Lost Children

By Jessica Portner — May 01, 2001 24 min read
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Each year, hundreds of thousands of U.S. teenagers attempt suicide. The author looks at two who fell to this silent epidemic.

Every year, one in 13 high school students attempts suicide. Half of all high schoolers—or about 6 million kids—say they have “seriously considered” suicide by the time they graduate, a 1997 national survey found. That means in a class of 40 students, three will attempt suicide and 20 more will seriously contemplate it. An estimated 700,000 American high school students try to end it all each year—the equivalent of every student in the Los Angeles public schools.

Which teenagers are most likely to take their own lives? Is it the popular Romeo and Juliet couple who down a lethal concoction of barbiturates and alcohol after their parents bar them from seeing each other? Or is it the quiet, academically driven student, whose parents are embroiled in a messy divorce, who just snaps after failing a test? Or, in the stereotype of the Columbine killers, is it the rich, narcissistic nerd who plots an elaborate and public “escape” as a revenge against the world? The answer is all of the above.

No single group of children is exempt. Suicide does not discriminate by race, class, region, or gender. Upper-class urbanites, poor rural children, and middle-class kids crammed into minivans who become class presidents and get scholarships to Ivy League schools have all been victims of suicide.

Since late in the 20th century, however, particular groups of children have contributed to an unusual surge in the nation’s youth suicide rate. Self-murder among preteens and young adolescents, ages 10 to 14, has doubled since the 1960s. Also, black teenagers in the mid-'90s were more than twice as likely to kill themselves as they were a decade earlier. But white teenagers, particularly boys, tower over their peers in their rates of self-destructiveness.

Boys and girls tend to act very differently when it comes to planning and executing their own deaths. While girls try to kill themselves three times as often as boys do, boys are four times more likely to finish the job. This gender gap reflects the fact that boys tend to employ more lethal means, such as firearms and hanging; girls favor more survivable methods, such as overdosing on pills.

Girls attempt suicide more than boys, experts say, because their act is an effort at communicating their desperation. Boys tend to keep their emotions hidden. “Girls cry out for help, while boys are taught to be tough and never to ‘act like a girl,’ ” says William Pollack, a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myth of Boyhood. As a result, Pollack adds, “Boys are so ashamed of their feelings, they figure they’d be better off dead” than expressing their pain.

Both boys and girls are more vulnerable than adults to thoughts of suicide, experts say, because adolescents often don’t comprehend in a rational sense that death is final. Young people often see suicide as the end of their problems, not their existence.

Kerby Casey Guerra—1985-1999

The day Kerby Casey Guerra killed herself, the 13-year-old wore a perfect mask of happiness. A day earlier, Kerby’s mother, Donna Guerra, had treated her to a manicure at a fashionable Colorado Springs, Colorado, salon, and Kerby seemed elated. The 8th grader was transferring from a school she hated, and things were starting to look up. That evening, March 19, 1999, the Guerras took Kerby’s sister Kristy Hignite out to celebrate her 30th birthday and asked Kerby to baby-sit for her niece and nephew, something the responsible girl had done dozens of times before.

At 9:30 p.m., Kerby’s sister called to check in. Kerby told her the children were fine and that she planned to watch the movie Mulan and go to sleep. But after tucking 5-year-old Elizabeth and 7-year-old Jeremy into their beds upstairs, Kerby ransacked the house to find a key to the cabinet where her sister’s husband, an Army officer stationed in South Korea, kept a Winchester rifle and ammunition. She unplugged the phone, turned the radio on full blast, then placed her mouth over the rifle’s barrel and fired.

When Hignite and her parents returned at 1:15 a.m., after going on to a club after dinner, she was the first to stumble onto the gruesome scene. “Kerby’s face was gone. Her brains were out of her head on the kitchen floor. There was blood everywhere,” Hignite said. “I wanted to pick her up and put her back together,” Kerby’s mother added.

Next to Kerby’s body was a blood-soaked suicide note that read: “I’m sorry I lied. I love you.” In another room, she’d left presents for her niece and nephew—drawings of animals with wings.

“We always thought Kerby was a big, tough girl,” Hignite said. “Really, she was sad and scared inside.”

A year after Kerby’s death, the Guerras’ tidy house, on a quiet street in Colorado Springs, looked like an advertisement for an antiques magazine. It had cuckoo clocks, hand-carved wooden ornaments, and a needlework picture on the wall that read “Happy Home.” But the dozens of portraits of the brown-haired girl that adorned the house were the most prominent decoration.

Kerby’s upstairs bedroom was much as she left it, a porthole into the preoccupations of a girl on the cusp of adolescence. Elaborate porcelain dolls perched on high ledges. On the bookshelves were such classics as Little Women and Jane Eyre. There was a Children’s Illustrated Bible, a book on how to ask about sex, and several about angels. Kerby’s many pets—she had turtles, frogs, and hamsters—had once competed for space with her impressive teddy bear collection.

Kerby’s 27-year-old sister, Stacy Barrington, described her as “proper” compared with most of her peers. “She didn’t drink beer or smoke. She’d get disgusted if someone would even say a curse word,” Barrington said. The Guerras kept strict control over Kerby’s media intake, monitoring her Web surfing and banning all R-rated films.

From the day she arrived at school, friends and family members say, some popular boys teased Kerby about her weight.

After Larry Guerra, a 39-year-old insurance claims adjuster, married Donna, 47, they moved from another part of Colorado Springs with their family (Donna Guerra has three children from a previous marriage) to their current home because they appreciated the wholesomeness of the community. The local newspaper paints a picture of a quiet life, with stories headlined “Clean Sidewalk Reminders” and “Holiday Food Safety Tips.”

But the Guerras were drawn to the area mostly because they had heard the schools were top-notch. The newly constructed Eagleview Middle School, nestled in the salmon-colored foothills of the Rocky Mountains and flanked by affluent homes, is the jewel of School District 20, which encompasses Colorado Springs.

When she started 6th grade, Kerby landed a spot in the band playing clarinet and was enjoying composing poems in English class. Soon, though, school became intolerable. Plump and bespectacled in a school dominated by fashion-conscious students from well-to-do families, Kerby was like a doe in a den of wolves. From the day she arrived, friends and family members said, some popular boys teased Kerby about her weight and taunted her, claiming she bought her clothes at Kmart. Those same students, they added, also hurled ethnic, racial, and sexual slurs at Kerby. “They called her ‘whore’ and ‘Mexican white trash,’ ” said her mother, who is white. Larry Guerra’s family comes from Mexico. Though Kerby was adopted at birth, her biological parents were also Latino and white.

One of Kerby’s classmates, 14-year-old Krysten Gregor, who has a white father and an African American mother, said Kerby often was hassled by other students just for being Krysten’s friend. “They called her ‘nigger lover,’ ” said Krysten, “and ‘bitch.’ ”

Dusty McCullough, another friend, claimed that many times other students held Kerby and kicked her and threw her against lockers. “Since I’m short, they’d make fun of me, too,” said the 14-year-old boy.

To avoid her oppressors, Kerby’s friends said, she would hide in the girls’ restroom and avoid classes where she might run into those students. When Kerby’s sister Stacy complained to Eagleview’s principal, Ross McAskill, about the harassment, he “shrugged it off,” she said. “He told me she needed to get a backbone.” Kerby’s tormentors were never adequately punished, according to the Guerras.

Kerby began to slash her wrists but hid the scars so her parents wouldn’t see. She binged and purged food. Her grades plummeted from B’s to F’s. Then one night in January of 1999, she swallowed a mix of the narcotic Demerol, antibiotics, and Xantac cold medicine—all pinched from her parents’ medicine cabinet. She had written a suicide note, in the tentative handwriting of a child, that read: “Dear Mommy and Daddy, I know my death will shock you, but I had to do it. All my life I’ve been teased and harassed. I just couldn’t stand it anymore.” Rushed to the hospital, her stomach pumped of the toxins, Kerby was admitted that night to a psychiatric facility and put on the antidepressant Paxil.

While their daughter was in the hospital, the Guerras made plans to transfer her to another school. Donna Guerra said that when Kerby left the facility, “she felt better. She had a positive outlook.”

The United States’ suicide rate for the youngest victims is increasing faster than at any time since statisticians began recording the data.

Less than two months later, on March 18, Kerby herself arranged a meeting with the principal. Though she was leaving the school, she wanted to lobby for a support group for other students who were harassed. The meeting didn’t go well, but Kerby hid the depth of her disappointment from her family and friends. The next night, in her final note, she apologized to her parents for lying about feeling OK. Then she shot herself.

In the past, children as young as Kerby very rarely killed themselves. But the United States’ suicide rate for the youngest victims is increasing faster than at any time since statisticians began recording the data. In 1997, 303 children ages 10 to 14 committed suicide, a 120 percent leap since 1980.

Experts point to a number of possible reasons why younger children, some still in elementary school, are now more likely to take their own lives: a larger number of unstable households, an increase in drug use, and a more stressful world for competitive high achievers. Better reporting may also account for a small part of the increase, experts say. But many psychiatrists suggest that the suicide rate is higher mainly because children are far more likely to be depressed than they used to be.

For many years, the prevailing psychiatric belief was that children and adolescents couldn’t experience clinical depression. The profession largely embraced Sigmund Freud’s theory that depression was anger turned inward by the superego and since a child’s unconscious wasn’t fully developed, depression wasn’t possible. The idea was that children weren’t self-reflective enough to stew about their troubles.

In the 21st century, however, it is generally accepted in psychiatric circles that depression doesn’t spare the young. One in five children under age 18 suffers a mood disorder, from obsessive-compulsive disorder to depression to bipolar disorder, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. While children as young as 4 have been diagnosed with depression, it generally appears in those between the ages of 12 and 14, according to Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor Kay Redfield Jamison. “Puberty brings with it a whirlpool of emotions and a steady increase in the prevalence of major psychiatric disorders,” she writes in Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.

A 1999 report on mental health released by the U.S. surgeon general estimates that at least 90 percent of children and adolescents who commit suicide were diagnosed with a mental disorder before their deaths. Research shows that depression is linked to imbalances in the brain’s neurological components and that this faulty chemistry is largely inherited. People with depressive illnesses often lose their will to go to school or work, and their appetite and energy levels decrease for prolonged periods—a condition that is profoundly more devastating than what most people term “the blues.”

In his memoir, Darkness Visible, author William Styron compares his own depression to suffocation: “The despair comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.”

When Kerby Guerra was admitted to the Cleo Wallace Center, she, too, was cocooned in her own misery. The medical records describe her demeanor as alternately tearful and “vegetative.” After a week of evaluation and counseling, she was diagnosed as having multiple depressive symptoms, according to center records.

“She had a mood disorder that required ongoing treatment,” said Kim Shirtleff, a family therapist in private practice who treated Kerby in the emergency room. She was given a prescription of 40 milligrams of Paxil, which is meant to blunt feelings of hopelessness.

But when Kerby walked back into the 1,100-student Eagleview Middle School at the end of January 1999, she felt exposed to the elements again. Joanne Gregor, the mother of Kerby’s friend Krysten, described Eagleview’s atmosphere in Darwinian terms. “In this school, it’s survival of the fittest,” she contended.

“Kids who get harassed so much go one of two ways,” said Kerby’s friend Dusty McCullough. “They want revenge, or they want out.”

Across the country, the chaos churning inside students’ heads is often unlocked by environmental stress, says University of Illinois professor Dorothy Espelage, who is an expert on bullying. Youngsters who are bullied are more likely to commit suicide, she explains. Kerby’s depression and the environment at school were a fatal combination, says Shirtleff, who heard a description of the situation from Kerby and her parents. “She wasn’t able to cope.”

‘My daughter went to people in the school, she went to counselors and teachers, and no one helped.’

Donna Guerra,
Kerby’s mother

In late 1999, the Guerras filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, claiming that Eagleview Middle School had failed to protect Kerby from racial harassment. Racial slurs violated their child’s legal right to a public education in a safe environment, the Guerras argued. Minority students make up about 11 percent of the school’s enrollment.

In their complaint, the Guerras also claim they were denied critical information that could have saved their daughter’s life. A year before Kerby shot herself, she told a counselor she was suicidal, and that information, they contend, was never reported to them. “My daughter went to people in the school, she went to counselors and teachers, and no one helped,” Kerby’s mother said. “We wanted to come forward and say we won’t take this anymore.”

Meanwhile, one of Kerby’s teachers was livid about the way the school, in her view, was being used as a scapegoat for a family’s problems. “I think she was disturbed,” the teacher said about Kerby in an interview. “You are dealing with a hysterical girl trying to get attention.”

And Nanette Anderson, the spokesperson for the 16,900-student school district, said Eagleview Middle School’s environment is far from hostile. “When I walked down the hall at Eagleview,” she said, “I saw middle school behavior, but I didn’t see anything violent.” Though she would not comment on principal McAskill’s specific actions, Anderson said the school’s response to the Guerras’ complaints about the harassment was adequate. “The claims were investigated, and the district found the administration handled the complaints correctly,” she said.

She also disputes the Guerras’ claim that the counselor didn’t inform them of her session with Kerby. “The parents did know about her visit,” Anderson said. Kerby would still be alive, the district spokesperson added, if she hadn’t had access to a gun.

Donna Guerra says she feels physically sick when she thinks about Kerby scavenging for the key to her brother-in-law’s cabinet. “We did everything they told us,” she recalled. “We locked the medicine cabinet. We did just what the doctors said. We just didn’t get that stupid gun out of the house.”

Jason Flatt—1981-1997

Jason Flatt was the last student in Good Pasture High School’s class of 2000 that anyone expected to shoot himself in the head. When he killed himself in 1997 at age 16, Jason, the son of an insurance executive and a hospital worker, was a promising football player who earned decent grades at the private Christian schools he had attended since 6th grade.

Hendersonville, Tennessee, the suburb of Nashville where Jason grew up, is a Capra-esque community of 36,000 where most teenagers would sooner go to church youth groups than raves and where parents make time in their loaded professional schedules to help their children decorate crepe-paper floats for the homecoming parade. The only signs of bustle in the languid town are the ubiquitous chocolate-colored tour buses loading up local country bands for road trips or ushering tourists to the Grand Ole Opry.

Jason fit in. When he was younger, the gregarious boy with a sly grin was never without a companion. “Other kids wanted to be on his team,” said Beverly Moore, his 7th grade English teacher.

Jason’s older brother, John, who eventually went to medical school at the University of Tennessee, Memphis, was always the academic heavyweight in the family. He was president of the honor society at Davidson Academy, the private K-8 school he and Jason had attended, and he graduated in the top of his class at Good Pasture. Jason was a solid B student throughout school, but comparisons to his brother never seemed to dull his playful mood. “Jason was an intelligent, fine student. But it was like, ‘Why worry about an A when you can get a B and have a lot of fun?’ ” Moore said.

Jason didn’t fit the traditional profiles of the alienated loner with a mental illness or the low-achieving student with a drug problem.

It was Jason’s artistic predilections that Sharon Bracy, his 7th grade science teacher, remembered. At age 11, Jason would neatly arrange specimens in a scrapbook after class outings to collect dandelions, chickweed, and mint. While other students scribbled in cell biology class, Jason took his time sketching detailed pictures of amoebas and paramecia.

When Jason went on to Good Pasture for high school, he quickly became a fierce competitor on the football team. What the running back lacked in stature—he was five-feet-nine-inches and weighed 174 pounds in a field of bulky giants—he made up in heart. “He wasn’t big, but he was tough and smart and had good speed,” said coach David Martin, who remembered Jason sprinting 60 yards for a touchdown the year the Cougars were runners-up in the state championship.

Off the field, Jason eschewed drugs and alcohol for wholesome amusements such as roller coaster rides and water sports. At Anchor High Marina, where he worked during the summer pumping gas for the phalanx of motorboats that buzzed along Old Hickory Lake, his bosses described him as an industrious employee.

“He was a good, all-American boy who was willing to work,” Billy Etheridge, the marina’s manager, said as he toiled over the engine of a speedboat under the shade of a maple tree. “If I told him to empty Old Hickory Lake, Jason would come down and start pumping the water.”

“Jason was one of the most personable, happy, cheerful kids I saw in my life,” said Art Merridink, the principal of Davidson Academy.

On July 16, 1997, that wasn’t the case. Jason drew straws with his brother, John, in the morning over who would pump gas at the marina that sticky midsummer day. The younger brother begged off, saying he wanted to take a spin with a friend on the family’s boat, the Sea Doo. Later that afternoon, another friend called Jason’s father at his office to tell him that Jason had canceled the outing and seemed angry about something. Clark Flatt paged his son repeatedly and became concerned when the conscientious boy didn’t respond.

Flatt drove all over town trying to spot his son’s car. “I wanted to find him; I thought we could get a Coca-Cola and talk about what’s going on,” he said. When he saw his son’s car in the driveway at home, he was relieved.

Flatt walked through the house calling Jason’s name, but there was no reply. He recalls that their usually affectionate dog, Holly, was strangely huddled in a corner and that a bright light was shining in Jason’s bedroom. When he pushed the door open, he literally tripped over his son’s blood-soaked body. Jason was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

A stainless steel .38 caliber pistol lay on the floor.

“It never crossed my mind that [Jason] would hurt himself,” Flatt said from his office in 1999. “Why didn’t I know what was happening to my son?”

As mysterious as suicide is, Jason’s death is even more incomprehensible to his family and friends because the teenager didn’t fit the traditional profiles of the alienated loner with a serious mental illness or the low-achieving student with a drug problem.

But in the cold statistical calculus of age and race and gender, Jason’s is the face of teenage suicide. White males in their late teens have the highest youth suicide rate of either gender or any racial group. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 16 out of every 100,000 15- to 19-year-old white males committed suicide in 1997.

What Jason’s story reveals is a frightening truth: Seemingly well-adjusted teenagers, particularly boys who see few emotional outlets for their pain, may need only access to a gun and a single traumatic event to give in to a self- destructive impulse.

For Jason Flatt the catalyst was a girl. According to Hendersonville police reports, Jason killed himself less than 24 hours after his girlfriend ended a tumultuous three-month relationship. The two had been planning to drive to Albany, New York, the girl told police, but she canceled the plans at the last minute. Shayne Nolan, one of Jason’s best friends and football buddies, maintained that the girl had been spreading false stories about the couple. On the practice field at Good Pasture High, during a break between plays, Shayne shook his head. “She messed with his mind,” he said.

Coach Martin, sitting in an office papered with photos of the Cougars’ winning teams, used a sports analogy to explain the tragedy. “Jason had a competitive spirit, and if you challenged him he was going to respond,” he said, looking at a picture of the championship 1996 junior varsity team that shows Jason with a tough-as-a-bulldog stare. “True athletes’ will to win is so great that they don’t deal well with situations where they can’t win. In this situation [with his girlfriend], maybe he felt he just couldn’t win.”

The sense of loss that Jason felt when a girl broke up with him was so crushing probably because he—like many other adolescent boys—felt uncomfortable expressing his feelings in the first place, says Harvard psychiatrist William Pollack. Studies have shown that boys aren’t more genetically predisposed than girls to be aggressive or violent, but from early childhood, many are taught a “boy code” that discourages them from discussing their emotions and steers them instead toward physical outlets, Pollack adds.

Mike Settle, a coach and Bible-study teacher at Davidson Academy who often traveled with Jason to out-of-town games, said he sees the effect of gender roles every day. “In a country where John Wayne leads by example, guys are reluctant to talk,” he explained. “Girls are open, but guys, when I call them into my office, often just shrug and grunt and turn inward.”

The sense of loss Jason felt when a girl broke up with him was so crushing probably because he—like many adolescent boys—felt uncomfortable expressing his feelings in the first place, says Harvard pyschiatrist William Pollack.

While Jason assumed a strong-guy stance and often hid behind a happy-go-lucky mask, the teenager’s ebullient demeanor was occasionally punctuated by rage, according to family and friends. Less than a year before his death, for example, Jason got “shaking angry” when he was told he couldn’t borrow the car, his father said, adding, “He went from an even keel to uncontrolled anger.”

But those temporary flare-ups were never so profound or noticeable that they warranted professional psychiatric intervention. To his parents and friends, Jason’s moodiness was garden-variety adolescent angst.

Through a controversial method of posthumous diagnosis, a psychiatrist friend of Clark Flatt’s said he saw indications that Jason could have suffered from bipolar disorder. But that psychiatrist and other mental health professionals say Jason provided too little evidence to make any firm diagnosis.

Looking back, Coach Martin recalled that Jason’s grades had slipped to C’s in the weeks before his death. And some of Jason’s friends remember that he made offhand remarks about quitting football during the same time. “He was losing interest all at once,” his father said.

Still, Matt Hart, Jason’s best friend and the quarterback of the Cougars football team, doubts that he had been actively planning to end his own life. He left no note, no written declaration, Matt said, after football practice in the fall of 1999. “If he’d thought about what he was doing, he wouldn’t have done it. He was smarter than that.”

Such impulsivity—self-destructive or not—is a basic trait of many adolescents. “In general, in the developmental stage, kids are trying lifestyles on constantly, so there is greater risk-taking,” says Centers for Disease Control researcher Tom Simon. Teenagers may switch personas as often as they do hairstyles. That quickness in making decisions is one reason why the suicide rate among adolescents is higher than that of almost any other age group, says Simon, who has studied the extent of impulsivity in suicidal teenagers.

Preliminary results from the study found that 50 percent of suicide survivors said they had been thinking of suicide for less than 24 hours—or, in many cases, a matter of minutes—before they made an attempt. In a separate CDC- financed study, researchers interviewed more than 150 13- to 34-year-olds in Houston who had survived a suicide attempt between 1992 and 1995. The study found that for one-quarter of the group, less than five minutes had passed between the time they decided to commit suicide and the time they swallowed the pills, slit their wrists, or shot themselves. Older suicide survivors, in contrast, often said they had spent months planning their deaths, sometimes writing wills and making funeral arrangements.

John Flatt said he has spent the past few years wondering what prompted his younger brother—and not him—to take that fatal step. “A lot of us have been to the point where suicide pops into your head,” he explained. “But if we are cognitive enough, we are frightened by our thoughts of killing ourselves, and there’s a trigger that scares you for even thinking of ending your life. For Jason, that check mechanism didn’t work.”

Still, Jason might not have succeeded in acting on his impulse if he hadn’t picked up his father’s gun. Though firearms have always been present in many American households, statistics from FBI reports show that 100 million guns have come into circulation in the United States in the past two decades. In 1970, guns were used by fewer than half of all suicide victims ages 15 to 24; by 1990 the proportion had risen to two-thirds. Currently, 51 percent of American households report keeping a gun at home. The vast majority of the minors who use guns to kill themselves or others snatch the weapons from a cabinet or drawer in the house.

In 1970, guns were used by fewer than half of all suicide victims ages 15 to 24; by 1990 the proportion had risen to two-thirds.

“Jason never cared for guns,” Clark Flatt said, recalling how his son had recoiled when he first showed him the Smith & Wesson that he kept in his closet for protection. Flatt said Jason had never even cocked the trigger of a gun before he turned one on himself. “I had it in my bedroom, always loaded in case of burglary,” Flatt, who is a now a staunch advocate of trigger locks, said of the pistol his son used. An $8 safety device could have saved Jason’s life, he added.

In their new brick house across town, with a modest, manicured lawn and a tidy ring of pink flowers, Clark and Connie Flatt keep their memories of Jason in a box: a phone their mechanically inclined son dismantled and reassembled, a photo album, a picture of him smiling at a birthday bash, neatly folded letters to his friends.

Beyond these keepsakes, Flatt has sought to preserve Jason’s memory through an organization he started months after his son’s death. The Jason Foundation teaches young people through its suicide-prevention curriculum to speak up when a friend even fantasizes about ending it all. In 70 percent of all teenage suicides, another teenager knew about the victim’s intentions beforehand, according to foundation literature.

In its first two years, the Jason Foundation distributed its curriculum, financed by Clark Flatt’s insurance business, to schools in 28 states. “We tell them, ‘Watch your brother and sister,’ ” Flatt said. “We aren’t trying to make counselors out of 15-year-olds. We just want them to extend a hand.”


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