Special Report: Preventing Teen Suicides

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It’s a growing problem, supercharged by social media, that sometimes kills our kids, especially when parents and others dismiss the warning signs.

We’re talking about the difficult, but important, topic of teens and suicide.  Eyewitness news Anchor Lauren Langer sat down with a mother whose son took his life by suicide and now she’s working to save the lives of other teens.

“My son was the most loving person, the biggest smile you could ever imagine,” said Xavier Whitford of her son, Tommy.  He committed suicide when he was 19 years-old.  Whitford says she was at work when she received a text message from Tommy’s girlfriend.

“Him and his girlfriend apparently got in a fight and all I did was a receive a text from her that said, ‘Tommy’s not answering his phone’ and he had texted [her] that he was going to take his life and he’s not answering.”

Whitford left work to check on him, where Tommy was living with a friend.

“[I] walked into the house and was calling his name and walked into the room and he had hung himself.  When I got there, he was gone and I knew he was gone.  But, your instinct is to try to keep him alive and I was holding him up.  It was horrible.”

Whitford, powerless to save her son, struggled herself in the coming days to survive.  “In those beginning days, it took everything I had just to keep breathing.  I did that through faith.”

Rockford Fire Chief and long-time family friend Derek Bergsten remembers that day too.  He personally responded to the call.  “One thing you don’t anticipate, getting a phone call, especially an individual that young and how much he meant to the entire family,” said Bergsten.  “It was very shocking to everyone there.”

But, what pains Whitfield the most is that before her son passed, he, like many teens fighting depression, reached out on social media.  Whitford said right before her son took his life, he posted “What am I worth? Oh right, nothing. Ha ha.”

It was a post no one took seriously.

“That haunts me forever,” said Whitford.  “Instead of reaching out to me, he posted on Facebook. And although people responded, they had no idea.  It was taken like it wasn’t a serious thing, because kids post that kind of stuff all the time.”

“We get many calls in our 911 center that someone will see something on social [media], that they are worried about their friend.  We do respond to those calls.  We call them ‘welfare checks’,” said Bergsten.

Chief Bergsten says they’ve responded to about six to eight teenaged suicides over the past few years.  From that day forward, Whitford has made it her mission to help others battling depression and teens in the area who struggle to fight suicidal thoughts.

Whitford created a foundation in Tommy’s name and started a program called “Each Breath of Faith.”  She started teen groups in the area, something that didn’t exist for her son, and even started a program at Harlem Middle School for students. 

“I’ve seen it.  I’ve got two 13 year-olds in one of my groups outside of the school, and then within the middle school themselves, and they talk about that.  They think about it because they feel so unhappy or they think that their family’s life might be better without them there.”

Whitford believes social media feeds the problem.

“Teenagers and adults alike look at Facebook and think, ‘Wow, they have this great life, they go on all these vacations, they go on all these trips, they have this great family that’s with them all the time and I don’t.'”

Experts say kids also use social media to validate their depressed feelings and find comfort in numbers by reaching out to other teens who say they also are deeply depressed.  “On social media, it is okay to feel say we’re depressed and it’s a normal thing to say we’re depressed.  But, there’s a very big difference between depression and just being down and sad.”

Whitford has learned there are warning signs a teen is considering suicide and parents need to take their child’s feelings seriously.  “I always say to parents that my biggest mistake was that I just brushed off Tommy’s warning signs and depression as a normal teenage stage and it was more than that.”

If a parent suspects anything is wrong, Whitford says it’s important to ask the teen directly if they are contemplating harming themselves or taking their life.  If so, then get help.  “Sometimes, it’s medication that helps.  Sometimes, it’s counseling.  Sometimes, it’s a combination of both.  Sometimes, it’s just being heard.”

Whitford and Bergsten say communication is the key.  “Anytime you can discuss that openly and give them ways to communicate,” says Bergsten.  “So, that they feel comfortable that it’s not a negative association to talk about how they’re feeling.  If you can save one life, that is the greatest impact of all.”

Whitford and her daughter are marching in Washington, D.C. next month and are talking with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R) on legislation to have mandatory awareness programs in schools for students and staff.

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