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Teen Suicide: A Shocking Truth

Updated on October 26, 2012

Surviving the teen years totally unscathed is practically impossible. Most of us still carry at least a few scars of pre-adult angst, no matter how deeply they may lurk in our subconscious. It’s definitely a tough time. Teens are on the shaky fence between childhood and adulthood, they’re trying to fit in and be accepted, and they're usually filled with doubts about the future. Many are also under tremendous pressure to succeed, by their parents, teachers, and coaches. Some have little guidance at home. They're constantly tempted with drugs and alcohol. All these elements can add up to troubled teens, which can lead to depression and suicide.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15-24-year-olds in the United States. That’s a sobering teen suicide rate, but I’m not really that surprised. As a retired teacher of teenagers, I’ve known more than my share of troubled teens and have known teen suicide first hand.

I genuinely cared about the well being of my students, both in and outside the classroom. I became very close to some, and whenever I lost one, I grieved. The memory of my first student death still haunts me. It involved a black male student named Jason.

Jason was a quiet boy but always had kind of a timid grin on his handsome face. He was a good student, but when he first came to my class, he was painfully shy. I joked and cut up with him for months, and he gradually became more and more relaxed and open in class. Late in the school year, he came up to my desk one Friday afternoon just before the final bell and handed me a picture of himself, saying, “Here, Mrs. Abee. Now you won’t ever forget me!”

I smiled and took the picture, saying something like, “Now how could I ever forget you?” We both laughed, and he left. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but that was the last time I would ever see Jason. When I got to school the next Monday morning, I discovered that Jason had been killed the day before in a four-wheeler accident. I wept for the lost life, for the lost potential. I felt that the world had indeed lost a wonderful future adult.

As painful as Jason’s death was for me, however, the next fall, I experienced a much more crushing sense of loss. That year, I was teaching a friend of Jason’s. His name was Clay.

Clay was tall and athletic, and like Jason, he was always smiling. His demeanor, however, was quite the antithesis of Jason’s. Clay was happy go lucky and outgoing. He was a star on the high school varsity football team, playing as a wide receiver. He had been heavily scouted in his junior year, and now he was a senior and was looking forward to being seduced by colleges. He was a far cry from what anyone would consider one of those "troubled teens."

Clay was in my first period class, but he came to see me every day after school. Sometimes we talked about Jason, sometimes we talked about football, and sometimes we discussed his future. His dad wasn’t in the picture, and from what I could gather, his mom worked two jobs just to keep the family going. I think Clay saw me as a surrogate mother. Sometimes he’d call me “other mother” in front of his classmates, saying something like, “Can’t you see the resemblance?” He was being sarcastic – I’m very white and he was a chestnut brown.

I distinctly remember a conversation we had about a week before his death. We were talking about his college plans, and he said, “I’ll have the chance that Jason never had.”

Just a few days later, Clay was gone. He took his own life with a bottle of sleeping pills. I was devastated and in total shock. How could I have been so blind? This was a young man who talked to me one-on-one, practically every day. He was always happy and looking forward to his future. He never uttered anything remotely about dying or even about being unhappy.

We never found out why Clay killed himself. None of his friends had a clue, nor did any of his other teachers. His mother was at a loss, also. I’ve wondered many, many times – what could possibly have been so bad that he couldn’t confide in me or in his own mother or his friends? What had tortured his soul so much that he could no longer endure the emotional pain and depression? According to experts, there are warning signs when someone is contemplating suicide, but none of us saw any. We certainly had never thought of Clay as a suicidal teen.

Was there something I could have said or done to avert the situation? Could I have been a better counselor, a better mentor? Most teachers are taught about teen suicide prevention, but there were absolutely no warning signs - at least from my perspective. I struggled with this for years after Clay’s demise.

I still think of Clay from time to time, especially when I see a gifted receiver on a televised football game. I often think to myself, “Wow. That could have been Clay. If only…”


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