to restrict access to guns in the home.
"Child access" laws are opposed by the National Rifle Association. The organization says it supports gun safety, but believes judgments should be made by the owners and not mandated by laws. The group also worries that restrictions will make guns less available for home defense.
Preston Keefover's mother, Jane, had simply forgotten there was a gun in the house.
She had moved all of the family's hunting firearms to her father's house to keep them out of reach of her children. But her older son brought a gun back into the house because he had joined a trapshooting club.
When the season ended, the gun was stowed in Jane Keefover's closet. The ammunition was placed in a separate closet in the hallway.
"I'm surprised he could even load it, " she said.
Experts say limiting gun access might be particularly effective in lowering the suicide rate outside metropolitan areas, because a higher percentage of teen suicides involves guns.
Higher teen alcohol use in rural areas also contributes to risky and impulsive behaviors, but drunken teens are less likely to carry out complicated or difficult suicide plans. Guns, by comparison, are simple.
The experts caution, however, that locking away guns is only part of the solution. They say a greater need is to identify at-risk teens and give them timely and useful counseling and support.
One study in the year 2000 suggested that most parents won't remove guns from the home of a troubled teen. It found that only one in four families with clinically depressed children followed the advice of counselors and removed guns from their homes.
In Nebraska, after their teenagers' gun-related suicides, most of the 28 families interviewed removed all guns from their homes, purchased trigger locks or became more consistent about locking gun cabinets and concealing ammunition.
Getting rid of the gun was the easy part for Jane Keefover. Two of her children are on their own, but she still raises her youngest son, Spencer. That is tough. She questions every decision, every comment she makes to her son, worried that he will feel the same overwhelming pressure that Preston once felt.
The suicide note Preston put on drywall -- a simple "I ò U Guy's" -- has been cut out, framed and hung in the dining room.
"If Preston knew how much hurt he caused all of us, " Keefover said, "this isn't what he would have wanted."
Schramm still keeps about 25 guns in an open cabinet in his office on the farm, where he raises two of his children. He has fond memories of teaching his children to hunt, starting with lessons with BB guns when they were young.
Once in a while, Schramm wonders whether he should get rid of his guns. But then maybe the family shouldn't drive cars, either, given Ryan's car accident.
Parents can be too protective of their children, Schramm said: "You can't lock them up in the bedroom."
Stop reading and place a phone call.
Girls and Boys Town National Hotline, (800) 448-3000
Hopeline Network, (800)784-2433
Did you know ...
SUICIDE is a leading cause of death until age 35. Nationwide, homicides and suicides each claim about 10, 000 young people a year. Only accidental deaths occur more often -- about 32, 000 a year.
SUICIDE is more prevalent outside U.S. metropolitan areas in general, although the disparity gets smaller as people age. In Nebraska, the rate of elderly suicide is higher inside metro areas.
SUICIDE has become less common at every age since the 1980s. Some experts link the drop to a growing use of antidepressant medications.
SUICIDE is most common among people age 65 and older. Most geriatric suicides occur within weeks of a doctor's visit, suggesting bad health news and physical pain are factors.
SUICIDE is widely believed to be underreported by authorities. Without evidence such as a suicide note, some suicides are ruled accidental.
Show teens you care
Suicidal teens feel hopeless and isolated. Change their view. If you are worried someone is suicidal:
Tell him: "I am concerned about how you are acting and the things you are saying.'' There are no magic words. Show patience and caring. Avoid arguing and lecturing.
Ask her: "Are you thinking about suicide?'' Talking about it does not make someone suicidal. It shows you care and will listen to their troubles.
Get help: "This is serious. I'm going to get you help.'' Call the teen's parents, another trusted adult or an emergency number.
Know facts, avoid myths
Common misconceptions, from Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE):
"People who talk about suicide won't really do it.''
Not True. Almost everyone who kills himself or attempts suicide has given clues. Do not ignore suicide threats. No matter how casually or jokingly spoken, they may indicate serious suicidal feelings.
"Anyone who tries to kill himself must be crazy.''
Not True. Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane. They are upset, grief-stricken, despairing or depressed. Extreme distress and emotional pain are not always signs of mental illness.
"If a person wants to die, nothing will stop him.''
Not True. Even the most severely depressed person wavers. Most suicidal people do not want death; they want the pain to stop. The lethal impulse, especially among teenagers, does not last forever.
"People who die by suicide were unwilling to seek help.''
Not True. Studies of suicide victims show that most sought medical help within six months before their deaths.
Where to find free gun locks
Try your local law enforcement agency. The Beatrice Police Department, for example, keeps a box in its 24-hour front lobby.
Contact the Nebraska Sheriffs Association, which helped coordinate last year's giveaway of 135, 000 locks across the state. (800) 775-2469.
In Iowa, contact Al Overbaugh at the U.S. Attorney's Office for Iowa's Southern District in Des Moines. (515) 284-6283.
Project ChildSafe, a national firearms safety program, will bring an additional 100, 000 free locks to Nebraska in August.
Visit Omaha.com for a link to the group's Web site.
Most youth suicides in Nebraska are done with guns.
1994 to 2003
Gun related: 107 (64%)
Hanging, strangulation, suffocation: 40 (24%)
Poisoning: 13 (8%)
Jumping or lying beneath a moving object: 4 (2%)
Drowning: 1 (1%)
Unspecified: 1 (1%)
Nonfatal attempts treated in Nebraska rarely involve guns.
1996 to 2003
Gun related: 24 (1%)
Hanging, suffocation: 5 (1%)
Poisoning: 2, 806 (73%)
Cut/pierce: 724 (19%)
Other/unknown: 258 (7%)
Sources: Study of death certificate and hospital discharge data from the Nebraska Health and Human Services System
Gun toll worse outside metro areas
Other types of suicide occur at about the same rate inside and outside the metropolitan areas.
Annual suicides, ages 10 to 19 per 100, 000
SOURCE: Study of data from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1994 to 2002
Compared with the nation, Nebraska has a higher rate of children raised by a single working parent or by two parents who work.
Metro areas: 64%
Midsize areas: 68%
Small town/rural areas: 66%
Metro areas: 73%
Midsize areas: 76%
Small town/rural areas: 78%
Only four of the 37 Nebraska families with teens who killed themselves included a parent who stayed home with their children.
SOURCE: World-Herald interviews; 2000 Census
Safe gun storage can save lives
Researchers say some suicides will be prevented if impulsive teens don’t have easy access to guns.
Blocks trigger but does not prevent loading. Should never be used on loaded gun, which might fire in spite of lock.
Lockbox or gun safe
Effective if key or combination is kept secure; large safes or vaults can store rifles and handguns.
Simple, inexpensive; can lock gun to a fixed object. Cable should pass through firing chamber, not around trigger.
Not possible with all guns; user must know correct procedure.
Keeps gun from being loaded or fired. Must be proper size.
When practical, keep guns and ammo stored separately.
Teach children to respect the danger of handling guns.
SOURCES: Smith & Wesson/Masterlock, SafTLock, Colt, National Shooting Sports Foundation, Knight Ridder Tribune
Head Injuries' Effects Feared
Two Nebraska families that lost teens to suicide believe untreated head injuries contributed to the deaths.
Tren Rathman of Wood River and Ryan Schramm of Odell each killed himself just weeks after a car accident.
Neither was purely cause and effect. Each teen was experiencing other pressures at the time of his death. But their parents said the behaviors of the two teens changed dramatically after the accidents.
Medical research suggests this is entirely possible, because a head injury can lead to dementia, and dementia can lead to changes in mood and behavior.
Darrell Schramm regrets that he didn't get help for his son, Ryan, right away. Ryan had been complaining of blurred vision but also told friends of severe dizzy spells. Tren Rathman suffered from blurred vision, too, and was scheduled to be examined by a specialist in Denver.
His mother, Sherrie Rathman, remembers the day her son died. She was doing a clinical rotation for nursing school when she heard a 10-65 "probable death" call on the police scanner, for just outside Wood River.
"'Possible self-inflicted' was all I got, " she said, "and I knew it right there."
Bullying Can Devastate Isolated Teens
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.
Drink, Drugs Set Off Demons
FREMONT, Neb. -- Empty beer bottles and half-smoked joints greet Lynn Miller when she visits the grave of her son, James. The litter reminds her, every time, of how James lived and how he died.
James Farrand, 19, was drunk and on antidepressants -- which he apparently stole from a friend -- the Saturday night he walked past his mother, locked the door to her bedroom, found a handgun in her dresser and shot himself.
The pressure had been building on James. Two weeks before his death, James was arrested for drinking and possession of drug paraphernalia. It was his latest in a string of drug-related arrests, and the consequences with authorities in Fremont were likely to be severe.
A girlfriend wanted to break up with him, and James threatened that he would shoot himself if she did. The night before his death, he fought with the girl's new love interest.
Breakups, violence and arrests are known to have set off teen suicide. But especially in older teens, there are few things as strongly linked to suicidal behavior as abusing drugs and alcohol.
It isn't necessarily a cause and effect. Sometimes, teens use drugs to numb the pain of depression, which is also behind the suicide attempt. Sometimes, intoxication simply robs a teen of good judgment against self-harm.
"When someone is suicidal, I see it as tunnel vision, " said Dave Miers, a Lincoln mental health services administrator and chairman of the Nebraska Health and Human Services System's suicide prevention committee. When you add to that drinking, he said, the risk of harm only increases.
Researchers at Columbia University in New York City found that 35 percent of teens who committed suicide had severe problems with drugs or alcohol. Among those ages 18 and 19, it was 62 percent.
Interviews by The World-Herald offered similar results. The newspaper asked the parents of 37 Nebraska youths lost to suicide whether their children had frequently used illegal drugs or alcohol.
The parents of 15, or 41 percent, of the youths indicated their children had used illegal drugs such as marijuana, methamphetamine or stolen prescription drugs. Eighteen, or 49 percent, said their children drank alcohol frequently. Among 11 suicide victims who were 18 or 19 when they died, all but one had abused drugs or alcohol.
The parents of 27 of the youths knew for sure whether or not their children were intoxicated when they died. The parents of seven said their children were. One of them was James Farrand.
While a friend was passed out in his room, James found a handgun in his mother's room and searched for a bullet. He found one before his mother could break through the locked door.
After the gunshot, Lynn ran outside her house and looked back through the picture window. Her son had died.
An autopsy showed twice the legal limit of alcohol in his bloodstream.
Teens abusing alcohol or drugs regularly don't have to be drunk or high to be at risk for suicide, though. When sober, drinkers and drug users can feel restless and irritable, and these withdrawal symptoms can push them to deadly decisions.
The lead researcher at Columbia, Dr. David Shaffer, said drugs and alcohol can be particularly troublesome for depressed teens who have access to firearms.
Drunken teens may have difficulty with other, more complicated means of suicide, he said. They may, for example, not have the wherewithal to gather enough pills or fashion a noose. But guns are relatively simple.
This may help explain why Nebraska's teen suicide rate is onethird worse than the nation's. A 2003 federal survey of youth behaviors found that Nebraska teens are more likely to binge drink, more likely to drive drunk and more likely to carry guns.
The same survey also found that Nebraska had the highest rate in any state of teens who had planned how they would commit suicide.
James Farrand had a turbulent upbringing. His mother gave birth as a teenager and then gave custody of James to her parents. He moved back with his mother a few months before he died.
It was an awkward setup, because Lynn didn't feel she had the right to discipline a son she hadn't really raised. She was more like a sister, even as he was making destructive choices through his increasing substance abuse.
"The alcohol and drugs on top of each other, " Lynn said, "just didn't mix."
Stop reading. Talk to a parent, friend, counselor, clergy member, or doctor. Or call the Girls and Boys Town National Hotline, (800) 448-3000, or the Hopeline Network, (800) 784-2433.
Understand Your Teen's World
Good communication with parents protects teens against suicide.
Tackle tough topics in ordinary conversation. Don't wait for a crisis to talk about substance abuse, bullying, peer pressure or suicide.
Give teens your undivided attention when they want to talk to you. Share parallel experiences from your adolescence.
Teach them to listen. Understand their view and meet them halfway at times. They will learn to do the same.
Set a responsible example. Don't drive home from a party after you've been drinking.
Take a stand on drugs and drinking
It's never too late to tell your teenager that drinking and drug use are not condoned. Teens need to know there are consequences, and they will be held accountable.
Practice beforehand: Talk it through with your spouse or a friend. Promise not to "lose it" with your child.
Be direct, clear and kind with your teens. Remind them that you love them even though you might disapprove of certain behaviors.
Repeat. Talking to your teen about drugs and alcohol is not a one-time event.
Gay teens at risk
Gay teenagers are more likely to kill themselves, or try. Consider:
A survey published in 2001 found that teens are about three times more likely to attempt suicide if they are gay. Researchers interviewed 13, 110 students. A separate 1999 survey of 3, 365 teens found essentially the same results.
A 1989 study estimated that suicide is two to three times more likely among gay youths and that gay youths may account for 30 percent of teen suicides. Some have questioned whether that study was accurate.
Ten other studies found high rates of attempts among gay youths -- roughly 20 percent to 40 percent. The attempts were not linked to homosexuality per se as much as to feelings of isolation.
If you are gay and considering suicide, call the Trevor Helpline: (866) 488-7386
Girls and Boys Town National Hotline, (800) 448-3000.
Hopeline Network, (800) 784-2433.
Sean Guthrie, 15, of Omaha died March 20, 1999.
He endured years of bouncing back and forth between his divorced parents, said his father, Michael. Problems grew when Michael married a woman who enforced strict rules. She fought often with Sean, and Michael said he handled their feuding inconsistently. The family was to go to the Durham Western Heritage Museum on Saturday, but another fight between stepmom and Sean left the boy grounded at home. Sean wasn't supposed to pick up the phone. But Michael said he would call once and then once again right away. Sean was to pick up so his dad could check in. Michael kept calling. Sean never picked up. He hanged himself. He was found along with a Spider-Man toy, which he often flung about the room with the help of a rubber band. Michael wonders whether Sean was just imitating something he had done with that toy.
Daniel "Frankie" Taylor, 19, of Omaha died Jan. 17, 1999.
He was in an upstairs bedroom. He had apparently threatened suicide, but friends didn't believe him. His mother, Frances Taylor, still wonders whether he really meant to shoot himself. She wonders whether he was horsing around or was somehow forced to pull the trigger. She suspected Frankie had joined a gang. He always wore red. Life had been tough since his father died in 1992 of complications from multiple sclerosis. Frankie's death was close to the Jan. 20 anniversary of his father's death. Taylor tried to be tough on her son, and that strained their relationship. There had been signs that Frankie was straightening up. The Monday after his death, his mother got word that a grocery store had decided to hire him.
Shannon Hauck, 17, of rural Kimball died April 8, 2002.
He longed to be popular, but he felt like a misfit. His mother believes that her son did something violent to fit in with a bad crowd and that he couldn't live with it. She also suspected he had been sexually assaulted earlier in his life. Shannon used illegal drugs and had prescription drugs for depression. The Monday he died, his mother argued with him over a $300 cable bill for the Playboy channel. When the argument ended, Shannon said he was OK and going for a walk in the park. Instead, he hanged himself in the family barn.
What Saved Tyler: Between You and Me
McCOOK, Neb. -- Tyler, your mom's death is not your fault. You're not a loser. Put your faith in God.
Shannon wrote back to the boy in her eighth-grade science class. Feel better, she implored shy, self-conscious Tyler Bieck.
It wasn't easy for Shannon Moore to read his pain, to see bleakness poured out in print: How low he felt. How desperate. How much he wanted to kill himself, as his mom had done the year before.
Until now, this bubbly, pretty girl had no idea her quiet classmate struggled like this.
No one did.
Tyler would spend the after-school hours at home searching for the keys to Dad's gun cabinet. Unsuccessful, he would retreat to the basement, kitchen knife in one hand. Notebook and pen in the other.
Tyler reached for the pen. He reached for Shannon, a girl with honey-brown hair, whom he hardly knew. But he sensed compassion in Shannon. A kindness.
Shannon would become the first of many in McCook to reach back.
"There's a reason all this happened, " Shannon would write. "God loves you."
And later: I love you.
It wasn't romance. Shannon wanted him to know she cared. Cared enough -- despite his plea -- to tell an adult.
Her mom wrote Tyler, urging him to talk to his dad, a pastor, an adult.
"I hope you can find happiness. . . . You've been through a lot."
Tyler kept writing Shannon, and he began talking to the junior high counselor. He had urged Tyler to go out for a sport, get involved.
Gradually, Tyler's spirits lifted. He hardly noticed when the tears didn't fall as readily.
Junior high dances beckoned, and Tyler went.
Ninth grade came, and Tyler got busy.
Too small to play football, Tyler taped ankles. Went out for basketball and made the B team freshman year. Served as team trainer the next three years for football and basketball. Played golf for the McCook Bison.
Shy Tyler became funny, outgoing, reliable Tyler. Everyone called him "Bieck, " pronounced like a bird's bill.
Sophomore year, Bieck got voted class president -- a title he would win two more years. As a senior, he was homecoming king and orchestrated the end-of-theyear prank. Bieck and his pals took off the back doors of McCook High and parked his 1989 red Plymouth Sundance in the hallway in front of Principal Jerry Smith's office.
Nobody minded. The adults admired Tyler, too.
Dad liked how Tyler helped out younger teens.
Basketball Coach Joel Hueser counted on Bieck to be there for his players. Principal Smith, who lived two houses away from Bieck, called the boy "deep."
The grownups also worried. They knew Tyler missed his mom terribly. They knew his mom was one of 12 suicides in Red Willow County from 1997 through 2002. The others included a classmate's dad and two teenage students.
McCook High had the crisis drill down. Every teacher read the same statement at the beginning of class. Counselors stood ready.
Tyler didn't seek their advice.
"Block these things out, " he thought. "Stay busy."
Tyler kept his grades up and squeezed in two Christian youth groups: the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and The Pepper.
Faith had taken on new meaning. The Biecks belonged to Evangelical Free as long as Tyler could remember.
But believing, now, was easier. So many at school reinforced God.
"You've been faithful to your church. You've been faithful to your peers, " Coach Hueser wrote him at Christmas. "Most importantly, you've been faithful to Christ! Keep it up, brother."
Devotion gave Tyler a language for his feelings. Depression became Satan. Meaning, purpose and hope: Jesus.
"It's really vital for me to be with Jesus and rebuke Satan every time he tries to get into my mind, " Tyler wrote on a note he passed Shannon during history class junior year. "He has made me feel worthless and lonely, and he has no right to do this."
"I know that God will work it all out, " Shannon answered.
"I get so down on myself, " he wrote Shannon. "I'm not a '#1' friend to anybody. . . . It's so easy for me to get hurt, I know it's stupid but I still hurt."
"Tyler, I know how you feel -- I kinda feel like that sometimes too, " Shannon scribbled back. "Yeah, it does hurt. But Tyler, everyone loves you. You are a great, cool dude."
Everyone knew his heart and its hole.
Tyler poured himself into McCook High's newspaper, The Stampede. He was opinion editor and had a regular column called Between You and Me.
"A good friendship is all anybody needs, " he wrote in one. "Without the love I have received from all my friends, all of you, I probably wouldn't have gotten to write this."
In another, he urged people to put aside grudges -- before it's too late.
"I was lucky enough to give my mom a hug and tell her that I loved her, " he wrote. "I don't have to live with the burden of having our last conversation be a feud between us and I could never wish that on anybody."
He told everyone he thought of death constantly. He told everyone he searched for life's purpose. He told everyone, wryly, he wanted a girlfriend.
"Before I leave you, " Tyler wrote, "I just want ALL of you to know that you ALL are very important to me and you ALL are great. And I'm still single."
He named that column: "You never know what's coming."
What's Done Across Nebraska
Beatrice: Community education campaign includes billboard with suicide hot-line number, business cards with suicide hot lines, depression screenings at community events and schools. Counselors visit nearby rural schools.
Lincoln: Partnerships between the schools and mental health providers help families get free evaluations and a foot in the door for treatment.
Millard Public Schools: Some middle and high school students are taught the acronym ACT, to care for potentially suicidal friends: Acknowledge your friend's feelings and Care enough about your friend to Tell a trusted adult.
Omaha Public Schools: Counselors are in classrooms a dozen times a year to teach personal, academic and social skills. Depression is a focus in 10th grade.
Papillion-La Vista South High: A play production class wrote a 40-minute drama addressing the stigma of mental health and suicide. The students hope to take the play to other schools.
Westside Community Schools: Freshmen conduct a self-profile, identifying their own risk factors. High school students meet in small groups with school counselors. Middle school students study risky behaviors.
McCook Junior High: Students spend a week studying suicide. Parents are alerted. Counselors do follow-up sessions for troubled youths. Wallet-size Yellow Ribbon cards list tips and hot-line numbers. Students can simply give a card to an adult if they need help.
Girls and Boys Town in Omaha: Offers social skills training for parents and people who work with youths. Call (800) 448-3000.
Screening teens for suicide risk.
TeenScreen: Used at 350 sites in 44 states. Developed by Columbia University. Girls and Boys Town in Omaha can help schools get started. Can be administered by trained guidance counselors. Call (866) 833-6727.
School Community Intervention Program: Based in Lincoln, SCIP trains school staff on warning signs of substance abuse or mental illness; 126 Nebraska schools participate. Call (402) 483-4581, extension 244.
Nebraska Student Assistance Program Initiative: Early identification and referral system. State pays to train school staff to flag struggling students, review their cases and find them help. Call (402) 463-5611.
For more information, call the Suicide Prevention Resource Center at (877) 438-7772. Or call Nebraska's suicide prevention committee, (402) 481-5165. David Miers is chairman.
Nebraska's Help Programs Vary
How does Nebraska try to prevent teens from taking their lives?
It depends on the area and its schools.
McCook Junior High spends a week on the subject, with a video, discussion and counselors at the ready. The Omaha Public Schools hand out wallet-size crisis cards. The Millard Public Schools train teachers and students to watch for warning signs and seek help.
Most schools in Lincoln connect families with free mental health evaluations. Beatrice mental health counselors hold depression screenings.
In Geneva, the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center designed an intensive supervision program for its students -- three-quarters of whom enter at a risk for suicide. It has not lost a student to suicide since the program began 15 years ago.
Other schools across the state may deal with suicide explicitly in health class and lessons on bullying, drugs and alcohol and violence. Or not.
That's because Nebraska does not require its schools to teach students or train school staff in suicide prevention. Nebraska does relatively little to coordinate suicide prevention activities. Unlike 17 other states, Nebraska pays no one to do it.
As a whole, Nebraska lacks a uniform approach to stopping teens from killing themselves. It varies from community to community.
Nebraska has some pieces in place for a state strategy. Like many states, it reacted in 1999 to a "call to action" on suicide from the U.S. surgeon general by forming a prevention committee. The group targeted its efforts in southeast Nebraska when death records showed a troubling number of suicides there.
It assembled curriculum that teachers, police officers and others can use, for free, to understand suicidal behaviors.
But as in many other states, funding and enthusiasm for suicide prevention has waned. The rate of teen suicide in Nebraska was virtually the same in the five years beginning in 1999 as it had been in the five years before the "call to action."
Funds for the initial southeast Nebraska efforts are gone. Now the group is seeking a threeyear, $1.2 million federal grant to pay a staffer, start new efforts and market the existing curriculum. Many people who could use it don't know it exists because of a lack of promotion.
Though not required, the State Department of Education does offer free suicide prevention training. A handful of districts use the training each year.
There is agreement among those involved in suicide prevention within Nebraska that more needs to be done.
It will take more parents asking their children whether they might hurt themselves.
It will take more mental health treatment outside Omaha and Lincoln.
It will take everyone in schools knowing how to identify and react to suicidal behaviors.
It will mean facing an uncomfortable subject directly and addressing related concerns, such as shrinking quality time within families, divorce, substance abuse, bullying, access to guns.
It starts with knowing that this is not a hopelessly incurable mental illness mystery.
"Suicide is much more than a mental health problem, " said Dr. Dan Daly, a psychologist and youth care director at Girls and Boys Town. "It is a social problem ... society's problem."
Oblivious to the Pain They Will Cause
Teens who die by suicide aren't around to see the havoc their deaths create.
Parents end up on antidepressants, siblings mutilate themselves, friends languish in counseling, families split apart.
Fewer teens would harm themselves, suicide experts say, if they could foresee the despair of their loved ones. But suicidal teens tend to have tunnel vision.
"They're so surrounded by their pain, they can't see the devastation they're going to leave behind, " said David Carlson, an Omaha police officer and local suicide prevention leader.
Lacie Glasgow, 15, knew when she killed herself that her mom would feel guilt. Like other teen suicide victims, Lacie tried in her note to comfort her.
"Mom, I know you're going to blame this on yourself, but it's not your fault, " she wrote. "I simply feel like it's time for me to go."
Lacie shot herself in her stepdad's house in Lincoln. She died on a Tuesday, May 22, 2001. Her final words brought little comfort.
Her mother, Valerie Knobel, once worked closely with mental health patients. Her typical parental guilt was compounded by the feeling that she, out of anyone, should have seen this coming.
Lacie's brother was the last person to see her alive. He carried the guilt of not stopping her death. The burden was so crushing that Valerie feared for his safety. He abused drugs and just drifted. At one point, Valerie had him admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
"It's only now, in the last several months, that he's been able to have a goal and stay with it, " she said.
Valerie is an art teacher at Doane College, but she no longer creates much because her artistic expression has been so affected by her daughter's death four years ago.
"The most important thing in my life was raising my kids, " she said. "I failed."
David Carlson, the police officer, understands Valerie's anguish.
He came home on a Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2003, to discover that his 13-year-old son, Thomas, had shot himself. Thomas' suicide note read as if he were writing it from heaven. He said he was in a better place, wrote "The Lord's Prayer" and traced his left hand as if to say goodbye.
It didn't help. David plunged into despair. For a month, he couldn't sleep without chasing Tylenol PM and NyQuil with vodka and orange juice. Later, it was ice cream and Taco Bell at all hours.
He began working with the Yellow Ribbon suicide prevention campaign. Talking to people, especially children, about the stormy aftermath of suicide offered him a chance to help others.
On patrol, David told people threatening suicide how their actions would harm others. He told them about his son. It seemed to help.
His grief endures. A therapist told him it will never go away.
On Mother's Day, his heart literally broke. David, 44, suffered a heart attack. He linked it to his 18 months of anguish. To the 18 months since he lost Thomas.
But David discovered something else about himself on Mother's Day. He asked an emergency room nurse to pray. Lying on the hospital gurney, his wife, Laura, and older son, Matt, at his side, David asked: "Lord, please don't let me die."
Not long ago, David would have prayed to join Thomas. He would have prayed to die.
"Dad, " Matt told him at the ER. "We can't take losing another family member."
This week, David was healing at home.
"Thinking of my own son's suicide every day for 1 1/2 years ... it didn't kill me, " David said. "God wants me here still."
Dustin Ustohal, 17, of Fremont died Oct. 25, 2001.
It might have been his second attempt. His father found a gun with a bullet jammed and suspected then that Dustin tried to shoot himself. His parents don't know what fueled his anger, but his dad recalled that Dustin was upset the night before his death and tried to call his friends. He shot himself about 3 o'clock on a Thursday morning. His parents found him at 6 a.m. because his alarm kept going off. His mother, Rhonda, doesn't know if previous teen suicides played a role. Dustin's was Dodge County's fourth in 11 months. She did write a note in the Fremont High School newspaper, shortly after her son's death, saying suicide is not the answer. Nonetheless, she has had suicidal thoughts of her own: "When you're that close to it, that doesn't scare you anymore."
Chris Sonderegger, 17, of Lincoln died Sept. 21, 2002.
He hanged himself from a tree. It was only a few yards from where he had swerved, missed a pole and rolled his car. His parents wonder whether the car crash caused a head injury, and in his confusion and trauma, he killed himself. Chris tried in 2000 to overdose on pills. He had taken Paxil for depression but stopped a year before his death. He had seemed more stable. He had planned to fix up a car, attend homecoming and pick a college. He had even talked a despondent friend out of a suicide attempt. Not long before his death, though, Chris had told a girl that life might not be worth living. She kept that secret and felt so guilt-stricken that she fainted at Chris' funeral. Late Friday night, in the minutes before his death, he kept calling another friend. But she didn't have her cell phone next to her. Audio of the final message indicates he was driving fast -- the accident investigation put the speed at more than 120 -- and then he said goodbye. "We don't know the context, " said his father. Chris often drove fast. The girl offered to play the tape of the call, but Chris' parents declined. "That's a can I don't want to open up, " his father said. They avoid the intersection of 128th and O Streets.
Kevin Hall, 15, of Omaha died Jan. 7, 2002.
He shot himself with a gun forced out of the family's locked gun cabinet. It happened on the first Monday back from Christmas break. Kevin stayed home, complaining of a migraine. Afterward, officials at Millard South High School opened his locker and found writings about a killing spree at school. His parents learned of the writings -- and the school's subsequent lockdown -- from television news. They were angry about the reaction. It wasn't a plan, it was a fictional story. Kevin wrote down everything, including his frequent fantasies. Besides, Kevin was dead. His parents were especially shocked. They had heard Kevin's anger toward a friend who attempted suicide. The family had discussed suicide before because his grandfather shot himself, though he survived. Kevin left one suicide note, on the top of the stairs, which the police took, and a second note that his parents found later under his mattress. "What the hell is wrong with me?" it said. He had been upset at a girl who didn't like him. After his death, the girl revealed she had known he might be suicidal. She later needed to be hospitalized.
Stop reading now. Reach out and ask for help. Talk to a parent, friend, counselor, clergy, or doctor.
Or call the Girls and Boys Town National Hotline, 1-800-448-3000. Or the Hopeline Network, 1-800-784-2433.
What Saved Tyler: No One But Himself
McCOOK, Neb. -- When Tyler Bieck wrapped up his story, the McCook High gym thundered in approval.
Parents, teachers and classmates stood and clapped -- some even cried -- after hearing Tyler's triumphant journey from deep depression to joyful faith.
What a finish.
He told them how he didn't take his mother's suicidal path, though he had wanted to. How he didn't end up on drugs or alcohol, though he had dabbled. Everyone knew the rest: Tyler didn't just survive high school. He thrived: homecoming king, class president, newspaper columnist.
Renewing faith in Jesus helped, Tyler told them.
"Jesus Christ, " he said at the 2003 baccalaureate, "has claimed me from the depths."
McCook, too, helped save Tyler. Helped raise Tyler. Watched out for him. Now, Tyler was leaving his southwest Nebraska community. He was off to Evangel University, a small Christian school in Springfield, Mo.
Dad worried the college wouldn't fit Tyler. Its restrictions would hem in his middle son. Tyler had a curious, sensitive spirit. He was the kind of kid who would strike up conversations with panhandlers and the homeless during the Bieck boys' annual trips to Denver.
Tyler thought his college choice made sense.
His faith had caught fire in high school. He could never forget the electric moment sophomore year when Husker football's passionate Christian crusader, coach Ron Brown, gave his altar call.
Tyler sat between Dad and coach Joel Hueser in the junior high gym. He was 16, but the tears started. Feet followed.
"Ran to the light, " he'd say later.
A few months at Evangel, though, and Tyler realized Dad had been right. The place was too restrictive. Nearly fined $50 for sneaking into a sports bar on a Husker game day, Tyler'd had enough.
He called the McCook Daily Gazette, asked for a writing job and moved at semester break. He covered sports part time; even wrote a few columns and attended McCook Community College.
That fall, he set his sights on Lincoln. He enrolled in journalism classes at UNL, bought an expensive camera and got on the Memorial Stadium sidelines. He took photos and wrote columns for the Gazette.
In McCook, Dad remarried. Bill Bieck had dated Sharla Hess since his 1995 divorce from Tyler's mom. Bill focused on raising the boys, waiting nearly 10 years before bringing Sharla into the family's house.
Tyler happily served as an usher. He liked Sharla, though he knew no one could take the place of his best friend, Mom.
Around the anniversary of Mom's death -- Jan. 18 marked seven years -- depression washed over him. Tyler fought it by staying busy, throwing himself into an odd chance to remake his end of high school prank for a TV show.
Thrilled that MTV wanted to re-enact the car in front of the principal's office, Tyler petitioned the school board.
McCook told him no. But Raymond Central High School, north of Lincoln, said yes.
For five days, Tyler and his friends relived the fun and showed MTV urbanites around small-town Nebraska.
But that passed, and the sadness crept back. Religion offered no help. Tyler still held Christianity dear. Yet he felt empty. He mined everything from the teachings of St. Augustine and the Bible to the God-is-dead concepts of Nietzsche.
When classes became too much, Tyler quit going. Mortifying for a good student used to success. Necessary, advised his new therapist -- the first he had seen.
Tyler also sought help from a psychiatrist, who prescribed the antidepressant Wellbutrin.
He withdrew, shrinking his world of 21, 000 students to a desk cloaked in blankets. He wrote in his journals, pouring out his heart and its hole to no one but himself.
"I feel like I am constantly dying, " Tyler wrote in March.
Four days later, he added: "I am a battle of extremes -- Love vs. Hate. I don't know who's winning ... I know I better not commit suicide, so I'm choosing the next-best thing and completely giving up on my life."
Tyler hates his brooding side. He thinks it's not the Bieck that everyone from McCook loves. He knows he worries his friends.
Dad worries, too.
Dad showed up on campus over spring break. Surprised Tyler. They watched March Madness on TV, loaded up on jeans at Dillard's, ate well.
Tyler traveled home for a weekend last month. He was dismayed to find his bedroom painted -- the wall of high school friends' autographs covered in fresh white. He felt dislocated.
But he cheered up when a waitress at the Coppermill restaurant recognized him. She told him she looked for his bylines in the Gazette.
Tyler returned to Lincoln with his golf clubs and a box of books. On top sat the devotional self-help best seller "The Purpose Driven Life." A graduation gift from coach Hueser.
Tyler also brought a shoebox of memories: Mom's bracelets, medals he won on the high school golf team and sheaves of letters and cards from coach Hueser, Aunt Lisa, Shannon Moore and others.
Perhaps he'll work on that golf handicap of 10. Perhaps he'll sign up for summer classes. Graduating from college, he said, is vital.
Or maybe he'll return to McCook. The newspaper is talking with him about a job. Tyler might work full time covering news and sports.
He wishes he could crack his persistent melancholy.
"Every couple of years it sneaks up on you, chops your feet out, " he said. "When I get depressed, (I fear) everyone won't like me. I tell myself I'm not worthy of living."
Last month, his therapist gave him an assignment: Write down a list of traits he likes about himself and read it aloud each day.
Tyler jotted down caring, open-minded, good listener -- 15 qualities in all.
Some days he can even bring himself to read the list.
2006 Dart Award Final Judges
Margaret Blaustein, Ph.D. is the Director of Training and Education at The Trauma Center at JRI in Brookline, MA. Dr. Blaustein is a practicing clinical psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of complex childhood trauma. She is co-developer of the Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency treatment framework, designated a promising practice for treatment of childhood trauma by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and has provided didactic and interactive training to over 3000 clinicians, educators, professionals, and consumers regarding the impact of and intervention for childhood-onset trauma.
Laura Jackson has worked as an independent radio and video producer for the past 20 years. In 1996 she was selected to be the first Independent Producer-in-Residence at WHYY in Philadelphia. Jackson has taught documentary production at Swarthmore College and the University of the Arts. She has received many awards, including a regional Emmy for Beyond Beijing: Women & Economic Justice. Her most recent radio work has been as senior producer for PeaceTalks Radio. In 1994, Ms. Jackson founded Nightingale Productions. She is a Dart Center Ochberg Fellow.
Yoseñio V. Lewis is a dark skinned Latino female to male transsexual who has been an activist since 1973. A health educator, speaker, writer, performer, trainer, and facilitator, he is on the Board of Directors of the Task Force (NGLTF). He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center. Yoseñio is also a co-founder of Big Boys’ Ink™ Productions, a theatrical writing and performing company. He has been a subject of several documentaries, including Christopher Lee’s “Trappings of Transhood” and the television channel A&E’s “Transgender Revolution.”
Suzan Shown Harjo is a poet, writer, lecturer, curator and policy advocate who has helped Native peoples recover more than one million acres of land and numerous sacred places. She has developed key federal Indian law since 1975, including the most important national policy advances in the modern era for the protection of Native American cultures and arts: the 1996 Executive Order on Indian Sacred Sites, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act and the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Ms. Harjo is president and executive director of The Morning Star Institute, a national Indian rights organization founded in 1984 for Native peoples’ traditional and cultural advocacy, arts promotion and research.
Frank Ucciardo reports on foreign affairs at the United Nations for CBS News. The Emmy award-wining anchor/reporter has been a familiar face in the New York television market for the last two decades. His live reporting has included the visit of Pope John Paul II, TWA 800 and the September 11th terrorist Attacks. Ucciardo served as a campaign correspondent for national political conventions; his special report on the 50th Anniversary of the Berlin Airlift received The Society of Professional Journalists top prize. Ucciardo’s work as an investigative reporter forced the Department of Energy to close down its main research nuclear reactor in New York. He serves as the broadcasting chairman for the United Nations Correspondents Association and is the Executive Council Chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists in New York City. He has also worked as correspondent for the AP, NBC, CNN and WNBC-TV.
Jimmie Briggs has a personal mission to share the voices and stories of the disenfranchised and voiceless. The release of his first book entitled, Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War, is the culmination of six years of painstaking investigation. He served as a Special Consultant for the United Nations Special Session on Children in 2002. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude, with a degree in philosophy from Morehouse College. His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, People, Vibe, The Source and Fortune. He is a Dart Center Ochberg Fellow.
Andrew Innerarity has been a Senior Staff Photographer at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida since 2005. He began his career at the Miami Herald in 1985 before joining Associated Press in Atlanta in 1994, and then The St. Petersburg Times in 1996. He also worked six years at the Houston Chronicle where his photography was featured in the 2003 Dart Award winner, “Legacy of Love and Pain.” He received a Bachelor of Arts in European History from the University of Southern California in 1985.
Felicia Lynch is a senior associate with Bradford & Associates, a collective of consultants in health care and organizational development. She is a national board member of Family Violence Prevention Fund and formerly oversaw Ryan White Care Act Title I and II in the District of Columbia Department of Health HIV/AIDS Administration. Her most recent professional experience was as president and CEO of Women and Philanthropy, an organization of men and women who recognize that regardless of race, ethnicity, age or sexual orientation women’s voices lend depth and meaning to issues we face as a society. Ms. Lynch chaired the board of the Center for Women Policy Studies. She currently sits on the national board of the Americans All Foundation.
Elana Newman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa and has conducted research on a variety of topics regarding the psychological and physical response to traumatic life events, assessment of PTSD in children and adults, understanding the impact of participating in trauma-related research from the trauma survivor’s perspective, and the exposure of journalists to trauma-producing events. She was the key investigator on the Dart Center’s research survey on photojournalists’ exposure to trauma. As a clinical psychologist, she has worked with survivors of all types of events and is currently addressing trauma-related problems with substance-abusing women. Dr. Newman is president-elect of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.
Anthony Shadid is the Islamic affairs correspondent for the Washington Post and is based in the Middle East. Previously, he worked for two years in Washington with the Boston Globe, where he covered diplomacy and the State Department. Since September 11, 2001, he has traveled to Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Europe, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel and the Palestinian territories. Prior to working for the Globe, he was news editor of the Los Angeles bureau of the Associated Press. Shadid, an American of Lebanese descent, speaks and reads Arabic, which offers him insights not available to most Western journalists working in the Middle East.