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By Tia O'Brien, Photographs by Eros Hoagland | Photo: SF Magazine | November 18, 2008
Our recent story about teen suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge has generated a sometimes heated debate. In the last four years, 16 young people have climbed over the rail and jumped. These kids weren’t crazy. They were in the throes of painful—and impulsive—adolescence. Then, suddenly, they were gone.
In the 11 months since Casey Brooks killed herself, I’ve spent a lot of time on her Facebook remembrance page, reading the comments from grieving kids and looking at the pictures. There are hundreds of photos by now, and though I never knew Casey, the images are eerily familiar. I have snapped many of these scenes myself: same backdrops, same celebrations, same proud parents beaming from the sidelines, determined to give their child the best of everything, especially themselves. Blond, hazel-eyed Casey toddling on plump baby legs at Rodeo Beach, grinning ear to ear. Kindergarten Casey and her best friend, Roxanne Mitchell, posing with a Nutcracker fairy. Twelve-year-old Casey and a gaggle of girls around a homemade birthday cake that’s a little lopsided, like the ones I bake for my own teenage daughter. High school Casey, horsing around with her friends at home in Tiburon and with her parents in Big Sur. The last family picture, striking in its ordinariness—Casey and her mom and dad by the Christmas tree, just five weeks before her death.
But the images I find most arresting are the ones of Casey by the Golden Gate Bridge. In the earlier snapshot, she’s six or seven. It’s a shimmering San Francisco day, and she squints into the camera, dressed in a red T-shirt that makes her look like a piece of candy. In the more recent one, from the summer of 2007, she is 17, her hair dyed dark brown and shaped into a shag. Her posture, a little slouched, suggests a teenager’s insecurity and tentativeness. She’s facing the bridge, away from the camera, so you can’t tell what she is thinking.
No one would deny that Casey, like most kids, had her difficult moments. But on that perfect blue afternoon, six months before her death, she seemed to have turned the corner. “In the year before her suicide, she was the happiest I’d ever seen her,” says Max Buck, who took the photo of his friend with the bridge in the distance. “She’d become more comfortable with herself. She was ecstatic about getting into Bennington”—her first-choice college. Had Casey ever talked about suicide? Max nods yes—but, he adds, only in a casual, theoretical way. A lot of kids they knew talked about suicide, just as they talked about sex or drugs or getting drunk or whether Camels are better than Lucky Strikes. As Max remembers it, the subject came up as he and Casey were driving over the Golden Gate the same summer he took the photo. “We agreed the only way it would ever happen was on the bridge,” Max says. Playing out the hypothetical, he asked, “Which side would you pick?” Casey said the side facing the city.
Roxanne recalls having a similar conversation with Casey at the end of last Christmas break. A few weeks later—January 29, 2008—Casey woke at 5 a.m., got dressed, and grabbed her cigarettes and the keys to the family’s red Saab. Ninety minutes later, she was on the bridge’s pedestrian path.
The weather was raw and cold, nothing like it was in Max’s photo. A security camera captured a girl dressed like a jogger climbing easily over the four-foot-high rail overlooking San Francisco. She paused for 10 seconds, balancing on the edge, with the icy black bay crashing 220 feet below.
“She was all by herself. I just wonder what she was thinking. ‘At last it’s over, the pain is over’?” ponders John Brooks, her father. Her mom, Erika, answers with her own question: “Maybe she was thinking, ‘I wonder if I can do this’?”
At 6:40 a.m., Casey jumped, hitting the water so fast—at 75 miles per hour—that it was like crashing into cement. The impact crushes bones and rips apart internal organs, a horrifically painful way to die. Her body has never been found.
Casey Brooks, photographed by her longtime friend Max Buck in the summer of 2007, about six months before her suicide. The picture at left is on her Facebook rememberance page; the one at right is part of a montage that hangs in her parents’ house in Tiburon.
I heard the news from my daughter, Kaley, when I picked her up from school that afternoon. “This is the fourth suicide since I’ve been in high school,” she said angrily as she climbed into the car. “There is something wrong with our society that this keeps happening.”
Four? Had it really been that many?
Suicides almost never make the news anymore. Copycat deaths are a serious concern when it comes to the Golden Gate Bridge, a magnet for the troubled and rash that has seen upwards of 1,500 suicides (some say it’s closer to 2,000) since its completion in 1937—more than any other structure in the world. In the mid-1990s, as the number of known deaths approached 1,000, public-health officials begged local media to stop reporting on those who had jumped. Now the death toll is released just once a year. Kids, however, have their own news service—the Internet. Word of Casey’s suicide spread by instant and text messages as fast as their fingers could type. Within a day, her friends had created the Facebook page to pour out their sadness and disbelief.
I didn’t go to school with Casey, or anything, but I spoke to her online. A lot. Like, every day a lot. I feel horrible about this. I knew she was stressing about things but I didn’t think she was—this bad. And she didn’t come online for 6 days...of course SOMETHING was up.
Over the next few weeks, I returned again and again to the posts, drawn by the many connections that made Casey’s death feel personal. She had been 17, like my daughter. A high school senior who’d just gotten into a top-notch college, like my daughter. Our families lived just a few miles apart, and my daughter and Casey would have attended the same high school if Kaley hadn’t opted for a private school in San Francisco. The two girls hadn’t hung out together, but they’d had many mutual friends—and those friends were devastated. Kids I’d known since kindergarten were writing to Casey as if she’d reply, confessing their secrets and sorrows, how they’d failed her as a friend, how they wished she could come back.
I saw you crying a week or so ago, and I really wanted to stop and see if you were alright; but I didn’t; I just slowly drove by. I wish to god I could go back to that moment and do it over again, I would give almost anything to do so. Even if you didn’t want to talk, and you told me to go away, because at least I could say I tried. I’m so sorry Casey.
Even for the mother of a teenager, the posts were revealing—and sobering. My own daughter had just been through the college admissions ordeal. Sometimes it had seemed like those tumultuous months would never end. It had been the same for all her friends—the deadlines, the tests, and the competitiveness would have been hard enough without being magnified by rampaging hormones and the adolescent tendency to blow even the smallest problems out of proportion. When it all became too overwhelming, Kaley would announce—loudly—that she’d had enough. As infuriating as these sit-down strikes seemed at the time, looking back, I realize they were incredibly healthy. She understood her limits. But it was plain from the Facebook posts that many of her peers were suffering.
Kentfield psychologist Madeline Levine knows this territory well. Her 2006 bestseller, The Price of Privilege, is based on 20 years of treating affluent Marin teenagers like Casey—kids riddled with anxiety, depression, addictions, eating disorders, and assorted other self-destructive behaviors. The book’s subhead says it all: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.
“Affluent teens have higher levels of depression and anxiety than other adolescents,” Levine notes, and she worries that this is contributing to an increase in the number of young people who kill themselves. Indeed, suicide, the third leading cause of death in the United States among young people aged 15 to 24 (after car crashes and homicides), is on the rise for the first time in a decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though the rate is highest among white males aged 15 to 19, the biggest increase in the most recent figure was among 10- to 14-year-old girls.
“Adolescents are questioning their own identity and the meaning of life,” says Lynn Ponton, a professor of clinical psychiatry at UCSF and an expert on adolescent risk taking. “Death comes up as a natural part of this process.” In another CDC survey of high school students, 17 percent said they were “seriously considering” suicide, 13 percent claimed they had created a plan for it, and 8 percent said they’d tried to kill themselves in the previous 12 months.
The statistics on local teen suicides are consistent with national trends, but one number, largely overlooked, is unique to the Bay Area. By my count, piecing together statistics from the Marin County Coroner’s Office and other sources, at least 16 young people aged 14 to 24 have jumped to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge since January 2004. Out of 119 known suicides during that period, young people made up a chilling 13 percent.
These figures have weighed on me as I’ve followed the debate on a suicide barrier for the bridge. Mental-health experts have been lobbying for a barrier for seven decades. Yet only this past October, after several years of controversy, stoked most recently by the 2006 documentary The Bridge, did the Golden Gate Bridge board of directors finally approve erecting a net. At this point, the vote remains little more than a political gesture; at best, it will be another three or four years before a net goes up, assuming the board can secure the $40 million to $50 million it needs. Meanwhile, in a poll of Bay Area residents conducted by the board just before the vote, half of 4,100 respondents said a barrier isn’t necessary. People who choose to leap are determined to end their lives, opponents argue; if they’re stopped by a barrier, they’ll just find another way.
This is based on some stereotypes: that typical jumpers are mentally ill people in their 30s or 40s, often from outside the Bay Area, with a history of attempts; and that suicides on the iconic span are carefully planned. But studies show that, even when seriously depressed, many people who jump do so impulsively, in the midst of an emotional storm, and this is especially true of teenagers. What’s more, kids this age are notoriously difficult to read—much harder than adults—as any parent can attest.
Of course, rarely does teenage impetuousness end in a suicide attempt. But it’s never been harder to be a teenager, especially in the pressure-cooker Bay Area neighborhoods Levine describes. And the Golden Gate Bridge, just down the road, can too easily become the gun our children are prohibited from buying, the pills they haven’t had time to hoard.
A memorial to Casey on Baker Beach in October. Her tell-it-like-it-is style and compassionate heart made her the rock in a circle of friends that stayed close, even after they all scattered to different schools. Months after her death, friends still send her text messages and leave notes on her Facebook page.
Five months after their daughter’s death, and a couple of weeks after what would have been her 18th birthday, I sit with John and Erika Brooks on their sunny patio in Tiburon, talking about the worst day of their lives. Casey’s presence is everywhere in the comfortable ranch house. Her dad, a banker in his 50s, greets me in a Bennington sweatshirt. His daughter’s acceptance letter—early decision—is still posted proudly on the refrigerator. Her mom has Casey’s iPhone in her pocket, and while we’re talking it pings with a text message from one of Casey’s friends—an emoticon of a crying face. In the hallway, I linger over a montage of photos snapped by her friend Max the same afternoon he took the picture in front of the bridge. Casey is sitting in the backseat of a convertible, the wind whipping her hair. One moment she is bold, laughing into the camera; the next she’s hiding behind her phone, peeking out with a shy smile.
John is tall and speaks in a controlled tone that flares when we start discussing whether a suicide barrier could have saved his child. In the coming months, he would channel that anger into lobbying members of the bridge board and the public. Erika, in a tracksuit, is calm in a distracted way; her shoulder-length hair is casually brushed, as though she has more important things on her mind. Both are strikingly poised, belying the exhaustion imprinted on their faces. They’ve told the story so many times that they no longer dissolve into tears as they describe how, in just 48 hours, they went from having a heated argument with their headstrong teenager to being a couple who had lost their only child.
One of the most awful things about a suicide is the mystery of it—the endless days and nights spent trying to figure out what happened, what signs everyone somehow missed. When the Brookses replay the tape of Casey’s life, trying to make sense of it, they always start with her adoption from a Polish orphanage at the age of 14 months. She was born prematurely—just 3 pounds, 1 ounce—along with a twin sister who died at birth. Erika and John never told Casey about her twin—they were waiting until she was old enough to handle the news. But they believe those early months of neglect and loss had a profound effect on their daughter’s emotional health. When they arrived at the state-run orphanage in 1991, they found a sick, distraught toddler who had been left alone in her crib most of her life. Developmentally, she resembled a six-month-old. “She was crying and rocking herself, to soothe herself,” Erika says. Figuring out how to comfort herself would always be Casey’s greatest challenge.
With her new parents’ encouragement, Casey made remarkable progress. By the trip home, five weeks later, “she was walking, holding on to my fingers on the plane,” Erika recalls with a smile. As she grew, Casey could be a moody kid, given to dramatic outbursts when things didn’t go her way. But the Brookses say that 90 percent of the time, their daughter seemed perfectly normal—and happy. They describe a funny, sassy kid with a wicked sense of humor, a contagious laugh, and lofty dreams of saving the planet. Her tell-it-like-it-is style could tick people off, but that bluntness and compassionate heart also made her the rock in a circle of friends that stayed close, even after they all scattered to different schools. She competed at soccer and lacrosse and attended theater camp; John enjoyed nothing more than watching 60 Minutes with his daughter or laughing with her at Dr. Phil. Yet the Brookses also noticed how Casey hugged her feelings to herself. At 17, Erika says, her daughter had never been kissed or had a boyfriend. She wasn’t into that stuff, she told her mom.
By high school, she was clearly struggling. Not academically—her economics and history teacher, Paul Ippolito, describes her as a deep thinker, a caring human being, and one of the best writers he’d ever taught. “She thought about a lot of things that most high school kids don’t,” Ippolito says. “Casey didn’t see her own talents.”
It was the school itself—highly ranked Redwood High—that made her miserable. She hated her schedule, packed with high-pressure AP classes. She was hard on herself, a perfectionist who’d tear up an almost completed paper and start over if she didn’t think it was good enough. She despised what she saw as the superficiality of the place: The girls there could be as competitive about coordinating designer brands as they were about earning straight A’s, she complained. Meanwhile, her best friends were at private schools or had opted for Tamiscal High’s mellower independent-study program. “We tried to get her to switch to Tamiscal,” recalls Emily Lam, a grade school pal. “I said I’d back it up,” John adds, “but she didn’t follow through.” In the end, like so many kids in her supercharged world, Casey was fixated on her own expectations for her future. At Tamiscal, it was harder to piece together the types of courses she needed to get into a place like Bennington. She stayed put.
The privileged perfection of that world was itself a source of alienation and, at times, guilt. Instead of growing up on a Polish farm or in an orphanage, Casey had been whisked away to one of the wealthiest, most spectacularly beautiful places on Earth and provided every opportunity anyone could imagine. It was surreal. Friends recall her asking, “Why do I deserve to live here?” Casey’s struggle to define herself was reflected in a poem she wrote for English class, “Don’t Stereotype Me.”
Just because I live in Tiburon,
I’m not a billionaire,
I’m not conceited,
I don’t gossip,
And I’m not stuckup….
…Just because I live in Tiburon,
Why should it matter anyway?
Why do you judge me? You don’t know who I am.
Yet for all the yearning evident in those lines, Casey found it excruciatingly difficult to open up to the people closest to her. When she was confronted with normal problems and conflict, her emotions hit so hard that she’d deteriorate into prolonged crying jags—a teenage version of the stormy tantrums of childhood. The Brookses tried to get help, taking her to four different therapists starting when she was in middle school. One prescribed medication; another rejected meds because of side effects that could trigger suicidal thoughts; a third suggested treating her with vitamins and amino acids. In each case, after a few sessions, Casey gave up. One therapist speculated that she had an attachment disorder, often seen in adoptees from abroad, particularly from Eastern Europe, which makes it difficult for children to form emotional bonds or learn to trust. “She didn’t like to be touched or hugged or have her hair touched,” her mom recalls. In eighth grade, Roxanne was so worried about Casey that she took her to a depression clinic without telling the Brookses, but once again, Casey resisted. “All that prying into that secret side of her was too much,” Erika says. But none of the professionals believed Casey was a risk to herself, so the Brookses didn’t press her.
Casey did realize that she needed help, though—and she found it online. She was most comfortable communicating by text and instant messaging, and it wasn’t unusual for her to spend hours every night chatting with friends like Roxanne, who was in prep school back east. Two or three years ago, she also sought support on a message board for kids with emotional problems. “A lot of what we talked about was just ordinary stuff,” says Ruth Waxman, a Michigan student who met Casey on the site and was in touch with her almost daily for a couple of years. “But she also talked about depression a lot, and other things.”
For whatever reason, Casey’s friends agree that by her senior year, she seemed much improved—calmer and more confident. The weeks after her acceptance to Bennington should have been a breeze. Yet as 2008 dawned, Casey was in turmoil again. Staggering under an academic load that included three AP classes, she was utterly worn out. She tried to drop chemistry, to reduce her schedule to a more manageable six periods a day, only to discover that she needed the course to qualify for an AP environmental science class. “She was in despair over that,” Erika says.
Casey was also broke. Earlier in the month, her parents had been so upset by her disrespectful tone during an argument that they had taken away her car privileges and cut off her allowance. She tried to get her old job at Williams-Sonoma back, but was told they weren’t hiring. Erika tried to console her. “I offered to help her get a job, but she said, ‘No, I don’t need any help.’”
On the final weekend in January, their battle over the issue of respect flared again. The next morning, John apologized in a note. “I said, ‘I’m sorry I lost my temper. Love, Dad.’” His face knots up in misery at the memory.
Nothing is more normal than a teenager fighting with her parents. But for Casey, these blowups were adding to her mounting despair. She was sinking fast down a black hole. On Monday, she wrote to her friends on the message board, confessing that she was having suicidal thoughts. On Sunday night, she’d driven to the Golden Gate Bridge. The only thing that had stopped her from jumping were the pedestrian gates, which are locked at night.
I had a really, really bad scare last night, in reality it was so close between life and death and at least right now, I’m still not sure if I made the right decision. I’m just so tired, tired of life and tired of everything in it. I hope never, ever even think of doing, or at least almost doing, such a thing again :| :| :|
Marcela Xavier, a 19-year-old Brazilian student, saw Casey’s posts and tried to reassure her friend that her problems would ease. “What I interpreted was that she didn’t want to jump, but she didn’t see [any] other way out.”
Back in Tiburon, John and Erika had no idea their daughter had considered killing herself. Erika thought Casey was just sulking. She tried several times to smooth things over. “I came back and said, ‘I’m sorry I put it that way.’ And I came back again and said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
But Casey wasn’t able to find comfort in her mother’s words. She spent much of Monday night doing her homework and complaining to Max, Roxanne, and others about her workload, but not in a way that raised any alarms. Casey’s last exchange was with Maryse Balmain, another old friend, soon after midnight. Maryse says Casey seemed happier and more expressive than usual and brought up something they often debated: reincarnation. Maryse recalls Casey writing, “I think if I was to be reincarnated as anything in my next life it would probably be really shitty, because I’ve been so lucky in this life.”
Sometime after that text, Casey scrubbed her computer and set her alarm. When it rang, her head must have brushed past the words on a Trainspotting poster hanging just above her pillow. In bold, five-inch-high letters, it read, “Choose Life.”
At 6:30 a.m., John Brooks went to his daughter’s room and discovered a neatly made bed. Casey was gone. His heart pounding, he searched the house. The car was also gone. Back in her room, he found a terse note on her desk: “The Saab is parked in the parking lot of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m sorry.” By the time bridge police were alerted, it was too late.
Maryse Balmain (left), shown with Jessica Tai, another friend of Casey’s, was the last person to communicate with her. Hours before her death, they discussed a frequent topic of debate: reincarnation. Maryse recalls Casey’s words: “I think if I was to be reincarnated as anything in my next life it would probably be really shitty, because I’ve been so lucky in this life.”
When a young person’s body is pulled from the bay, it’s almost always Marin County coroner Ken Holmes’s team that conducts the autopsy on what’s left of someone’s child. A 33-year veteran of his office, Holmes often plays the role of confessor to stunned families in search of answers. He’s not surprised when I tell him that Casey hadn’t exhibited the classic signs of being at risk for suicide, such as a sudden drop in academic performance or problems with friends. As we sit in his office, poring over several years’ worth of police reports about young suicides, it appears that only a few suffered from long-standing, serious depression or other mood disorders. Many were instead caught in what seemed to be a temporary tailspin—like a 17-year-old from Redwood City with strong grades and no history of wanting to hurt himself. According to the police report, he’d had an argument that morning about going to school.
He called a friend from a cell phone and said, “Give away my property.” The friend called back a few minutes later, and a man answered and said, “I just found this ringing on the Golden Gate Bridge.” “These young people didn’t have the life experience to get through crises,” Holmes says. “Smaller crises to you or me would be monumental to a 15- or 16-year-old.”
“Every kid we deal with has not been open and forthcoming with their parents and friends,” Holmes adds. “Nobody had the whole story.” Because I’m a parent, that’s one of the things about Casey’s story that tears at me. Amid all the texting and emailing that goes on, how many of us would recognize in our own children a plea for help?
But what I find most striking is how little it took to stop Casey: a locked gate. On her first visit to the bridge, when she found her access blocked, she turned around and drove home. “There are lots of people who, if you remove the means, get through it,” says Holmes. “That bridge, with its low rails, is as easy as it gets.” This, in sum, was the argument made repeatedly before the bridge board: that stopping people from killing themselves during an emotional meltdown keeps them from committing suicide—ever. It’s a line of reasoning supported by a mountain of research.
One landmark study from the 1970s followed more than 515 suicidal people who had been talked off the Golden Gate Bridge. Only 5 percent went on to kill themselves later. “Some who have high intent to die feel that way only for a brief period, or occasionally cycle in and out of these very bad periods,” says Catherine Barber, a suicide prevention expert at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. “For these sorts of attempters, putting time and distance between them and a very lethal means of suicide can save lives.” That’s also what British researchers found in the 1960s and ’70s after the nation converted from coal-burning ovens to natural gas and saw the national suicide rate unexpectedly, and dramatically, drop. The explanation: People could no longer kill themselves by sticking their heads in the oven, à la Sylvia Plath.
In a surprising number of cases, suicide is not particularly thought out—and, counterintuitively, the more impulsive an attempt is, the more likely it is to be fatal. People who continually struggle with suicidal thoughts are often ambivalent, researchers say, and therefore more likely to choose a less reliable method, such as taking pills or slashing their wrists. Spur-of-the-moment suicides are different. People in temporary emotional crisis choose methods that work: guns or bridges. These findings have led the Harvard researchers to take a new approach to suicide prevention. Instead of focusing on the “why,” they look at the “how.” Keeping a gun out of reach or erecting a barrier buys time for distraught people to either come to their senses or exhibit behavior that makes it clear that they need help.
UCSF’s Lynn Ponton knows how effective this approach can be when it comes to adolescents. She has spent 30 years evaluating teens brought into the hospital after attempting suicide. “When you look at self-harm by adolescents, creating a barrier to certain kinds of risky behavior”—raising the legal drinking age, lowering the blood alcohol limit, and the like—“these have all been very successful interventions,” Ponton says.
A 2001 study shows just how impulsive the decision can be. When researchers interviewed 153 young survivors of near lethal suicide attempts, a frightening number—24 percent—said less than five minutes had passed from the time they had first decided to kill themselves to when they had acted. Ponton adds, “The adolescent brain continues to develop until the late 20s, and it’s delayed particularly in areas needed for assessing risk. A young person who is threatening or making a suicide attempt may not even have an understanding of the consequences of what they’ve done.”
On February 1, 2005, almost three years to the day before Casey jumped, Jonathan Zablotny, a senior at International High in San Francisco, took his life on the bridge, too. The gangly, tousled-haired 18-year-old with a whisper of a mustache was convinced that he had a fatal flaw: an almost paralyzing inability to complete school assignments. He wasn’t a poor student—he’d scored impressive 700s on his SATs. But ever since middle school, Jonathan had struggled to get his procrastination under control.
Nearly four years have made it easier for his mother, Mary, an artist, and father, Ray, a longtime psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente, to tell their story. Even so, the grief hasn’t eased. Jonathan sounds like a terrific kid: a committed environmentalist who brought home his friends’ soda cans to recycle, the founder of a school Magic: The Gathering club, a devoted pal. He acted in school plays and hung out with his girlfriend, and unlike so many teens chafing to establish their independence, he loved being with his parents. Mary tells me about the hours they spent in the kitchen, cooking (“He was my sous-chef,” she says) and talking. Ray shows me a picture of himself and Jonathan, then 16, on a 1,100-mile bike trip from Vancouver to San Francisco. Choked up, he looks through a box of Jonathan’s prized possessions and hands me a short essay his son wrote about the exhilaration of cycling: You can feel the rush of the wind against your body as it whooshes past you. You can hear the wind whistle in your ear as you push through it....
Ray has another, more wrenching example of Jonathan’s writing—four rambling paragraphs in which he tries to sort through why he is having so much trouble doing his schoolwork.
If I want to improve I simply have to somehow force myself to obey the simple rule of start early and finish first break after. I suppose I don’t do this because I can’t bear to work for some reason. I have found myself just sitting there forcing myself to work too hard to do anything enjoyable and at the same time too reluctant to begin. Once I have gotten past the initial barrier its just like friction. There is still resistance but not nearly as much as when I was not already working. So I suppose I need a way to reduce this friction, but I have not found it.
Jonathan’s procrastination first surfaced as a serious issue in eighth or ninth grade. One day around that time, he confided to his father that he was having thoughts about jumping out the window. Ray, whose mother had suffered from clinical depression, was so worried that he canceled work and immediately took his son to see a well-known psychiatrist. The diagnosis: The teenager was anxious, but not depressed or suicidal.
Jonathan saw the therapist for over a year, but procrastination continued to dog him. In his senior year, he missed the deadline for applying to schools in the University of California system, narrowing his college options.
Then, in late January, Mary got a call from Jonathan’s history teacher, warning that if her son didn’t finish his major research paper on the Challenger space shuttle explosion by the end of the week, he risked failing the course—potentially nixing any chance of getting into his first choice, Reed College. This came as a surprise to Mary and Ray. Two weeks earlier, Jonathan had assured his father that the paper was finished. Ray adds, “It was unusual for him to lie.”
The weekend before the phone call had been quiet, capped by a relaxed family outing to a movie. That pleasant mood dissolved when Jonathan arrived home from school on Monday and Mary confronted him about the late paper. “We had a big fight that night,” she says. She offered to help prepare an outline, but Jonathan went to bed early. “He had a look in his eyes that I hadn’t seen before. I think he was staring his own death in the face.” Ray tried to reassure his son. “I told him, ‘Tomorrow is a new day.’ I knew he’d get beyond this state in 24 hours, when he calmed down.”
When Jonathan came downstairs the next morning, showered and ready for school, Mary apologized for yelling at him the night before. “I said I loved him and wanted him to have a life that made him happy,” she recalls wistfully. Jonathan nodded, pulled on his backpack, and headed out the door to make the six-block walk from their row house in the Lower Haight to school. He never got there. No one knows when Jonathan arrived at the bridge. But around 4:45 p.m., nine hours after he walked out the door, pedestrians saw a body in the bay. “He jumped, backpack and all,” says Mary. A few days later, Jonathan’s aunt found what appeared to be
a suicide note on his computer, addressed “To whom it may concern.”
I’m a coward i’m taking the cowards way out and it should be honestly said what has happened, I have struggled with the same problem for 6 years and it is painfully obvious to me that I cannot overcome it for any length of time and be happy. jonathan zablotny.
Jonathan Zablotny was close to his parents, Mary and Ray. He suffered from procrastination so paralyzing and frustrating that it sent him to the bridge.
The loss of his son didn’t just shake Ray as a parent—it jolted him to his professional core. “My shock in this is, I’m a psychiatrist,” he says. “Jonathan had some anxieties, but he could get up onstage, interact with kids.” As chief of psychiatry, Ray had been on his hospital’s suicide review committee; after Jonathan’s death, he resigned from that panel.
What’s clear from both Jonathan’s and Casey’s stories is that many parents and therapists, as well as teachers and friends, are unable to see any of the classic danger signs, because those signs aren’t there. “When I was growing up, we always knew who would be in trouble,” Marin therapist Madeline Levine says. “Frankie would be the one to hot-wire the car. Today, there’s no way to know which kids will commit suicide, and that’s terrifying.”
Levine advises parents to work at establishing strong lines of communication with their children, and to get to know their kids’ friends and their parents, so there’s a community looking out for each other. Most important: If a kid shows signs of distress—including feelings of hopelessness, apathy, or anxiety, as well as headaches and stomach problems—“never trivialize them,” she says. This is especially true of anger, a common sign of adolescent depression that’s easily misunderstood, Levine adds. (She notes, “Teenagers, when they’re depressed, are often not particularly teary or withdrawn.”) Therapy, like immunizations, should be nonnegotiable: “If a teen resists, you could say, ‘I’m really concerned about you. We’ll do it together for three months.’”
While most adults who commit suicide suffer from depression, this is less true of teenagers. Even a kid who is not particularly depressed may still act rashly, says Mel Blaustein, director of psychiatry at St. Francis Memorial Hospital and a colleague of Ray Zablotny’s whose daughter was friendly with Jonathan. As it was for Jonathan and Casey, a fight with a parent is one of the most common triggers for a suicide attempt. “A young person who is humiliated or ashamed often will act quickly on those feelings,” Blaustein says. “They don’t think in the long term. They think irrationally—it’s similar to reckless driving, where they don’t weigh the consequences.”
Stress, which is highly correlated with depression and anxiety, can make young people even more impulsive. “Stress is a factor in most adolescent suicides,” Ponton says. “It takes away a kid’s sense of being able to cope with things. It makes it harder to figure out solutions to problems—for example, to say to yourself, if your boyfriend broke up with you, ‘It’ll be OK, there are other boyfriends out there.’” It’s hard to imagine a place more permeated with stress than the academically demanding, high-achieving communities where Casey and Jonathan lived, Ponton says. “In this area, kids often feel like a failure in school and life.”
To learn more about how these pressures affect teenagers, last spring I posted a series of questions on Facebook. More than 40 kids took time out from their hectic end-of-school-year schedules to respond—and vent.
One of the most eloquent was a girl I’ll call Sally, a 16-year-old from Marin: We have programs in our schools that are preparing us for college in SIXTH GRADE. What can an 11-year-old know about deciding their future when they are just figuring out the basics, like say their bodies? Is it any shock that teenagers are buckling under this pressure?
Kate, 17, from San Francisco, echoed Sally’s outrage: When I was in eighth grade, I saw the girls in my class start to drop like flies because of stress we were under: one was hospitalized for an eating disorder, 13 (years old).... My point is that to combat teenage suicide, one has to understand what drives teenagers to that point of desperation.”
Kate should know. She’s been dealing with suicidal thoughts for years and, thanks to treatment, assured me that she’s doing much better. But she vividly described being in so much pain that she plotted ways to make her misery end: One major reason why I looked to suicide in the first place is because I felt trapped. I was depressed, insecure, and felt that the majority of the world had wronged me in some way. Though I felt immense shame for it, part of my desire to kill myself was that I would have an effect on all those people, make them pay attention, shake the world, have tears shed in my name.
Fortunately, Kate did some research and discovered that jumping from the bridge is a grisly way to die. So she crossed that off her list and considered other methods. Her fear bought her time to find treatment for her severe depression.
Blaustein says this scenario is common. “We get kids who come into the ER and they are afraid of what they did…. They’re ambivalent or recognize they don’t want to die.” He has no doubt that a barrier would have saved Casey and Jonathan. “How many kids are late with their homework or argue with their parents?” he asks. “These are kids who should be alive.”
Few kids seemed less stressed out than Henry Lew. The affable 18-year-old had whizzed through most of his courses and was three weeks away from graduating with top honors from Justin-Siena High, a private school in Napa, in June 2007. He’d been accepted into a prestigious engineering program at UC San Diego. He wasn’t a daredevil—he didn’t even like roller coasters. Living an hour north of San Francisco, Henry was so unfamiliar with the Golden Gate Bridge that he wasn’t even sure how to drive there.
“He’s quiet and reserved [with] people he didn’t know very well, but once you got to know him, you’d find he was quirky and had a wonderful, dry sense of humor.” That’s how former classmate Lauren Bunnell, now at Occidental College, described Henry to me in an email. On the drive up to Napa, where I’m meeting his parents at a Starbucks, I think about the pictures I’ve seen on his Facebook memorial site. The karate trophy is taller than the skinny six-year-old in one picture. In a middle school photo, Henry is still skin and bones and a bit geeky, surrounded by pretty girls. Sweet, brainy, dependable Henry: That’s my impression, and Doris and Larry Lew confirm it. “Many times, we’d congratulate ourselves about what a good kid we had,” says his mom.
What happened to Henry is less of a mystery than most teen suicides. All through school, he was staunchly opposed to drugs. But sometime in his senior year, he gave in to the temptation, maybe because he wanted to be cool, maybe because he felt a little down. The Lews have been able to re-create some of what happened, thanks to text messages suggesting that someone he knew, after being dared to recruit a straight-edge kid to try hallucinogenic mushrooms, targeted Henry. “Somebody was there at the wrong time—‘Oh, you’re feeling bad? Take this,’” Larry says. Of course, many teenagers experiment with drugs without committing suicide, but mental-health experts say that drugs can magnify depression and impulsivity. Larry believes this is what happened with Henry.
Not long after, Henry tried the popular party drug ecstasy, which now increasingly comes laced with methamphetamine. The combination drug is known for its soaring highs and—sometimes days later— its tremendous crash. It can also be highly addictive, creating a craving for its adrenalinelike effects. Henry started exhibiting the signs of a meth problem—irritability, insomnia, paranoia, a rash on his face—though it took a while for his parents to see that something was wrong, and even then they had no idea what it could be.
By May, as Henry’s highs got lower and the crashes worsened, the Lews sought help from a family doctor, who suggested that Henry see a therapist. The therapist warned him that the drugs he was using could be the cause of his mood problems.
The following weekend was the senior prom. Both girls Henry wanted to go with were already taken, so he didn’t go. At some point, he took more meth-laced ecstasy, despite the therapist’s warning. But by Tuesday morning, when Henry headed off to school, Doris recalls, “He seemed more cheerful than the last few days. He said he’d slept fine. I went out to the garage to exercise.”
At school, something—no one knows what—set him off. Midway through class, he left and never returned. From the computer printout found in his car, it appears that Henry went to the school library to get directions to the Golden Gate Bridge. At 10 a.m., a friend started receiving vague but disturbing text messages, which he showed to school officials. The police were summoned, along with Henry’s mother (his father was out of town).
They knew he was driving down 101, but they didn’t know where. Through it all, Henry continued texting his friend, who was sitting in a classroom surrounded by teachers, desperately trying to convince Henry that he was delusional and crashing from the drugs, and that he needed to come home. More than an hour and a half later, Henry revealed his whereabouts in another text. The thread that followed is a document of impulsiveness in real time.
Henry: Too late!
Henry: Im at the Golden Gate bridge.
Henry: This will be so frightening…
Friend: I need to talk to you…wait.
Henry: I feel so numb. Looking my own mortality face to face. I don’t even want to do this. But the air is so good here.
Friend: This is classic serotonin syndrome.
Henry: If I live.
Henry: Let my mum and dad know this is just a chemical imbalance wrought by drugs. Not their fault.
Friend: Its f***ing fixable.
Friend: Chemical imbalance. Temporary.
Friend: Henry…you have no idea what youre throwing away.
Friend: You don’t understand…
Friend: Please talk to me.
Friend: I need to tell you something…are you there?
According to the police report, at 11:45 a.m., a visitor from Louisiana watched as “a young male with a smile on his face” put his cell phone, his wallet, and his keys on the sidewalk, jumped up and down like a sprinter psyching himself up, then climbed over the rail. Below, a fishing party heard a pop and saw someone in the water about 50 feet away. They pulled him aboard, and when they found that he still had a pulse, he was rushed to San Francisco General Hospital.
For almost four hours, Henry battled to live, despite severe internal injuries. Doris sped to the hospital, but he died before she got to see him.
Henry Lew, at left, with some high school pals, was sweet, brainy, dependable: “Many times, we’d congratulate ourselves about what a good kid we had,” says his mom. His death can be traced to meth-laced ecstasy, which magnifies depression and recklessness in some kids.
Last September, Roxanne Mitchell [not her real name] went before 15 members of the Golden Gate Bridge board of directors to plead for a barrier. She told them about her conversation with Casey in the car as they were driving over the bridge last January, and she described her best friend’s state of mind in the hours before she died. “It was early in the morning, a lack of sleep had gotten the best of her, the cold weather dampened her spirits, and somehow in her mind she decided it was time to end her life,” Roxanne said. “Everyone in this room knows what it’s like to feel exhausted, upset, and alone.”
Roxanne isn’t the only one of Casey’s friends to take up the cause. “I was against a suicide barrier before we lost Casey,” 18-year-old Sarah Barr, her neighbor and classmate, told me. “There’s so much to live for, but it’s difficult to see that as a teenager. Every teenager understands the feeling of a need to escape the pressure, to fit in at school, get good grades, please your parents, impress the boy you have a crush on. I started thinking, ‘What if I had had a bad day? Where’s the line?’”
At Redwood’s graduation last June, Barr used her moment in the spotlight as student body president to challenge their guest speaker, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, to start working for a barrier. Barr won a loud round of applause, and Mayor Newsom has since praised the bridge board’s vote in favor of a net.
Before its 14-to-1 decision in October, the board of directors had voted eight times over the years against moving forward on a barrier. The difference this time was how kids like Roxanne and parents like the Brookses reframed the debate in a way that board members, many of whom are parents themselves, could not deny.
“When the young people came out, everybody was moved,” says Tom Ammiano, a longtime teacher and head of the board of the San Francisco Unified School District, who has served on the bridge board since 1996 and has been one of the barrier’s strongest proponents. He insists that the vote was not an empty gesture, and that the net will be erected, despite the board’s statement that there’s no extra money in its budget. (It also ruled out any toll-based funding.) By next April, members hope to have a proposal in place for raising the funds, as well as for completing the necessary environmental-impact studies.
But will this project have a sense of urgency? Will board members make it a priority in tough economic times? Back in 2005, when Patrick Fitzgerald, Jonathan’s best friend, delivered a pro-barrier petition signed by hundreds of teens, he was optimistic that the board would move quickly. Three years later, only incremental progress has been made.
Now a senior at Vassar, Patrick questions why the board has found $25 million for a median barrier to prevent head-on collisions, when the bridge has seen only 36 fatalities—16 from head-ons—since 1970. Meanwhile, hundreds of adults and kids have jumped—and continue to jump—to their deaths. “If that many people died in car crashes on the bridge, it would be condemned,” he says.
Yet even the median barrier is a stunning example of how slowly things move when it comes to the Golden Gate Bridge. According to Mary Currie, the bridge’s spokesperson, the median was approved in 1998. It still hasn’t been built.
As a parent, I keep thinking about how we try to protect teens from their own immaturity by restricting their driving, by prohibiting the use of alcohol until they are 21, even by forcing them to wear helmets when they ride their bikes. How could erecting a net not be a priority on a bridge so alluring and deadly? Marin therapist Levine, whose youngest son went to school with Casey, has an interim solution: increased police patrols. “I know of people who were stopped from jumping by patrols on the walkway,” she says. “Those are lives saved.”
And what about the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, which will have a pedestrian walkway? Mel Blaustein, representing the 1,200-member Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California, has been lobbying for a six-foot-high railing; plans now call for one that’s four and a half feet—just a few inches taller than the Golden Gate Bridge rail. In a letter to Blaustein, Caltrans politely rejected the recommendation: “Much of the input received by the department supported lower railings, as there was a clear desire for maximizing views from the bridge,” the letter said, adding that other than the Golden Gate, “there is little history of suicide attempts on any of the other Bay Area bridges.” Blaustein replies, “Why the hell not do it? Why ask for trouble?”
The Class of 2008, Casey’s class, has moved on to colleges around the nation. But each time I log on to her Facebook remembrance page, I find new posts.
Roxanne is one of the regulars. She’s been studying abroad before starting college. But her posts suggest that no matter where she is, she can’t seem to forget her lost friend.
okay so a few things...
1) tomorrow I am speaking at this like bridge board meeting and telling them about you
2) I listen to radiohead now...thought you’d like to know that
3) you would hate this bitch sarah palin...I can only imagine the bitching sessions we would have about her (she wants to kill the polar bears!)
4) I wore your ‘drop acid not bombs’ shirt the other day and got lots of stares (thanks)
5) I miss you so much it’s terrible. I think about you every single day, wonder where you are, what you’re doing...if you only you could come back dude...
oh and 6) there’s this dude who’s a senior at bennington and he’s like a mildly famous singer and he and I have been emailing back and forth and he said you would have loved it....I agree
Sometimes, mixed in among the teenagers’ messages is one from Casey’s parents.
Erika 9:23 am October 17th, 2008
Tia O’Brien is an award-winning journalist for magazines, TV, and newspapers. Lauren Basham also contributed to this story.
Main photo: It’s unclear how long it will take to erect a suicide barrier, or where the $40–50 million to pay for it will come from. One possible interim solution favored by mental-health experts: more police patrols on the bridge.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
San Francisco Suicide Prevention
County of Marin Health and Human Services
Marin County Suicide Prevention and Crisis Hotline
Crisis Support Services of Alameda County Hotline
Contra Costa Crisis Center