Eight months, three teenagers, three suicides.
“Everyone was devastated,” said Keith Smith, the superintendent of Kingsley Area Schools. “This is a small community, and not only do we all know each other, we all know each others’ kids.”
But after three seemingly unconnected teen suicides in less than a year, Smith and the rest of Kingsley’s residents have come face to face with a national public health crisis, one that has reverberated through communities small and large.
Nationally, rates of teen suicide have been rising steadily since 2007, now accounting for more than 4,500 deaths a year. In Michigan, like the rest of the country, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds.
But Smith never thought he’d see it where he lives and works — not Kingsley, his “Norman Rockwell-esque, all-American small town,” as he put it.
“I reached my breaking point on Saturday; I sat down and cried for an hour,” he said in an interview. “I just can’t take any more of this ... you just get overcome with emotions.”
That weekend, the village gathered at Kingsley Middle School to remember Shealynn, who died Feb. 3. Lauri Bach, who has been at the middle school for 20 years and taught Shealynn and Kayden social studies, told a local newspaper that she and other teachers watched these kids grow up, practically lived with them and formed tight bonds.
“You can handle one, and it’s horrible,” Bach told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. “But you have friends, you have support. Then another — slaps you in the face. But you continue to have your friends and your support. Then another one. I mean, you can only take so much before it breaks you.”
Since Shealynn died, more students have been asking for help, counseling or support, Smith said. He hopes teachers are doing the same and said he’d like for educators to talk more about mental health challenges.
“We thought we were doing the right things,” Smith said, recalling the months of programming between Kayden’s and Shealynn’s deaths. “But clearly it wasn’t enough.”
The school district has now partnered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Smith said, and is planning to incorporate suicide awareness into its curriculum and hold events, such as movie nights, to raise awareness among parents.
“If there is a parent out there who thinks they’re exempt from this, they’re naive and maybe a little ignorant — because it could be their kid tomorrow,” Bill Stone, Kayden’s father, told the Record Eagle. “My kid was one of the most unlikely candidates you could ever think of, yet here I am.”
Public health officials have been puzzled by the growing number of youth suicides, suicide attempts and depression. Some have linked the increase to poor treatment for mental health problems and addiction, while others — including Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University — blame smartphone use.
Writing in The Washington Post, Twenge argued that “some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental-health issues may have slipped into depression because of too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.”
Still others have linked teen suicides to the opioid epidemic, a frightening tandem of crises, one reinforcing the other — as parents die of drug overdoses, their children are more likely to become suicidal.
But as experts and advocates search for a cause and debate a remedy, communities such as Kingsley are left with a warning, one born of painful experience: It can happen in your town, too.
“You can pick up The Washington Post and read stories — it’s always happening somewhere else,” Smith said. “But that it can happen three times in your community is numbing. If this can happen in Kingsley, Michigan, it can truly happen anywhere.”