“It’s horrific, horrific,” says Chelsea schools superintendent Julie Helber of the five Chelsea High students who’ve died since 2015, four by suicide and one in a car crash. “It had a huge impact on the school district. We love our students. If they only knew how much they’re loved!”

Chelsea isn’t alone. A Dexter middle school student died by suicide in 2017, and a 2012 Saline High grad committed suicide in 2014 while attending the U-M.

Helber was hired in July 2016 and attended two funerals her first month on the job. Students “were hurt and broken and didn’t understand,” she recalls. “Not just our students are grieving, but our teachers are grieving, our administrators are grieving. And everybody wants answers. Was there anything more we could do? We don’t have an answer.”

“It was very difficult,” echoes Chelsea High principal Michael Kapolka. “You have generations of families here, so any time there is loss, it has ripple effects.”

Dexter superintendent Chris Timmis says the impact of the 2017 suicide “was devastating. You could see it on the adults. You could see it on the kids. You could see it on the families.

“That year was tough,” Timmis says. “We had just let out for the year when she committed suicide. We didn’t ever get time to heal, because we had some other kids that were really struggling.”

Michigan’s suicide rate rose by a third between 1999 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At fourteen per 100,000 people in 2017, we now match the country’s rate. It’s the nation’s highest suicide rate in fifty years and makes suicide the second-­leading cause of death for Americans age ten to thirty-four.

From 2016 through 2018, Washtenaw County health officials classified 117 deaths as suicide. Four out of five victims were white males and three out of four were adults. Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti each had thirty-nine, two-thirds under age twenty-five. Chelsea had six, three of them youths, with another in early 2019. Dexter had four, one of them a youth, and Saline had six, none youths.

Drugs were directly involved in only twelve deaths, and opioids in half of those—though that number could be higher. Since most people who commit suicide leave no note, officials say it’s often impossible to tell if an opioid overdose is ­accident or deliberate.

This year is shaping up to be even worse. From January through May, ­twenty-four county residents killed themselves, five of them youths. “This represents a 167% increase for Jan.–May 2019 compared to Jan.–May 2018,” emails county epidemiologist Adreanne Waller.

In response to the crisis, Chelsea High developed the #WhyYouMatter campaign. It “started with our two art teachers,” says Kapolka. “Two of the students were art students, [and] our two art teachers worked really closely with those students.

“We photographed every single one of our students, our teachers, our support staff, our administrators,” Kapolka continues, “black-and-white photos with a sign indicating why they mattered. We [hung them] throughout the building.”

Dexter took a different path. “We engaged the community in a book study on a book called At What Cost?” says Timmis. “We gave out almost four hundred books between staff and parents.”

Subtitled Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools,. clinical psychologist David Gleason’s book blames rising youth stress and depression on overwork resulting from unrealistic parental expectations. “We brought Dr. Gleason in twice,” Timmis recalls. “We had him in to talk to staff for half a day and then he spoke with our families in the evening. We had 120 or so families show up. That was December. Then we had him come back in mid-January. We had another 120 or so.”

Both school districts connected with the U-M Depression Center’s outreach and education coordinator Lizelle Salazar. “Our peer-to-peer program is teams of students working in their schools to increase awareness, reduce stigma, and promote help seeking on mental health issues,” says Salazar. Chelsea High, Beach Middle School, and Dexter’s Mill Creek Middle School, all have peer-to-peer programs this year.

County experts have some ideas about why the youth suicide rate is rising. Tony Weatherly, head of the RU?OK youth initiative, cites adverse childhood experiences. “People who have these experiences growing up—whether it is sexual or physical or emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, substance abuse, household mental illness, parent separation or divorce, parent incarcerated” are all at risk, he says—either of suicide, or of ending up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system.

Suicide is also contagious: one death can cause suicidal ideation in others even if the victims don’t know one other. “I started RU?OK seven or eight years ago when Milan had three deaths within a two month period,” says Weatherly. “Both of my grandsons were attending the school. We had four deaths in the Lincoln Schools within a year period.”

“Anxiety is a big driver behind this increase,” says county medical director Jessie Kimbrough Marshall. “Anxious groups include racial and ethnic minorities, African American youth, Latino youth and Middle Eastern youth. LGBQT is another. Historically, we’ve primarily seen it in white youth. There’s something systemic going on, society-wise.”

“The homosexual thing with kids being bullied is just terrible,” reports Weatherly. “At one middle school—I won’t say which—I was doing lunch room patrol, and we had to separate the gays from the straights. This was two years ago.”

“Way back when, bullying was calling names, pushing,” adds Kimbrough Marshall. “Then it was more just ignoring kids. Now social media brings in a whole different view. It’s anonymous.”

Dexter superintendent Timmis sees another way social media has changed bullying. “What’s different is that kids could go home before, so it could end. With social media, they’re never unplugged.”

“Something that’s really big is social “Something that’s really big is social comparison,” the U-M’s Salazar says: “who’s getting more likes, who has the most followers, who got into University of Michigan, and who did not. They’re surrounded by this social comparison all the time.”

She means all the time. “I asked students, ‘Has anyone looked at your screen time usage?’ and people are, ‘No, no, no! I don’t want to look! That’s going to scare me!’ Or ‘I looked, and it did scare me, and I never want to look at it again!'”

But someone needs to. According to a 2017 study, girls age thirteen to eighteen who spent seven or more hours on phones daily were twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression as those who spent less than an hour.

Timmis has taken David Gleason’s message to heart. “Culturally we expect kids to do way more than they can do,” he says. “Kids are overscheduled, overworked, and our expectations are unreasonable for where they are developmentally. The frontal lobes where all the executive function is don’t develop until into their twenties.

“We need to understand where the kids are and approach what we do in school and at home and in society [in ways] appropriate for where they really are instead of trying to make them who we want them to be at too early of an age,” he continues. “We have to understand they’re kids. They’re developing, and they’re not going to think like adults [just because] we want them to.”

“The brain is still developing till age twenty-five,” Salazar agrees. But while she allows there’s pressure on kids, she says, “I would like to emphasize resiliency and coping skills. We have a very demanding world, [and knowing] how to deal with those demands is really important.”

The Depression Center has a program for developing coping skills. “Our program works with students who have mild to moderate anxiety. They teach them cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness. They’ve seen people’s depression and anxiety scores go down.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy can help kids redirect thinking. “Your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are all linked,” Salazar explains, “so in order to change your feelings, you have to reframe your thoughts or change your behaviors. Let’s say I didn’t get into University of Michigan. ‘My life is over!’ That’s your thought. But it also could be, ‘I got into MSU, which also is a great university, and I can make the most out of it.'”

She knows that’s true, because “I had the same thought when I was in high school when I got wait-listed from U-M. I thought the world was crumbling. But I went to MSU and did my master’s here and [began] working here right after.”

Chelsea’s most recent youth suicide was in January. “It knocks you down,” says Kapolka wearily. “But we gotta keep pushing the rock up the hill.”

“Each year we’ve been pushing for what more can we do,” says Chelsea superintendent Helber, “and each year we see more lives lost to suicide.”

“We love our kids,” Kapolka concludes. “Suicide is not an option.”

Tragically, for some kids it is.

Who They Were

Samantha “Sam” Gillman, a Chelsea junior, died on June 30, 2016. The seventeen-year-old enjoyed painting and drawing and had a great imagination.

Jared Lee Franklin died on August 11, 2016, two months after graduation from Chelsea High and two months before his eighteenth birthday. Jared was also an artist and a member of the school’s Robotics Team.

Chris Gingell, fifteen, died on February 15, 2018. The Chelsea sophomore played forward on the varsity hockey team and loved the outdoors, fishing, hunting, and playing golf.

Christopher Hassett, also fifteen, died on January 5, 2019. The Chelsea sophomore loved game programming and was a member of Eventually Group, a suicide prevention initiative.

Dexter lost Taylor Sturkie on June 17, 2017. The thirteen-year-old Mill Creek Middle School student volunteered at Humane Society of Huron Valley and advocated for LGBTQ equality, bullying prevention, and youth mental illness.

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 11 a.m–11 p.m. daily (text VOICE to 20121) and online chat 7 p.m.–11 p.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 and prevention website at ruok.help.

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