My son Charlie died of suicide.
I’ve avoided typing those words for nearly three years, ever since the terrible day we lost him. It’s not as if it is a secret. He was one of several young people we lost to suicide in our small town over the period of months. This sparked a mental health support vigil, and a new metal health program in our school district. People know.
And yet, when I have to tell people that my 10 year old son died, I say we lost him to an accident.
There’s a stigma around suicide, and talking about it. One of the most shocking revelations around Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex was when Meaghan talked about her suicidal thoughts and ideation due to the harassment and stress she faced. Some mainstream religions still regard suicide as an unforgivable sin. People say someone “committed” suicide, as if it were a criminal act. Saying that you’re suicidal can be seen as attention-seeking or dramatic. Most people don’t live with suicidal thoughts and what causes them, so it is difficult to ever imagine dying that way.
It’s really difficult to imagine a 10 year old having those thoughts and acting on them. As adults, we think of children as innocent and sweet. We often forget that children are still people, and have all the same emotions that we do, just with fewer tools and experience in how to manage them. Being a kid isn’t always easy. They are learning who they are, how they fit into their world, and how to manage some very big emotions, often with a level of behavioral expectations and lack of autonomy an adult would never stand for.
Big emotions can lead to mental health challenges. The CDC reports that 7.1% or 4.4 million U.S. children have diagnosed anxiety, while 3.2% or 1.9 million U.S. children have diagnosed depression—and the rates are rising. Depression and anxiety are often misdiagnosed among children; kids are labeled as troublemakers, lazy or high-strung. Although we still don’t know exactly what causes depression, many don’t believe kids suffer from it—almost as if they don’t think they deserve to suffer from it, because they’re “just kids” and “what do they have to be depressed about?”
Depression and anxiety are serious diseases. During a depressive episode, people can feel worthless, hopeless and sad. They can be fatigued, lose sleep, stop taking enjoyment in their life, self harm and may think about death. This can be triggered by many different things that vary by person—trauma, stress, illness, genetics, etc. The mechanisms that cause depression are still being explored, but it is a very real disease with very real effects. Including, sometimes, suicidal ideation and attempts.
For youth ages 10-24 years, suicide is among the leading causes of death; it’s the second-leading cause of death in the 15-24 age group. According to the CDC:
- Approximately one out of every 15 high school students reports attempting suicide each year.
- One out of every 53 high school students reports having made a suicide attempt that was serious enough to be treated by a doctor or a nurse.
- For each suicide death among young people, there may be as many as 100 to 200 suicide attempts.
Charlie was one of 596 kids aged 10 – 14 in the United States to die from suicide in 2018. He was one of 11 in that age group in Wisconsin.
But he was *my* one. And as much as I want to help destigmatize suicide–because avoiding talking about it often means less chance of getting help—it is hard as a parent to say your baby died because he didn’t want to be here anymore. I am not ashamed of him, but of myself as a parent.
We knew from a young age that Charlie’s brain was wired differently. He was diagnosed with ADHD at age five, on the very young side. He started suffering from anxiety not long after, and depression a few years after that. He hated the way his brain sometimes made him feel, and was very aware of it. He was quite articulate and not afraid to talk about his feelings.
As parents, we did all the “right” things. He saw a therapist. He was treated by a psychiatrist. He took medication. We worked with the school. We watched his diet. We learned new parenting skills to support him. And all of his life, he was surrounded by love—love from his friends, his teachers, his neighbors, and his family. I made it my mission in life for him to know that he was lovable and worthy, and nothing he could do or say would ever, ever change the love we felt for him and that the world was a better place because he was in it. My love was unconditional and endless.
It wasn’t enough.
I will never know why. Was it because we had been limiting his video games? Was it because he was afraid he wasn’t going to get to play with his best friend, after a fight? Was it because of his anti-depressant? Was he finally tired of fighting his own brain and body chemistry? I do know that he had been thinking and talking more about suicide. We talked with both his psychiatrist and therapist about it; they told us they thought he was very low-risk. In hindsight, I was incredibly naive and uneducated about what to really look for.
One sleepless night weeks after he died, I finally uncovered the cleverly buried search history that led him to the YouTube video that showed him exactly “how to effectively hang yourself.” It was sandwiched between searches for “how to draw Thanos” and “Top 10 Minecraft Tips.”
Do I believe that he truly understood what he was doing? What it would mean? No. Do I believe that he meant to do it? Yes.
He was a child that, as the cliche goes, loved life. In the weeks before he died, he was happy. He was excited about the new Pacific Rim movie coming out. He was looking forward to a trip we were going to take. He was making a movie with some of his friends. The day he died he had a perfectly normal day. Yet his depression and anxiety still killed him.
Intellectually, I can understand this. I’ve never been one of those people that had anything but pity and sorrow for parents who lost a child to suicide. I don’t blame them any more than I do a parent who lost a child to cancer. Yet I cannot extend that grace to myself, and I feel guilty and undeserving whenever I accept support and sympathy from others.
I failed in my most important job as a parent—to keep him safe, even from himself. His loss shattered our family; his brother and sister will always have that trauma in their lives.
That’s my shame, my despair. But it’s time to say our truth, Charlie’s truth. It’s time to say the quiet part out loud.
My son Charlie died of suicide. And I miss him every single day.