Alec Murray was 13. He enjoyed camping, fishing and skiing. At home, it was video games, movies and books. Having just completed middle school with "almost straight A's," those grades were going to earn him an iPhone for his upcoming birthday.
Instead, he killed himself on June 8 — the first day of summer break.
Caleb Stenvold was 14. He was a high school freshman in the gifted and talented program. He ran track and played defensive cornerback on his school's football team. Just two months into high school - and four months after Alec's suicide — Caleb killed himself on Oct. 22.
The teenagers, both from Reno, Nevada, didn't know each other. But their families now do, bonded by loss. Their parents are haunted by what they don't understand: why.
They - along with mental health experts, school leaders and researchers — are trying to understand why suicide by children ages 10 to 14 has gone up and up. The suicide rate for that age group almost tripled from 2007 to 2017. Newly released 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 16% increase over the previous year.
While experts point to a host of explanations for the alarming rise, scientific proof about cause isn't conclusive. Some research shows correlations with social media use, cyberbullying and the internet, but studies citing them as a suicide cause are less decisive.
The parents of Caleb and Alec believe impulsivity - very common in teens because their brains aren't fully developed— played a role in their suicides.
Kerri Countess, Caleb's mother, called his suicide "totally unexpected and unimaginable." He was the youngest of her five sons.
Paige Murray said son Alec "showed no signs of mental distress or depression or anxiety."
"We think it was an incredibly impulsive act by a hormonal young man," she said, noting that Alec's stellar grades were posted online the day of his suicide.
Experts suggest that our celebrity culture, where suicidal thoughts are sometimes romanticized or normalized, also plays a role. Alec's parents and Caleb's parents say they need to speak out and warn other families.
When Caleb died, "we wanted everyone to know he died of suicide because if it can happen to my child who was not bullied and did not fit into the reasons people kill themselves, it can happen to anyone," Countess said. "It was an impulsive and immature act."
Amy Kulp, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for the Prevention of Youth Suicide, said youth, in particular, "have very few experiences with dealing with outside stressors" and "tend to be quite impulsive."
"If they have a precipitating event like they are bullied or don't make a team or a friend stops talking to them or something is on social media that they're embarrassed about," she said, "they don't know they will get through it."
Kulp said the rise in suicide among the youngest adolescents has spawned prevention programs targeting elementary and middle schoolers, teaching things like resilience, wellness, self-care and coping behaviors.
Psychologist Mary Alvord said she's been seeing "younger and younger kids" in her practice.
"At ages 6, 7 and 8, I'm now seeing kids with depression," said Alvord, of Rockville, Maryland. "It used to be suicide attempts were more in high school. Now, I'm seeing more completed suicides in middle school and even upper elementary school."
The CDC data illustrate "a steady consistent increase," that "deserves our focus and our attention," said CDC statistician Sally Curtin. "It's linear and has gone up every single year since 2010."
The CDC also monitors suicide attempts and self-inflicted injuries, based on data from emergency rooms. The latest CDC report published Jan. 31 found that from 2001 to 2016 such visits for those 10 and older increased 42%, with "substantial increases occurring in younger age groups."
During the most recent study period, from January 2017 to December 2018, such visits increased more than 25%. For girls ages 10 to 14, data from 2009 to 2015 reflects almost a 20% increase in emergency visits for self-inflicted injury.
Youth today are much more familiar with death, said Jonathan Singer, board president of the nonprofit American Association of Suicidology, citing more than 20 years of mass shootings at schools among reasons.
"Death has become public," he said. "With the internet and social media, when somebody dies, it's all over your newsfeed. Hundreds of millions knew within minutes that Kobe Bryant had died. Death is much more a part of their generation."
Among those aiming to reverse the trend is the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Alexandria, Virginia, which examined the 2017-18 school year and determined that 25 states and the District of Columbia required or encouraged school districts to develop suicide prevention policies.
According to the organization's policy review, author Megan Blanco said only three of 10 states with the highest youth suicide rates (ages 10-24) had a suicide prevention policy. The youth suicide rate for Nevada — where Alec and Caleb lived - is 14.4 deaths per 100,000, which is higher than the national average of 10.6 deaths per 100,000. Nevada was not among the 25 states with a prevention policy, she said.
Alvord, the psychologist, has conducted programs to promote suicide awareness as a joint effort of National PTA and the American Psychological Association. She also helped APA develop online advice for parents to talk to teens about suicide.
Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician and an adolescent medicine specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, co-founded the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.
"It's never a mistake to ask a person about their emotions or whether [someone should] be worried about them," he said.
"People think depression is always seen as sadness," Ginsburg said. "While sadness is a very important clue, adolescent depression can present with irritability, rage or anger, instead of just sadness. Physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, belly pain, dizziness, loss of weight - these are all things that can present as having problems with mood or depression. Parents may miss the signals."
The day after his death, Caleb's parents sought answers on his phone and computer, asking their son Matthew, then 16, to search Caleb's history back to middle school for possible clues. They found one thing: a search for "suicide" the day before Caleb hanged himself.
Nadine Kaslow, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said parents need to realize that kids communicate differently today and any thought of banning social media or phones isn't realistic or wise. Related Stories
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