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 nearly three years ago at age 16, Jason, the son of an insurance executive and a hospital worker, was a promising freshman football player who earned decent grades at the private Christian schools he had attended since 6th grade.
Hendersonville, 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 this 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 Flatt fit in here. 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, now a first-year medical student at the University of Tennessee, Memphis, was always the academic heavyweight in the family. John was the president of the honors society at Davidson Academy, the private K-8 school he and Jason 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 mood.
|Jason Flatt and Jennifer Seay, shown at right in a childhood photo, were longtime friends.|
“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?’” Ms. Moore said.
It was Jason’s artistic predilections that Sharon Bracy, his 7th grade science teacher, remembers. 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 freshman running back lacked in stature—he was 5 feet, 9 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 remembers Jason running 60 yards for a touchdown the year the Cougars were runners-up in the state championships.
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 describe him as an industrious employee.
“He was a good, all-American boy who was willing to work,” Billy Etheridge, the marina’s manager, said recently 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 Flatt drew straws with his brother John that 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.
Mr. 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,” Mr. Flatt said. When he saw his son’s car in the driveway at home, he was relieved.
He walked through the house calling Jason’s name, but there was no reply. Mr. Flatt 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 Mr. Flatt pushed the door open, he literally tripped over his son’s blood-soaked body.
Jason Flatt 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,” Mr. Flatt, 49, said from his office recently. “Why didn’t I know what was happening to my son?”
|In a letter to Jennifer, Jason wrote of future outings the friends could share. Only after his death did she realize how troubled he was about his relationship with his girlfriend.|
As mysterious as suicide is, Jason Flatt’s death is even more incomprehensible to his family and friends because the teenager didn’t fit the traditional profile 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 Flatt’s face 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 federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11.1 per 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 may see few emotional outlets for their pain, may simply need access to a gun and a single traumatic event to trigger a self- destructive impulse.
For Jason Flatt, that catalyst was a girl.
According to Hendersonville police reports, Jason killed himself less than 24 hours after his girlfriend called off a tumultuous, three-month relationship. The two had been planning to drive to Albany, N.Y., together for a rendezvous, the girl told police, but she canceled the plans at the last minute. The girl could not be reached for comment.
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 earlier this school year, Shayne shook his head. “She messed with his mind,” he said.
Coach Martin, sitting in his field 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 up at a picture of the championship 1996 junior-varsity team that shows Jason with a tough-as-a-bulldog stare. “A true athlete’s 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 Flatt felt when a girl broke up with him might not have been so crushing if he—like many other adolescent boys—felt comfortable expressing his feelings in the first place, said Dr. William Pollack, a psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School.
More than 85 percent of completed teenage suicides in the United States are by boys, and nearly all teenage murderers are young men.
Social science studies have shown that boys aren’t more genetically predisposed than girls to be aggressive or violent, but from early childhood, boys are more likely to be taught a “boy code’’ in which they are discouraged from discussing their emotions and are steered instead toward physical outlets, said Dr. Pollack, the author of a new book, Real Boys.
Studies of families with small children have shown that, from infancy, boy babies are often prodded to dry their tears, while baby girls are coddled.
Mike Settle, a coach and Bible-study teacher at Davidson Academy who often traveled with Jason Flatt to out-of-town varsity games, said he sees the effect of those gender roles every day.
“In a country where John Wayne leads by example, guys are reluctant to talk,’' he said. “Girls are open, but guys, when I call them into my office, often just shrug and grunt and turn inward.’'
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, his family and friends say.
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. “He went from an even keel to uncontrolled anger,’' Clark Flatt said.
But those temporary flare-ups were never so profound or noticeable that it warranted professional psychiatric intervention, Mr. Flatt said. To his parents and friends, his moodiness was garden-variety adolescent angst.
Through a controversial method of posthumous diagnosis, a psychiatrist friend of Mr. Flatt’s said he saw indications that Jason could have suffered from manic-depressive disorder. But that psychiatrist and other mental-health professionals say Jason provided too little evidence to make any firm diagnosis.
Looking back, Mr. Martin, the football coach, recalled that Jason’s grades had slipped to C’s in the weeks before his death. And some of Jason’s friends remember offhand remarks in the weeks before his death that he was thinking of quitting football.
“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 on the practice field last fall. “If he’d thought about what he was doing, he wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “He was smarter than that.”
Such impulsivity—whether 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,” said Tom Simon, a suicide expert at the CDC. Teenagers may swap personas as often as they do hairstyles, he said.
That quickness in making decisions is one reason why the suicide rate among adolescents is higher than that of almost any other age group, said Mr. Simon, who is studying 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 153 13- to 34-year-olds in Houston who had survived a suicide attempt from 1992 to 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 their wills and making funeral arrangements.
John Flatt, 23, said he has spent the past two 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 in your head,” he said. “But if we are cognitive enough, we are afraid 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, federal statistics suggest that self-destructive teenagers are more likely than ever to have such lethal means at their disposal.
Federal Bureau of Investigation 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 figure rose to two- thirds. Minors generally acquire weapons in one of three ways: They buy them illegally, borrow them from a relative, or steal from places such as pawnshops. Currently, 51 percent of American households report keeping a gun at home. A vast majority of the minors who use guns to kill themselves or others snatch the weapons from a cabinet or drawer in the house.
“Jason never cared for guns,” Mr. Flatt said, recalling how his son had recoiled when he first showed him the Smith & Wesson that he kept in his closet for protection. Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 his life, he said.
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 his mechanically inclined son dismantled and reassembled, a photo album, a picture of him smiling at a birthday bash, neatly folded letters to friends.
Beyond those keepsakes, Mr. Flatt has sought to preserve Jason’s memory through the foundation 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 less than two years, the Jason Foundation has distributed its curriculum, financed by Mr. Flatt’s insurance business, to schools in 28 states.
“We tell them, ‘Watch your brother and sister,’” Mr. Flatt said. “We aren’t trying to make counselors out of 15-year-olds. We just want them to extend a hand.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Jason Flatt, 1981-1997