The Teen Suicide Epidemic in Kansas City
First person accounts from survivors and the people dealing with the aftermath.
Why Are Our Kids Killing Themselves?
Photos: Jeremey Theron Kirby
(page 1 of 2)
If you talk with an area high school student and inform them that teen suicide in the Kansas City metro is at an all-time high, they’ll probably respond with “tell me something I don’t know.” They’re on the front lines, living every day with the loss of friends and classmates while fearing who might be next.
Suicide among young people is now the second leading cause of death behind accidents in Kansas and Missouri. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows an almost 70 percent spike in teen suicides from 2006 to 2016. One in six high school students say they have seriously considered suicide within the last year. National pediatric research points to a doubling of the number of children and adolescents admitted to hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm during the previous decade. Local health care professionals and educators are calling it an epidemic.
Rachel Nelson-Segobia is director of Lee’s Summit Cares, a social service organization that works with parents and children, she says, “We’re seeing a new mental health need that our kids have. Right now, we’re trying to respond as quickly as we can, but I fear we can’t go fast enough. When we poll kids, they talk about increased stress, anxiety, living with low self-worth and a feeling that they have no control. It’s scary, but it tells us we need to do more and do it right now.”
As for why the increase in teen suicides in the metro, there’s no concrete answer. The huge influence of social media is often cited as a contributing factor and studies show that there is a correlation between screen time and anxiety. Pediatric psychologists also point to hearing from teenagers that they feel a constant demand on them to excel and that for some, “failing is worse than death.”
Teen suicide does not discriminate. Locally in the past year, star athletes, academic achievers, class clowns, the girl next door and kids who wrote about being bullied in the notes they left behind, have all taken their lives. Dr. Sarah Soden M.D., Children’s Mercy Division Director of Developmental & Behavioral Sciences, says, “We all have to keep stepping up to the plate. This is an acute situation.”
435 interviewed physicians, educators, parents, social workers and teens to get a look at the epidemic from multiple angles. Here’s what’s being done, what needs to be done and why our teenagers are feeling so helpless.
kate hollingsworth, survivor
She looks perfect. From her lovely face with big eyes to her long-legged figure, Kate Hollingsworth is totally “Insta-worthy.” She was a cheerleader at Blue Valley High School, has good grades and a large, outgoing, group of friends. But what you don’t see is that Kate has been fighting depression since the age of 10 and that this smart, thoughtful, beautiful 18-year-old has tried to kill herself — twice.
“I think I was 11 when I wrote a note to my mom saying that I needed to see a therapist. I had what I would now call dark or sad thoughts. Even in elementary school, I knew I shouldn’t be feeling this way.”
But it wasn’t until Kate started high school that things got what she calls “really bad.”
“I don’t know exactly why but my freshman year was intense for me. I had a lot of emotions that I couldn’t process. One day, right after I turned 15, I took 20 ibuprofen and then told my mom what I had done.”
Kate says her mother took her to Children’s Mercy and after her health stabilized, she was transferred to Marillac which is a psychiatric hospital for children. Between her freshman and junior year, she was admitted five more times for “suicidal thoughts.”
Her second attempt to take her own life happened in the 11th grade while her mother was at parent-teacher conferences. Kate confides that she no longer wanted to feel like she was existing in a dark void. "I was so over living like that. I was done."
The teenager's suicide plan was spontaneous and born out of opportunity.
"My parents rarely left me alone. They locked up everything, even sharp knives, but I was very determined, and so I went to my mom’s closet and started hunting for her pain medication. I found it in the back on the top shelf inside a box. My mind was racing as I took one Hydrocodone (an opiate-based narcotic) after another. I texted two of my friends and told them ‘I loved them’ and that ‘I was so sorry.’”
By the time Kate’s friends had called 911 and her parents the teenager says she had “lost count at the number of Hydrocodone tablets she had swallowed.”
“I don’t remember much, but I knew I was having convulsions and throwing up in the hospital.”
After spending days in the ICU, she went back to Marillac still feeling hopeless. She says it wasn’t until she became more honest with her therapy and got on the right medication that she could begin to see a future for herself.
“My motivator word was capable. I’m capable of getting better. I’m capable of living every day. I am capable of acceptance and moving on.”
What Kate also learned in therapy and being at Marillac was that she was not alone.
“I would see kids that I knew. Kids that were popular and that I thought were living the dream and they were at Marillac. We all struggle sometimes, but I think there’s such a pressure to pretend, to hide and not talk about your failures. We need to talk. There are kids losing hope in their future and you shouldn’t have to hide your fears. That’s what kills you.”
Kate will be attending the University of Kansas in the fall. She plans to major in psychology.
Kevin timmons, father of nick timmons
What I know for sure is that in Nick’s final hours, he convinced himself that our lives would be easier without him. He had lost another job, broken up with his girlfriend and that light that had once pulled him through the exact same struggles became such a pinhole of light that he stopped seeing a future. It seems cliché, but it is true; Nick chose a permanent solution for temporary problems.
Depression presents in many different ways. Nick wore a mask to hide his depression. He was the funny guy. Always jovial and quick-witted. If we are honest, he started showing small signs of an underlying issue when he was 14 (his freshman year of high school). But the mask was a fabulous cover and even overt signs were overlooked.
By his 20’s, Nick was drinking to deal with his mental health problems — easily explained away as a typical 21-year-old enjoying being 21. But coupled with the other warning signs, it is now obvious he was self-medicating. By the time he went on depression medication, he was already at his tipping point.
If he had known that his death would bring so much agony to so many people, I know Nick would have chosen differently. To anyone out there hurting — choose different. Reach out. Be honest about your pain. You are not alone. To parents that see warning signs — talk to your kids, you aren’t putting thoughts in their head. Listen to your kids; it’s probably more important than talking.-- Kevin Timmons
Kevin works to raise awareness of suicide and fundraises for increased mental health treatment with his “Fore the Kids” golf tournament. Last month the event raised more than $450,000.