There was nothing about 14-year-old Connor Bartlett that suggested he was at risk for suicide. Except for the people around him.connor.bartlett/Instagram
As Connor’s father, Eric, wrote in the Northwest Florida Daily News, the high school freshman was active, well-liked, and showed no signs of the usual factors in suicide — such as mental illness, bullying, outside stresses, or depression. And yet, on September 26, Connor killed himself.
Since Connor’s death, his family has struggled to understand why such a happy, well-adjusted teen would end his life. Eric said that his son spoke about social troubles the day before, so that might have been a factor. But without any behavioral changes, there was no way for his family to know how serious things were. As Eric wrote:
Unlike with adults who are more apt to be bothered by health or financial issues, with a teen suicide it is nearly always social issues that are the driver in their mind. There are nearly always other factors or signs that parents become aware of but Connor never did act depressed or even remotely suicidal about anything at any time; he always seemed amazingly sane, mature, and level-headed about his approach to life. He was outgoing and gregarious, caring and kind, happy and fun-loving.
There was, however, one important social consideration that Eric believes was at the heart of Connor’s death — exposure to other teen suicides.
Only a few months before Connor took his own life, he lost a close friend to suicide. And though Connor responded with compassion for the grieving family, his father now wonders whether this was one of the risk factors they missed:
Connor’s main known risk factor was his level of exposure to suicidal behavior. One of his best friends had killed himself three months earlier; this was a significant and intense experience for him but he seemed to handle it well and was very supportive of the parents and siblings; he reacted in a caring and mature way but we know it affected him deeply.
And his friend wasn’t the only recent suicide that Connor knew about. Just days before his death, Connor had been to a special memorial for another student who had taken his own life:
[T]wo school days before he died, he was present for a student remembrance of another freshman that had killed himself two years earlier; it involved a poignant and vivid public display of emotion.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the problem of suicide “clusters” is a recognized phenomenon, though experts cannot yet explain why they occur. In essence, the suicide of someone in a group increases the probability of another suicide.
Dr. Madelyn Gould explained to SAMHSA that “emotional suggestibility” can be a key factor in causing others to mimic suicidal behaviors or closely identify with their feelings:
“If someone in a peer group has attempted suicide or died by suicide, there’s a 3 to 11-fold increase in the odds that a friend will actually attempt suicide.”
It is for that reason that groups such as SAMHSA and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention have produced guidelines for reporting and discussing suicide that strictly warn against sensationalizing or glamorizing the death.
And that’s why Connor’s family has asked that memorials not be organized for him. As his father wrote, they are afraid that the emotional displays at a remembrance service may have the wrong effect on other teens:
That’s because students already vulnerable to suicide may be attracted to the idea of getting recognition or gratification in death.
These types of memorials are common; a normal human response for people grieving a loss. It is not intuitive to know how the psychology could play out and it can seem like the right thing to do; just one more reason that more education is needed.
Now Eric is hoping to spread awareness about suicide and help other parents understand that the risks don’t always seem obvious, and that simply knowing other teens who have committed suicide is a good reason for parents to watch their teens for signs of suicidal thoughts or behavior:
Suicides often happen in clusters and two well-liked teens choosing this path now within three months and coinciding with this remembrance of the last occurrence is providing unusual exposure of our children to suicidal behavior. Any one that knew these kids has this risk factor. We must be vigilant, we must know the signs, and we must know what to do.
Since his son’s death, Eric has had plenty of time to ponder the things he regrets — pressuring Connor about grades, not encouraging him to quit organized sports, not checking through his phone more often, not limiting his access to the tools of suicide. But more than anything else, he just wishes he had more time with his son:
I am so fortunate to have had 14 years with him and I can’t help but to feel that I wasn’t good enough for him and that I failed him when he needed me most. I just know in my heart that God wanted him back; in my moments of complete despair I have felt God telling me this. I can only hope and pray that I’ll see him again someday.
Recently, Eric learned that Connor did say something about contemplating suicide to someone else, though not an adult. Sadly, they did not know about it until after Connor’s death. Eric urges anyone who hears such thoughts to tell someone else and get help, regardless of whether they think it’s a real threat.
Because that might be the one opportunity you have to make a difference. As Eric wrote:
[W]e just didn’t even have a chance to save him.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or behaviors, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.