Miles Roberts, a fifteen-year-old freshman at Skyline High School, was a fierce competitor, enjoying team sports, especially hockey. But off the ice, he showed another side. His mother, Kristen, remembers his big hugs. Extremely social and caring, Miles thrived on coaching others, helping friends through the emotional trials of adolescence. He enjoyed mentoring his two younger brothers and looked up to his older one.
In middle school he briefly saw a psychologist after identifying himself as depressed, but moving into high school he appeared to be healthy and happy. He seemed to be looking forward to the future, earning his lifeguard certification and charting his schedule for the weeks ahead on the family whiteboard. So it was an incomprehensible shock when he made an attempt on his life on May 28. Miles was pronounced dead a day later, and the family decided to donate his organs. “He would have wanted to help somebody else,” says his father, Jeff.
Looking back in August, his mom, Kristen, says their athletic son was stoic and didn’t want to show his vulnerability. “If somebody was cutting themselves, they are showing a clear sign, and you know what to do,” Jeff says. “He didn’t have cuts on his arm. His cuts were internal.”
Roberts was the third Ann Arbor high school student to die by suicide in little over a year, preceded in March 2016 by Charles Anderson, a fifteen-year-old Community High freshman, and last September by Huron student Laura Burns, also fifteen. Four other Ann Arbor Public School students died last school year from other causes. “Every time we thought things would be OK again, something else would happen,” says Robyn Kimmey Watson, a counselor at Huron. In June, thirteen-year-old Dexter resident Taylor Pretto-Kernahan died by suicide as well.
According to Washtenaw County Public Health, from 2000 to 2009, six youths age fifteen to twenty-four died by suicide in the county. Since 2010, thirty-six have died. The number of youths under eighteen admitted to emergency rooms for suicide attempts and self-harm rose from eighty-three in 2012 to 118 in 2016. Two years ago, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 18 percent of high school students had seriously considered suicide in the previous twelve months.
The AAPS has had suicide prevention programs in place for years, but the recent deaths have teachers and staff considering how to be even more responsive to students with mental health issues. “We don’t wait until there are incidents that occur in order to hold this as a priority,” says superintendent Jeanice Swift. “We are on a full-court press to improve and deepen our work.”
The goal, Swift says, is to make sure all students feel that an adult at school cares about them. “We’re empowering every individual in our organization to keep an eye on kids, to extend that outreach,” she says. She’s looking at expanding the district’s evening workshops for parents on suicide prevention, grief and loss support, and teens and drugs, and hopes to continue partnering with groups like the Neutral Zone to make “wraparound supports” more accessible to students.
“It’s certainly hard not to feel moved to ramp up the efforts,” says Washtenaw County Public Health medical director Jessie Kimbrough Marshall. The county organized a Suicide Death Review Team in 2015, and last year developed recommendations for schools, families, and communities that include improving social support, increasing routine engagement, and implementing evidence-based community and school-based depression prevention interventions.
County epidemiologist Adreanne Waller says that factors such as being bullied, identifying as LGBTQ, or abusing opioids or marijuana make teens more vulnerable to suicide, while those who play on a sports team or can ask their parents for help with a personal problem are less at risk.
Yet playing sports wasn’t enough to save Miles Roberts. His hockey coach, Jake Stripp, rushed to the hospital as Roberts lay unconscious on life support. Sobbing, Stripp told his player that he loved him. The coach says freshman players are usually quieter since they have much to learn, but Miles was “a step beyond outgoing.”
The team gathered a day after Miles passed away. His parents spoke and hugged his fellow players. Jeff, choking back tears at the memory, says they wanted to provide comfort to their oldest boy, Zach, who’s also on the team, and to teammates they had come to view as family. Stripp encouraged players to call or text him if they were struggling, even at 2 a.m. “The gravity we place on kids that high school is the be-all, end-all, and that they have to be great by age seventeen, eighteen–to me, it’s unrealistic,” he says. “It’s taking a toll.”
Since 2009, the U-M Depression Center’s Peer-to-Peer program has taught high-school students about depression-related illnesses, other factors that impact mood, and how to create an effective awareness campaign in their schools. Stephanie Salazar, the center’s outreach and education manager, says the peer counseling program will expand to middle schools this fall. Because the suicides took place among those new to high school, she says, “getting good information and support into the middle schools is critical.”
Robbie Stapleton, a health and wellness teacher who’s been at Community for thirty years, says today’s students are more driven and grade conscious, leading to what she calls “high functioning depression” among many. “The kids are doing everything right,” Stapleton says. “They’re taking Advanced Placement classes. They’re the captains of sports teams. They’re volunteering. They’re looking at colleges early, but they’re not getting enough sleep, and they are falling apart … We have to ask what we are doing as a culture that leaves kids so hopeless.” Students in the school’s Depression Awareness Group give presentations on symptoms of depression and ways to stay emotionally healthy.
At Huron, students can take a Peer Facilitating Class that includes training in red flags for suicide and self-harm. Those selected as “peer lab” counselors then help classmates navigate routine issues like school-related stress or romantic relationships, while referring more serious ones to professional counselors. “We’ve saved quite a few lives through the peer counseling program because students feel comfortable talking to another student,” says Watson. One student dropped an anonymous note under the peer lab door indicating they were contemplating suicide, then left. The students brought the note to their supervisors, who enlisted a team of counselors and administrators that was able to identify the student and get them help.
A Depression Center program called TRAILS trains school mental health professionals to use cognitive behavioral and mindfulness strategies with students contending with depression and anxiety. “School counselors are overwhelmed by tremendous student need,” says the program’s director, Elizabeth Koschmann. Of the more than 400 students in the county who have participated, she says, roughly half were at elevated risk for suicide.
Amy McLoughlin, a counselor at Skyline who took TRAILS training, says she immediately saw results in her groups: “We’re helping them feed and care for their brain and teaching them healthy skills,” she says. But counselors’ responsibilities already range from providing support to homeless students to writing college recommendations. “There is a giant need for mental health,” says McLoughlin, “and we’re all struggling with how to meet the needs.”
At Huron, Watson has a caseload of 298 students. Last school year, she says, she urged the parents of thirteen of them to seek immediate hospital care for their children because of active suicidal thoughts. Other counselors are seeing similar numbers, she says. Watson says more staff focused just on mental health support for students is crucial, a plea seconded by McLoughlin and Stapleton.
“If I had a magic wand, I would love to add more” professional staff, Swift says. But “it’s not something we can think about immediately,” due to budget constraints.
Pioneer High social worker Jonathan Stern says a better approach is to focus on the factors that are fueling the student mental health crisis. Like many mental health experts, he believes that social media and technology can cause anxiety, and sometimes depression, by deluging young people with a stream of information they never have time to process.
Stern says schools need to teach students perseverance, resilience, and how to tolerate tedious tasks. He also believes they need to reexamine everything from the school calendar to the structure of the school day, homework policies, and behavior management and discipline practices to help. “We have to make sure what we do isn’t just about academic outcomes,” he says. “Social and emotional learning should be a part of what we do.”
Stapleton, who teaches a host of wellness practices in her health classes, agrees, and says a focus primarily on intellectual wellness has led to a harmful “imbalance.” With social media so pervasive, and young people communicating in ways that can lead to mental instability, Jeff Roberts believes that mental health should be an integral part of the curriculum starting at young ages.
Swift says the district is “looking at student wellness as a fundamental teaching and learning piece we work on every day.” She points to two June school board decisions, one to adopt a policy to protect the rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming students and the other to delay school start times and let students take more evening and online classes. The first, she says, ensures that “our message in AAPS is one of welcoming and accepting and celebrating all students,” while the second should help address sleep deprivation. “Our goal is any time/any place learning,” she says, “so students can set up a schedule that meets their mental health needs.”
The impact of Miles Roberts’s death can be felt among his many friends. In August, Jarrett Sung and Henry Hescheles, both fifteen, met at Sweetwaters to reminisce about their lifelong friend.
“He had a presence that was upbeat and contagious,” Jarrett says. “It made you happy to be around him.” Jarrett’s mother, Nicole Brittis, remembers how, when Jarrett was being bullied in third grade, Miles stood up for him.
In June, family friend Jennifer Haft coordinated a “Run for Miles” at the Dexter-Ann Arbor Run. Roughly seventy-five runners, including Jarrett, Henry, and their friends, wore T-shirts prominently displaying the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (see box at right).
Miles “just filled the room,” Henry says. He used to carpool to hockey with Miles and his older brother; now it’s just the two of them.
Jarrett felt Miles’ absence again when he visited the Roberts home before the interview. “I miss him every day,” he says.
Community High dean Marci Tuzinsky believes AAPS staffers emerged from last year’s losses stronger than they were before. “We’re building our depth at all levels to be able to reach every kid in every place and educate parents and do more,” she says. “I’m grateful and saddened that I’m as prepared as I am.”
Yet even with all the resources the district provides, Stapleton warns, it is impossible to prevent every future tragedy. There’s always a student who loses hope. She tells desperate young people, “I know you don’t believe me, but you have to trust me that it will get better. Getting them to hang onto that is the best hope.”
Miles’ hockey teammates were back on the ice for summer hockey. “It was really good for families to come around the rink and see everybody in a positive situation,” Stripp says.
Jeff and Kristen Roberts are moving forward and staying strong for their three sons, embarking on a lifetime of new “firsts” without their second-born child. They’ve set up a Miles Roberts Memorial Fund through the Depression Center to fund mental health support initiatives. And they recall fondly their last family vacation with Miles in April in Florida. In his journal, Kristen says, “he wrote about how beautiful it was watching the sun rise and hearing the ocean crash onto the sand.”
But there were riptides during that vacation, signaled by red warning flags on the beach. Jeff says a family friend drew an analogy to the emotional currents that can trap people suffering from depression.
“It feels like Miles got caught in an internal riptide,” Jeff says, swept away by the illusion “that there were no other options for him.”
He and Kristen encourage parents to limit the constant tug of social media and find ways to engage their kids face to face. “Help show your children that life is a precious gift,” Jeff says. “Life is a blessing in its greatest moments and in its most challenging ones. Take the time to make sure they understand that.”
Call (or text) for help
If you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, help is available by phone, by text, or in person:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, confidential emotional support 24/7 by phone (800–273–8255) and online chat (SuicidePreventionLifeline.org).
YourLifeYourVoice.org supports teens in crisis 24/7 by phone (800–448–3000). Text support available 3 p.m.–2 a.m. daily (text VOICE to 20121) and online chat 7 p.m.–1 a.m. weekdays.
Washtenaw County Community Mental Health provides 24/7 support for individuals in crisis: (734) 544–3050
U-M Psychiatric Emergency: (734) 996–4747. Crisis line connects callers to U-M clinicians 24/7.
RU?OK: Hosts a suicide awareness mobile website (www.ruok.help) and a suicide prevention training site (ruok.training).
Corner Health Center: Provides health care, mental health, and supportive services for young people ages twelve through twenty-five, regardless of ability to pay. (734) 484–3600, cornerhealth.org
Ozone House: Offers crisis intervention and ongoing therapy to youth ages ten through twenty and their families for issues related to family conflict; running away; homelessness; and negative experiences in school or the community. 24/7 crisis line: (734) 662–2222. ozonehouse.org
On World Suicide Prevention Day, Sunday, September 10, the U-M is hosting a free screening and discussion of The S Word at the Ross School of Business. Preregister at depressioncenter.org/s-word.