It took a palm reader and at least a year for Holly Doggett to even begin to move forward after her nephew killed himself in 1991.
She blamed herself, like many suicide survivors do. She still does, 28 years later.
Doggett even dreamed her nephew, Trey, died a few months before his suicide. She felt like she should have done something. She knew, after all.
A business development specialist at Cedar Crest Hospital and Residential Treatment Center in Belton, Doggett shared her story Thursday with a group of 90 educators from 30 schools at the 14th annual Region 12 Education Service Center Teen Suicide Prevention Symposium.
Trey was 13 when he died by suicide. Doggett felt devastated by his death because he was like a son to her. She often took care of him for weeks at a time, and he served as the best man at her wedding. He also got the first piece of wedding cake.
So, when her husband told her Trey was dead while she was recovering from an appendectomy, Doggett blamed herself.
“I knew,” she said. “I should have done something.”
It was not until a palm reader took her hand and asked her about a blond-haired boy that Doggett began the process of healing.
“’I know you’re sad, and he knows you’re sad because you haven’t seen him like you used to,’” Doggett said the palm reader told her. “’He knows you’re sad because you don’t see him anymore.’ … It was really that point about a year later that I finally started making some forward progress.”
Doggett explained how survivor’s guilt affects the people left behind by suicide after she told Trey’s story. She recommended other survivors seek out mental health services, such as a support group. She said that was one of the best things she did after Trey’s death. She also said people should be allowed to “feel their feelings” without judgment.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in people aged 10 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the third-leading cause of death in children ages 10 to 12, and it is becoming more prevalent in younger children.
“It’s not just one person’s job,” said Jeni Janek, Region 12 education specialist and a licensed professional counselor. “Whether it’s a parent, a teacher, a counselor, a principal, a superintendent or anybody at all in the community, nobody can tackle this issue by themselves, and really they shouldn’t have to.”
Janek encouraged school staff to watch for signs that students are contemplating suicide. Those signs include any type of extreme behavior — sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or too little, etc. — and feelings of shame, self-loathing or worthlessness. Self-harm is common, too.
“It’s so much harder to try to look back and figure out if there were signs that were missed or if there were supports that were there, what factors came together in what way or how could this have been prevented,” she said. “It’s so much harder to do that than it is to try put together things (for prevention).”
Dr. Jane Ripperger-Suhler with the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Team at the University of Texas Dell Medical School and Ascension Texas recommended educators and school staff keep abreast of social media trends and topics. She used the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” and Robin Williams’ suicide in 2014 as examples of how inadequate suicide response services can be.
A 2019 National Institute of Mental Health study focused on both the impact of celebrity suicide and the lack of resources to meet the burst in need for support services after such a suicide. The study honed in on the 30 days after Williams’ death on Aug. 11, 2014. Researchers traced the number of calls to crisis lines, the number of calls answered, the number of people accessing crisis websites, and suicide rates.
Before Williams’ suicide in 2014, the daily average national suicide rate was 115 deaths per day. In the 30 days following his death, that number jumped to 142 deaths per day.
Additionally, there was a threefold increase in crisis line calls and a fivefold increase in visits to suicide crisis websites. The study found that in 2014 an average of 73% of calls were answered at crisis lines, but during the 30 days following Williams’ death, it dropped to 57%.
The study concluded there is need for more resources to serve people in crisis, especially after highly visible suicides. Researchers also expressed concern about media portrayals of celebrity suicides and the need for contingency plans for periods of high call volumes so all calls are answered.
The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” which has a third season coming out this year, had a similar impact among teens, Ripperger-Suhler said. An American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry article published in April showed a significant jump in teen suicides across the country in the three months following the first season’s release in 2017.
The series is based on a 2007 novel in which a high school girl kills herself and leaves behind 13 tapes she recorded before her suicide, implicating 13 reasons and 13 people she holds responsible for her death. It was one of the most discussed shows on social media in 2017, Ripperger-Suhler said.
But the show has many issues, including how it romanticizes suicide and implies suicide is someone else’s fault rather than the consequence of mental illness, according to an article by child psychiatrist Dr. Sansea Jacobson in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The show also presents suicide as a rational choice, depicts graphic self-harm and other violence, and portrays school counselors as callous.
Ripperger-Suhler said educators should make themselves aware of similar shows and educate themselves on the content and its inaccuracies so they can address them with students.
She offered these prevention tips for educators:
- Accept that suicide prevention is part of your job and foster school connectedness
- Know the risks: change in moods, suicide attempts, alcohol or drug use, access to weapons, discipline issues, feelings of despair
- Reach out and inform students you care and are concerned and want to help; keep conversations private
- Be aware of students writing or talking about suicide or death or making plans, looking for access to weapons, feelings of hopelessness or overwhelming pain or distress
- Don’t judge, stay present, restrict access to means and make sure student gets help they need
- After a suicide, the goal becomes preventing other deaths.
Waxahachie ISD school counselor Kevin Nesmith said the information presented at the symposium is “empowering” for him as a counselor. He has seen an uptick in self-harm and the threat of suicide and interest in suicide.
“Suicide is a reality,” he said. “This is the information we need.”
Texas tends to rank higher than the national average for risky youth behavior related to suicide, according to the CDC’s High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Seriously considered attempting suicide:
- Texas — 17.6%
- U.S. — 17.2%
Made a plan about how they would attempt suicide:
- Texas — 14.5%
- U.S. — 13.6%
- Texas — 12.3%
- U.S. — 7.4%
Suicide attempt resulted in an injury, poisoning or overdose that had to be treated by doctor or nurse:
- Texas — 4.5%
- U.S. — 2.4%
Please seek out these resources if you are having suicidal thoughts: