Michigan youth suicide rate doubles. What parents can do.

Nick Klingler seemed to have it all: good grades, friends, a job and a spot on his school’s cross-country team, according to his mother, JoJo Klingler, shown here with father, Fritz Klingler at the family home. Nick ended his life two years ago. He was 17. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

In the small northern Michigan town of Kingsley, Jamie Pobuda heard the news last year that a 16-year-old local boy had killed himself. Then just months later, a 14-year-old boy took his own life, too.

An inventory control supervisor raising her teenage granddaughter, Pobuda remembers the way the news thumped her in the gut.

How awfully sad — the way that a suicide devastates families and classmates and communities, she thought. How could they have not known?

Michigan Health Watch is made possible by generous financial support from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, the Michigan Association of Health Plans, and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. The monthly mental health special report is made possible by generous financial support of the Ethel & James Flinn Foundation. Please visit the Michigan Health Watch 'About' page for more information.

On Feb 3, Pobuda found her own granddaughter dead in their home. Shae Pobuda was just 14.

“And then this happens to your child and you think ‘Why didn’t I do something?’ And you know why: You didn’t see it coming,” she said.

With their lives seemingly stretched out before them, Michigan adolescents and teens are committing suicide at nearly double the rate of just over a decade ago, according to an analysis of suicide deaths by Bridge Magazine. The surge passes even the national hike in suicides among young people.

The rate of suicide among Michigan girls aged 12 to 18 was 1.9 for every 100,000 girls between the years 2005 and 2009. That rate doubled to about 3.8 in the five-year time period ending in 2017. 

For boys, the rate for the five years ending in 2009 was about 7.4 per 100,000. That jumped to 12 per 100,000 in the period ending in 2017.

Yet even as suicide rates climb, most parents admit they struggle to sort out real distress from normal teenage angst, according to a new national survey.

In the survey, 9-in-10 parents said they were “very confident” or “somewhat confident” they would recognize depression in their middle- or high school -aged child. Even so, roughly two-thirds of the parents admit it’s difficult for them to differentiate between normal mood swings and signs of depression or that their child is good at hiding feelings, according to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan, released Monday.

Those findings don’t surprise Sarah Clark, co-director of the poll.

 

In the survey of 819 parents, 1-in-4 parents said their child knows a peer with depression; 1-in-10 said a child’s peer has died by suicide, suggesting suicide and depression are no longer taboo topics. They are real.

“So that’s the tension that parents feel,” Clark told Bridge. 

“We’re all more knowledgeable about the signs of depression. At the same time, we all know that maybe that might not be enough. You’ll hear ‘My daughter was in her room crying for three hours, because she didn’t get invited to homecoming dance.’ At what point does the daughter crying in her room become [for the parent] ‘Now I’m officially worried?’”

Michigan parents have good reason to be concerned. Bridge found: 

  • In a five-year period ending in 2009, about 10 Michigan girls aged 12 to 18 years old took their lives each year, compared to about 17 a year over a five-year span ending in 2017. 
  • About 37 boys of that same age killed themselves each year in the five-year time period ending in 2009. In the years leading to 2017, that had risen to nearly 57 boys a year.

Michigan’s numbers reflect a broader crisis among young people nationally. 

Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a special data brief on suicide among people aged 10 to 24. Suicide rates had remained stable between 2000 and 2007, but increased from 6.8 per 100,000 young people in 2007 to 10.6 in 2017. 

Most notable nationally was a tripling of suicide rates among 10- to 14-year-olds between 2007 and 2017 — from 0.9 to 2.5 per 100,000 children that age.

To be clear, teenagers take their own lives at far lower rates than older Michiganders, but suicide among the young is particularly sobering and baffling, leaving loved ones in immeasurable grief, shock, and self-doubt.

What didn’t I notice?

What if we had…? What if we hadn’t…?

What if… ?

What if… ?

“It never ends. Every second of every day,” said JoJo Klingler, whose 17-year-old son, Nicholas, seemed to have it all — friends, good grades, a spot on his school’s cross-country team, a job. In the middle of a cold October evening in 2017, he killed himself in the backyard of the family’s home in Troy.

JoJo Klingler clung to shock, knowing that it would give way to unspeakable pain. For hours, Nick’s parents and his three younger siblings sat in the family room, stunned. Someone began praying the Rosary.

“And you ask: What could I have done?” Klingler said.

‘I didn’t think suicide.’

“We as parents want to think we know our kids,” said Kevin Fischer, executive director of Michigan’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

Fischer’s son, Dominique, struggled for years with bipolar and schizophrenia disorders. There were doctors and counselors and medications. 

Still, the young man’s suicide in 2010 shocked everyone around him, Fischer said: “Even though I was concerned for him, even though I knew he was in crisis, I didn’t think ‘suicide.’”

Dominique Fischer, shown here in a 2005 photo with his father, Kevin, died at age 23. (Courtesy photo)

Fischer has since talked to countless other parents whose children — young and adult — have taken their own lives.

They were different lives, different demons, different circumstances. But the shock is often the same.

“Most parents don’t know the signs. If they did, they wouldn’t know what to say. Honestly, most parents just hope and pray it goes away,” he said.

In the Pobuda’s home in Kingsley, south of Traverse City, Shae’s suicide note remains in a manilla police envelope, sealed with red tape marked “evidence.”

One day, Jamie Pobuda and her husband, Gary, will read their granddaughter’s note, they told Bridge. But not now. Not yet.

They said they had never known the teen as anything more than a quiet, sweet and respectful kid who who dreamed of college and most recently wanted to learn to cook.

In dark, personal spaces, though, Shae felt betrayed by her own parents who were no longer her in life. It was a depth of sadness and anger exposed only in a journal her grandmother found after the girl’s death. Inside were curse-strewn words about betrayal and grief, Jamie Pobuda said.

“It was such angry stuff in there. She never even swore,” Pobuda said. “She was, in my mind, still my little girl.”

What drives suicidal acts 

The concentric rings around suicide are with different versions of the same question: Why?

Whatever the age, a biological psychiatric disorder sometimes is at play. Other times, it’s situational depression, layered upon previous trauma, a lack of support, and terrible timing.  Alcohol and drugs drive up risk, experts say.

And in the moment of crisis, there is access to lethal means.

“When people take their lives, they feel they’re trapped, that the pain will never get better,” said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “They’re not even thinking about taking their own lives. They just want the pain to stop.”

But why the surge in the past 10 years?

“You have to look at the time frame and you have to ask yourself ‘What is largely different and affected so many people?’” said Eric Herman, a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety and mood disorders at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. 

Opioids? A recession? Certainly both have shredded families across the state.

Gun violence in schools and on streets? Climate change? For many now, those are ever-present threats.

Herman, though, hears about something else more often among the adolescents and teens he counsels: They take no time to power off.

Social media may be one of many complicated factors that contribute to suicide, said Eric Herman, a clinical psychologist at Detroit Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

Before cellphones, he said, “you didn’t have to see people having fun at a party you weren’t invited to. You went home and weren’t bullied, and you didn’t have to see the mean things that kids said about you,” he said.

The reasons behind suicide are multi-layered and complex, he said, but a digital world for kids creates stress “on steroids.”

“Is it contributing to lower self-esteem, especially with girls? Is it gaming that is contributing to social isolation, especially with boys? Is there now simply no reason to leave their rooms? You can’t blame these things, but they’re correlative, anyway,” he said.

Taking steps to reduce suicide risks

Nicholas Klingler, wearing the backpack on right, killed himself when he 17. He left three younger siblings, including his brother Charlie, shown here with his brother on a family trip to Hawaii the summer before Nick died. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

Experts agree: The key is to listen and to talk, and they’re trying to better train parents and educators to see the signs. 

In January, Kevin’s Song, a metro Detroit nonprofit focused on suicide prevention, will hold its fourth Conference on Suicide in Plymouth. The three-day event is open to the public, and will feature for the first time a full-day School Summit to help educators and others better understand and prevent teen suicide.

Meanwhile, the University of Detroit Jesuit High School is holding a “community conversation” for students and families, after recent graduate Zachary Winston, died by suicide on Nov. 9 as a sophomore at Albion College. A current U-D student remains hospitalized after a suicide attempt earlier this year.

Two years ago, the suicide of Nick Klingler, the cross-country runner, hit close to home because one of his siblings attended U-D Jesuit. Another graduate killed himself in 2015. And U-D spokesman Jim Adam’s own son, Morgan, took his own life in 2012 months after he graduated from the school.  

Now, the school and parents say they are working together to build resilience in students and encourage them to reach out in crisis, Adams said. At least one week a year, the school bars laptops, cell phones and other electronics in common areas used by students.The idea, he said, is to teach students to unplug and connect with each other across a board game or a euchre match. 

Dress code is relaxed during particularly stressful times. Staff is more watchful for signs of distress, Adams said.

In the months before Morgan took his life, the teen began giving away things. Jim Adams said he thought his son was maturing, becoming generous, thinking of the larger world around him.

Now, Adams sees those gifts as something else — one of the many warning signs loved ones often fail to notice as someone prepares to die.

 “Afterward, there are all these little things,” Adams said.

Listen, talk, call for help

Back in Troy, JoJo Klingler said the days of not talking about suicide are long past.

Nick Klingler had entered his senior year with good grades, good friends and new habits — going to bed earlier, eating healthier and running further, his mother said. She was proud; he was taking good care of himself.

Then one day she opened the door of his room to find him on the floor. He had skipped practice. He was depressed and pleading for help.

His parents made frantic calls to doctors. They took him out of town to clear his mind. They kept guard, sleeping nearby overnight.

“But whenever I was talking about this to Nick, I could never say the word ‘suicide.’ It was like I can’t cross into that. In my mind, this can’t be where we’re at,” she said.

In retrospect, JoJo Klingler said, her brilliant independent son undoubtedly searched the Internet trying to cope with depression on his own before asking for help. He most likely turned to the Internet again to end his life, she said.

Ignoring a crisis is not an option, she said.

“I wonder: What if I would have asked Nick directly ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself, and if so, how would you do it?’ 

“It would have opened the conversation we needed to have.”

In crisis? Where to turn.

Are you having thoughts of suicide?

Have an honest conversation, says the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org). Assume you are the only one who will reach out.
  • Talk to them in private, and listen to their story.
  • Tell them you care about them.
  • Ask directly if they are thinking about suicide.
  • Encourage them to seek treatment or to contact their doctor or therapist.
  • Do not debate value of life, minimize their problems or offer advice.
If a person says they are considering suicide, take them seriously
  • Stay with them, and help them remove lethal means.
  • Escort them to mental health services or an emergency room.

Have you tried to commit suicide?

You may not understand all of the thoughts and feelings that led you to consider suicide, and that’s okay. You don’t need to have all of the answers to heal. Be kind to yourself.  Other steps:
  • Find a mental health professional to help you put this experience in proper perspective and find ways to address life stressors.
  • Talk to those you trust.  Try a support group.
  • Exercise, eat right, and get enough sleep. Those efforts, and spending time with healthy people, can boost your health and mood.
  • Visit www.afsp.org to connect to people who understand the complexity of suicide and want to help.

Are you worried about someone?

Have an honest conversation, says the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org). Assume you are the only one who will reach out.
  • Talk to them in private, and listen to their story.
  • Tell them you care about them.
  • Ask directly if they are thinking about suicide.
  • Encourage them to seek treatment or to contact their doctor or therapist.
  • Do not debate value of life, minimize their problems or offer advice.
If a person says they are considering suicide, take them seriously
  • Stay with them, and help them remove lethal means.
  • Escort them to mental health services or an emergency room.
SOURCE: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

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Comments

Anonymous
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 8:55am

I would like to point out that this article, while greatly appreciated, has shame/blame language that is not helpful. Instead of "committed suicide", please use "died of suicide". That is a simple step toward shedding the stigma and opening up a more trusting dialogue.

Richard scott
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 9:44am

This report is welcomed and needed. Having lost friends and colleagues from suicide and understanding the stress children now perceive in our angry partisan world with change in weather, education and view a life ahead with more anxiety, we all need to work for the provision of available mental health care and as individuals to listen, hear and respond to the children we love.

Matt
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 10:10am

The explanations here seem to assume kids have never had things so bad. This is a ridicules and wholly unsatisfactory explanation. The truth may be 180 degrees the other way.

LLA
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 10:50am

"The truth may be 180 degrees the other way." In what way? Cyberbullying and incessant pressures from social media and other digital platforms are something very unique to these kids. No other generation has ever experienced what they do on a daily basis.

Matt
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 7:04pm

You are correct there have never been any bullies or bullying until social media came along. Kids never picked on other kids, unfriending never happened and my god the nasty faces on some of those emojis!!! Then the terror of global warming!!! We had nothing like these terrors just some puny thermo-nuclear exchange!

LH
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 9:50pm

Matt, of course bullying has always existed, and of course kids have picked on each other. But social media has escalated bullying exponentially. On social media, users do not confront their victims face to face; there is nearly unlimited opportunity for "ganging up" on a victim; and the virulence of the comments is amazing. My husband and I talk to high school students about suicide (our daughter took her own life), and when I ask how many have seen a post on social media telling someone they should "just kill yourself." or "nobody would miss you," almost every hand in the room goes up. Cyberbullying is not the only problem, but it is certainly a significant part of it.

Bones
Thu, 11/21/2019 - 10:19am

Why are Boomers so spiteful and callous? My god, your generation left us a crumbling nation and a burning planet and you can still find it within yourself to be undeservedly self-righteous and dismissive when we struggle with the after effects of the destructive policies you championed

Tam
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 7:25pm

How about he kids in Syria, or Yeman, or the ones whose families have tried to cross our southern borders, or the ones scavaging in garbage dumps. There are so many kids in the world who are far worse off than kids in the U.S. Curious if anyone has looked at the percentage of kid suicides whose mother's are stay at home moms; who are involved in Scouting or 4H or in religious youth groups, etc.

LLA
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 10:43am

This is a really great & important article! Kudos to the writers/editors.

Barb
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 1:12pm

Good article but you’ve made a big mistake-under the “Are you in crisis,” “Are you thinking of committing suicide?” your answer should be aimed at someone thinking of committing suicide, but your answer is aimed at the bystander. You simply copied the same wording as the last section ! Can you correct it please ?

Tam
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 7:37pm

When will we ever start looking at the impact of what kids eat? I challenge anyone out there to stuff themselves, with high fructose corn syrup, lots of Twinkies and soft drinks full of artificial sweeteners and or HFCS- top it off with several big cream filled donuts, then sit around doing nothing for awhile and see how cheerful and happy you are. Oh - depressed? What a surprise! You are what you eat - there is good reason that HFCS and artificial sweeteners are outlawed in many places in the world. (The yeast in your gut really loves all of the sweets - add a few antibiotics or birth control pills, and the C. albicans will take you down!) And we really don't know all of the impacts of the EMF from their devices - possibly none. But we just don't know. Food we do know and yet turn our backs - sad

Sue D. R. K.
Fri, 11/22/2019 - 2:49pm

I tried to commit suicide when I was eleven. My parents had split, Mom became a drunk and dad became a religious fanatic and so I ate an entire bottle of aspirins. My brother saw me and told our mom and she asked me "Why" and I said "I don't know', because even then I understood that I couldn't make her understand if she couldn't get it herself. She is a very smart woman except for emotionally. When i was diagnosed with a hormone imbalance at Mott Children's Hospital because of depression the same year, again, no follow up. I was severely beaten by Moms veteran boyfriend and there was no follow up...thank you PTSD to add to the mix. My point is, for those parents that watch and have developed a close relationship with their children so that they would immediately know something wasn't right, keep up the good work. There are as many parents so wrapped up in their own happiness and/or survival that no matter what their protestations of love for their child, are unable to get past their own particular set of woes. That kind of narcissistic and immature parent lives among us in droves. We need to up our standards on all accounts. So far neither of my adult children have evidenced any of the issues I mentioned except for a family tendency toward anxiety, which is a different story. I made it to 61 (this Tuesday) and life has never meant more to me.

Suz

Laura M.
Sun, 11/24/2019 - 3:02am

I'm surprised that there is no discussion about the method of suicide in this article. Teenagers are particularly impulsive, and if there are unsecured guns in the household, it is all too easy for them to kill themselves in a moment of despair. In 2017 there were almost 40K gun deaths in the USA, and 60 percent of these were suicides.

Barry Visel
Sun, 11/24/2019 - 9:29pm

Hey Bridge...any chance the continuous litany of negative headlines and articles (poisoned Michigan, for example) has anything to do with feelings of despair? Those of us who are old enough know the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act (for example) have greatly improved our situation since the 60’s. We still have challenges, but please, not everything is a crisis. Maybe if the media didn't sensationalize everything normalcy would be easier too see.