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'A really deep sadness': teenagers and suicide

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On a warm, sunny July morning in Parma Town Park, Connor Stevely is playing fetch with Ella Mae, a big, panting chocolate Lab. Despite the increasingly intense sun, the dog never seems to tire of the game.

The Stevely family loves its pets – three dogs, a cat, and a hamster. But Ella Mae is special: She saved Connor's life on December 2, 2017.

Connor Stevely: Talking about his anxiety “has helped the most.” - PHOTO BY BETH ADAMS
  • PHOTO BY BETH ADAMS
  • Connor Stevely: Talking about his anxiety “has helped the most.”

That's what Connor's mother, Diane Stevely, believes. She and Connor's younger sister, Morgan, had gone into town for a community Christmas party that night. Connor's father, Greg, was at work. "We weren't gonna be gone long," Diane says. "And that's when Connor overdosed. He passed out, and he was awakened by Ella licking his face."

When Connor regained consciousness, he called 911 and was rushed to the hospital.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, in 2017 suicide was the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34. Suicide rates among teenagers and young adults have been on the rise both nationally and locally in recent years.

In Connor's case, he overdosed on the antidepressant he had been prescribed two months earlier. He had also smoked marijuana that evening. Diane vividly remembers how she found her son in the hospital: "It was horrid. Tremors. Hallucinations."

It was, she says, "horrible to watch."

The antidepressant had been prescribed after Connor told his parents that his moodiness and time spent alone in his room were much more than the typical teenage challenges they assumed he was dealing with. Diane and Greg quickly got help for their son, going to the family pediatrician and to counselors at Hilton High School for help.

"We had no idea at all Connor was suicidal," Diane says, "or I wouldn't have ever left him alone – especially with unlocked medication."

"I had never felt anything similar to it," Connor says now, describing his emotions the night of his first suicide attempt. "It was a really deep sadness."

He was worried that he wasn't going to pass his classes at school, and he was also troubled about a recent break-up with a girlfriend.

"I had thought about suicide before," he says, "but it was, 'I can get through this.' But that night, it was intense sadness."

Adolescents can become impulsive during times of distress, which accounts for higher risk factors for suicide and suicidal ideation, says Megan Clifford, a psychotherapist and mental health first aid instructor.

Well-meaning parents who want to protect their children from life's difficulties, Clifford says, can unintentionally delay the development of coping skills and result in teenagers looking for ways to numb their pain.

Connor's second suicide attempt happened in April 2018, about four and a half months after the first one. It was another overdose.

"It was gut-wrenching to see him in such a place where he wanted to leave us," Diane says. "I think the pain is almost indescribable."

More than a year later, Connor, who is now 17, says he's feeling stable. He spent weeks in a pediatric psychiatric inpatient facility at Strong Memorial Hospital. He passed all of his classes and exams at Hilton High School with the help of a social worker and a teacher's assistant appointed by the district to work with him in the classroom.

"With anxiety," Connor says, "I think a lot of people get overwhelmed with the situation, and sometimes it's just step by step: 'What do I have to do first?' And they've really helped me break it down so when I'm having anxiety about school, or, say I have five things I have to do, they help me break it down: 'Let's do this first. Let's do this next.'"

Now Connor's parents are trying to strike a balance between letting him be a teenager and keeping a close eye on him to make sure he's all right. They frequently check on him in his room.

Diane has learned what to look for. "You can most certainly tell when Connor is anxious," she says. "He has signals that he sends out: shaking a leg, twirling his hair." His parents had seen those signals before but didn't recognize them for what they were. "If he's shaking his leg really hard," Diane says, "he's really, really anxious."

And the family talks a lot. They talk about how Connor is feeling and what he's doing to cope when the anxiety returns. The need to do that regularly is one of Connor's biggest takeaways from the last two and a half years.

"I don't think boys and men talk about things like this, which they probably should," he said.

Connor says he felt disconnected from people before, but now he's communicating in a different way. "One thing that I wish would have happened maybe earlier on was talking more," he says. "That's one thing that has helped the most."

As he learns to manage the anxiety and sadness that plagued him starting in the fall of 2017, he's taking a different approach to his relationships with friends and family members. He no longer has conversations in the way that he used to and many teens still do: by texting.

"What someone could say over the phone was totally different than what they would say to you in person," he says. "It's just different, I think, in this day and age, where maybe you guys maybe talked about things more. You guys were face to face with people. I feel this generation might be a little disconnected from talking about things in person."

Maeve Reed understands where Connor's coming from. "I experience that as well," she says, "not feeling that authentic connection when it's behind a screen."

Reed is the founder and former youth executive director of Stop the Stigma ROC, a youth group dedicated to erasing the stigma around mental illness. Her best friend died by suicide when they were freshmen at Fairport High School.

"Not having those connections and building trust with other people through those deep connections can really make us feel like there's no one there to reach out to when we're struggling," Reed says.

Reed, who is now 18, realized when she was in eighth grade that social media was a source of negativity in her life, so she deleted her Instagram account.

"It's just a breeding ground for insecurity, for me, at least," she says. "I don't know if that's how other people feel. I have a feeling it might be. It's just full of me comparing myself to other people." She knows that what she sees on social media is "just the best parts of people's lives," but, she says, "I can get into this little bubble where I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm not doing this. Oh my gosh, my selfies don't look like that.'"

In 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed a task force to study suicide prevention specifically for vulnerable demographic groups, including adolescents. Peter Wyman, professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, co-chairs the task force. 

Some social media sites and platforms do connect people who feel disconnected, Wyman says. Groups for LGBTQ youths are just one example.

Wyman's research team is publishing a study this fall that looked at 40 schools. Students who were more connected to adults and felt that those adults were responsive to them had significantly lower rates of suicide attempts.

An intervention program called Sources of Strength, based on more than a decade of Wyman's research, has been implemented in more than 60 schools across New York State. Its goal is to enlist the help of students who are influential among their peers and encourage them to build healthy coping practices and better connections with adults.

"And students may find those in different places," Wyman says. "It may be an adult at school or an adult in the community. But hearing those examples from your peers who you feel are credible messengers can be a powerful tool."

The idea is that the attitudes and behaviors that are successful in preventing suicide can be normalized and accepted among peers.

Clifford, the psychotherapist, recommends that parents talk openly with their children about their mental health and ask what's going on if their behavior and daily habits seem unusual. Even asking direct questions about whether the child is contemplating suicide shouldn't be avoided, she says. 

"There's absolutely no research that we have that indicates talking to someone about suicide directly puts that idea in their head," she says. "A person is much more likely to be relieved when someone asks them if they're thinking of hurting themselves."

As Connor Stevely gets ready to start his senior year at Hilton High School, he still deals with bouts of sadness and worry, but he also feels more supported and stable. And he says he's grateful his attempts to take his life failed.

"Looking back on it now," he says, "what I would tell myself is, 'It's not worth it.' Throughout my journey, I've learned that many people love me and many people are there for me."

His mother says she is proud of him. "I've seen him grow, which just makes my heart smile after everything we have been through," Diane Stevely says. "Yeah, it's amazing. He's quite a young man."

(The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255 ) is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It provides free, confidential support to people in distress and those who care about them.)

Writer Beth Adams is a WXXI News reporter and host of "Morning Edition."