Teen suicide is a growing epidemic here and across the country
It’s a hot Tuesday morning this past September, and Cindy Nadelbach has set out a spread of doughnut holes, coffee, and yellow ribbons and bracelets. It’s National Suicide Prevention Day, and she’s at Jaycee Park in Boynton Beach to unveil a brand-new park bench.
After words from the mayor, Nadelbach stands with Victor Perez, her son’s best friend since fourth grade, ready to lift the veil over the bench. The crowd counts down, and in a flurry of fabric, a bright yellow bench is revealed to applause. On it is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number and her son’s name: Josh Nadelbach.
That day marked the 15th bench that was installed by Josh’s Benches, a new nonprofit founded less than two years after Josh died by suicide. He was only 21 years old when a friend called Cindy in the middle of the night, saying her son had left a cryptic message on his Facebook page and that something wasn’t right.
Later that day, they found Josh dead in his car. “I said to myself, I didn’t want my son to just be a statistic. That was almost one of the first things I thought about,” Nadelbach says. “You can’t miss a bright yellow bench. I knew whatever I was going to do with it, I wanted it to be noticed.”
Noticed, and talked about. While that day was one to recognize suicide prevention, there weren’t news stories and social media posts calling attention to it the same way our world is painted pink during October.
Why do we ignore it?
“Suicide is a word that stays in the dark,” Nadelbach says. “Suicide is something that nobody wants to talk about.”
According to Youth.gov, one out of every 15 high school students attempts suicide every year, and one out of every 53 will injure themselves and need medical treatment. Even more alarming is that these numbers are rising. A study by Harvard Medical School found that from 2000 to 2017, the suicide rate of teens 15 to 19 rose 47 percent, and 36 percent among those 20 to 24 years old. The study also found that 80 percent of the more than 6,200 suicides of 15 to 24-year-olds in 2017 were boys and men. However, girls and women were more likely to try suicide.
“It’s quite disturbing,” says Dr. Amanda Weiss, SID, the child and family programs manager at the Faulk Center in Boca Raton. She is also a clinical supervisor and licensed psychologist.
While the reasons that suicide has increased are up for debate, there are a number of possibilities. There’s the overwhelming pressure to excel in school and extracurriculars, have a bevy of friends, and be attractive to top it off—then throw in the prevalence of social media and the race for the most “likes” and comments. And when it comes to bullying, teens can no longer find refuge when they get home, thanks to a world more connected than ever. Every stroke on a keyboard or double tap on a cell phone can mean a new provocation, and a new trauma.
At the Faulk Center, the teen coping group had to be expanded when younger and younger children were coming in with anxiety and depression. But even with the staggering numbers, society feels the need to bury the topic of suicide. For one, there is a persistent myth that the mere mention of it will lead to suicide or put the idea in someone’s head, but that’s not the case, Weiss says.
“Somebody who is not already experiencing immense psychological distress is not going to, in a split second, out of nowhere, decide to take their own life,” she says. “In fact, when we say these things out loud, [when] we talk about these scary thoughts that we’re having, that actually takes the power away.”
That is not to discount especially graphic discussions and details surrounding suicide; how it’s talked about matters. When the teen drama “13 Reasons Why” aired on Netflix in March 2017, it was believed that the series led to a spike in suicides among young people. The show, based on a book of the same name, tells the story of Hannah, who dies by suicide, and Clay, who finds recordings made by her that describes the 13 reasons she killed herself. In the show, there is a scene of her cutting her wrists.
While the idea that the show held that much power is still debated, it certainly has led to conversations about suicide. This, in turn, might be another theory as to why the numbers might be higher: As the stigma surrounding mental health slowly disintegrates, people might be more willing to seek help or report suicides.
“I think our youth is more comfortable talking about it, and that’s where, as adults, it’s a call to us to step up and be more comfortable hearing about it and having that difficult discussion,” Weiss says. “It’s uncomfortable, and being able to be uncomfortable can save a life.”
“The Knock on the Door”
When discussing her son Josh, Cindy Nadelbach gushes about how gifted he was. He got his GED at 16, and he was studying computer science at Palm Beach State College. While school was easy for him, in his teens he dealt with anxiety and depression. The Nadelbachs immediately took him to doctors and therapists, and by 17 it seemed he “outgrew it.” Josh was going to school, working two jobs to save up for a car, and had plans to see the Jets play up in New England with his father.
After a weekend trip to Orlando to visit his friends, Nadelbach says her son bought Domino’s Pizza—his favorite—for dinner and took it to his room to eat, which was typical. He said good night to his mother.
At 4 that morning, she got a phone call from a friend of Josh’s—he saw a strange post on Josh’s Facebook page. Nadelbach jumped out of bed. Josh wasn’t in his room. Outside, his car was missing. She called the police. Hours later, at 1 p.m., Nadelbach says they got “the knock on the door nobody wants to get.”
“They said they found Josh behind the Kohl’s parking lot in his car. Gone. And that’s where it ends.” After his passing, she found out “so many good things about my son.”
“He was always a good kid; he never gave us an ounce of problems. But I found out time after time, [when] his friends were reaching out to me, [that] there were times Josh would ask them if they were OK. He talked people out of suicide. Here he is helping others. He was able to detect this in others before they even spoke about it.”
Just a few years earlier, Pamela Leal experienced a nightmare of her own when her daughter, Bailey, killed herself. It was May 21, 2013, and she had just finished her morning run in her Parkland neighborhood. She made a cup of coffee and knocked on her daughter’s door to get her up to go to school nearby at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When she didn’t answer, she tried to turn the knob.
It was locked.
“I woke up my ex-husband and said, ‘Bailey is probably asleep or snuck out; you’re going to have to pick the door,’” Leal remembers. “So he opened it, and I walked back in the kitchen, and I heard the most—all I can say is an animalistic scream that came from the guts, the soul. And I called 911.”
At 7:10 a.m., their daughter was pronounced dead. Six hours earlier, she had tweeted, “I see why everyone hates me, I hate myself too.”
On the outside, Bailey was someone to be envied. She was beautiful, dating, had lots of friends, and known for being an incredible soccer player. And she was smart; she aced her ACTs and had received a full ride to Dartmouth. She dreamed of being a pediatrician. The third of four girls, she was especially close with her younger sister, who she “basically raised,” Leal says.
The Christmas before she died, she left gifts on her friends’ doorsteps, knocked on the door and ran off. She had a special place in her heart for children with special needs and was frequently rescuing animals. Three months before she died, she cared for a baby possum she named Hope and took to a wildlife refuge.
But looks can be deceiving, and Leal says that underneath the success, her daughter was struggling. She fought with her parents, was anxious about her friendships, and was stressed about preparing for college.
“She was awesome and everyone loved her—but she struggled inside. And she couldn’t talk about it. She couldn’t. She didn’t want to burden anyone,” Leal says.
Weiss, from the Faulk Center, says there are almost always warning signs of suicide, but it can be difficult to discern from the normal changes and mood swings that teens and young adults experience: sadness, irritability, anger, crankiness, and change in appetite and sleep. Other signs include obsessing about death, giving away possessions, withdrawing socially and not caring about things they used to enjoy.
“There’s not going to be any one symptom or warning sign,” she says. “The thing that’s important to look out for is how frequent it’s happening, how long it’s going on for, and when in doubt—parents, teachers, friends and kids—reach out and ask.”
Shannon Moyel, 19, is a student at Florida Atlantic University with the goal to be a dialectical behavioral therapist. It’s a mouthful, but she believes in this form of therapy because it has worked for her.
“I remember when I was basically at rock bottom, and I met my therapist,” she says. “She was the first therapist to really get me, to kind of understand what I was going through, how to help me.”
Her struggles started as a child. She would panic when her mother went to another aisle at the store, afraid she had been left behind. At 11, she had dramatic mood swings, including fits of rage that seemed to come out of nowhere. She had a hard time making friends. Every day she woke up more tired than the next, until one day she asked, “Why am I here?”
She learned about self-harm from a friend, and when she was hurting badly enough, Moyel wondered if it would make her feel better. She started with small scratches with safety pins, then her cutting sent her to the hospital. She was terrified to ask for help—she worried about going to the hospital and missing class when her grades were already suffering.
She worried about being a burden to her parents. She worried about how they would pay for therapy. Her mother switched her to a charter school in eighth grade, hoping the change would help. That year, Moyel tried to kill herself.
“As soon as I started it…I realized instantly that I wanted to live,” she remembers. “No matter how bad I felt, there’s always that thought in my brain that everybody’s life is worth it somehow, and yeah, you’re going through stuff right now, but it can get better. [But] it was suppressed so far back in my brain that I didn’t know where else to go.”
She was hospitalized for a week; in the meantime, her parents looked for answers and found a doctor in Okeechobee, who for an hour quizzed her about mood swings, abandonment issues, difficulty maintaining relationships, self-harm and more. She fit the bill for borderline personality disorder. Although it was frightening, Moyel was relieved that there was a name for her condition.
“Ninety percent of suicides usually have an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness,” Weiss says. “It’s so important for [people] to know that there are people out there that care, that there are resources available to help them navigate it. … There isn’t a class on this—on what happens if your teenager starts experiencing depression and has thoughts about killing themselves.”
Moyel has been seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist for five years now, where she has learned interpersonal skills, positive coping mechanisms and self-worth. She joined her high school’s Health Occupation Students of America club and has spoken for the National Alliance on Mental Illness four times.
Now, she has a job at FAU, has junior credits toward a degree in social work, and wants to get a master’s degree. “I hope to treat the younger adolescents who are trying to just figure out who they are, especially when they’re first diagnosed or if they’re going through a tough time,” she says. “When I was at rock bottom, I was like, ‘Man, I’m not going to make it past 18…’ but now I see a future.”
For the Nadelbachs and Leal, part of the grieving process was making a change in their communities. They wanted to break the silence and talk about suicide.
“People deal with suicide and death of a child in many, many different ways. I don’t know why or how
I grieved the way I did,” Leal says. “I talk about [her] in my classes often. When I promote my events I have to talk about it. Usually it’s harder for people to hear than for me to speak, because I feel like the more I can speak it, the more I heal.”
The day of Bailey’s suicide, Leal was filled with shock. But on day two, when a detective handed her a letter from her daughter, the pieces started to come together. Bailey didn’t do this to us, she realized, and Leal knew she was going to live the rest of her life in her daughter’s memory. She founded Yoga4B, hosting yoga fundraisers and donating the proceeds to agencies like the Florida Initiative for Suicide Prevention and the Faulk Center. She also partnered with Waves of Hope, a nonprofit for parents whose children died, to host a weeklong retreat to Costa Rica. Over the seven days, parents from all over the country share their stories of losing their children, and work toward healing.
Today, Yoga4B has made it its mission to work with schools to provide time for students to have just 10 minutes a day to unplug and “learn to be still,” Leal says. She founded a yoga program at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and after the 2018 shooting, she led another yoga session for students.
“I love her so much, and she’s with me every day,” she says. “I’m like, ‘All right B, I got this,’ and I do it for her.”
The Nadelbachs founded Josh’s Benches, and their goal is to put up yellow benches—the color representing finding light in the dark—in parks and schools to not only provide a place to rest, but to let people know about the suicide prevention lifeline. The first bench was erected at Pierson Park, where Josh played as a kid with his sister and then attended summer camp.
“The essence of the story is just because you have a smile on your face, just because you’re functioning and you’re going out and you’re doing everything like any other person would be doing, doesn’t mean that you’re not struggling,” Nadelbach says. “His name is going to be out there. … His name will live on.”