Ashley Willitts was only 16 when she killed herself in January 2002.
Although she seemed happy, she was struggling in school. Her parents thought she was making As and Bs, but she was really failing her classes. And she exhibited none of the typical warning signs of suicide, said her mother, Kelley Willitts, 43, of Waldorf.
“She was just a teenager,” Willitts said.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teenagers 15 to 19 in Maryland, after accidents and homicides, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count 2004 Data Book, mirroring a national trend.
On the night she died, friends say Ashley was her usual self, laughing and joking while out at a friend’s house. Although she was grounded for coming home late that evening, Willitts said that was nothing unusual.
Ashley was one of the 27 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 who completed suicide in Maryland in 2002, a rate of 7.1 deaths per 100,000, down from 28 deaths in 2001, a rate of 7.6 deaths per 100,000.
Teen suicide rates in Maryland have remained relatively low over the last six years, averaging around 6.9 deaths per 100,000 between 1996 and 2001, for teens 15 to 19, according to a Capital News Service analysis of Teen Death data.
The most recent statistics for teen suicide show that nationally, 1,513 young people between 15 and 19 completed suicides in 2002, a rate of 7.4 deaths per 100,000, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online database.
But while these rates seem low, many say the number of young people completing suicide is still too high.
“Young people simply don’t die from much of anything other than their own incautious behavior and the behavior of others,” said John McIntosh, professor of psychology at Indiana University South Bend.
Young people think about suicide more often than people realize, McIntosh said, and they make more attempts.
“It is a fairly common behavior in young adulthood, and by itself it may say we’re not doing enough about it.”
Adolescents are strongly influenced by their friends and have limited life experiences, psychologists say, making them particularly susceptible to suicidal behavior.
“(Teenagers) don’t have a great deal of perspective. We know developmentally, teenagers are very influenced by their peers,” said David Jobes, a psychology professor at The Catholic University of America.
“In terms of all the age groups, young people, teens and children, make up a very small piece of this pie . . . but the fact that they might be taking their own lives is just horrifying. This is the next generation, these are the ones we pin our hopes on.”
Experts say suicide doesn’t have to happen if problems are identified and treated.
“I really feel suicide is preventable, like I feel violence is preventable,” said Henry Westray, youth suicide prevention administrator with the state Mental Hygiene Administration.
“It’s a matter of making sure you have resources . . . and giving kids an option, in terms of places to go, people to call and things to do.”
But Willitts was unable to prevent her daughter, Ashley, from taking her own life, a fact she now accepts.
“It would have been different if we knew there was a problem,” said Willitts, who has since given away four scholarships in memory of her daughter.
Willitts would not talk about how Ashley died, saying she did not want to replay that image for herself and her family. But she did say they had little warning Ashley was so troubled.
“Ashley didn’t have those signs, like loss of appetite, or giving away possessions and withdrawing from people. Ashley didn’t do any of those things,” Willitts said. “It was only her school work, but none of the teachers said anything.”
Mental health issues, including suicide, retain a societal stigma, making many people reluctant to discuss it, said psychologists and advocates.
“This is still an issue that’s not discussed enough because people are afraid to go there,” said Lisa Hurka Covington, founder and president of SPEAK, Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids.
Covington, who lost her sister to suicide more than 13 years ago, says more needs to be done to open the eyes of parents, teachers and politicians.
In October, President Bush signed into law the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which authorizes $82 million over three years in grants for supporting mental health services and suicide prevention programs for children and young adults.
While the number of deaths by suicide decreased both in Maryland and nationally between 2001 and 2002 for teenagers 15 to 19, psychologists and state officials are leery of saying it’s becoming less of a problem.
“We’re encouraged that the rates have incrementally decreased,” said Jobes. “But we’re not smug or overly confident in thinking that the problem is over. There are still a lot of kids taking their own lives.”
It is also important to consider the number of young people who have attempted suicide, have suicidal thoughts or are living very self-destructive life-styles, Jobes said.
“Suicide completions are just the tip of the iceberg,” Jobes said.
Advocates say suicidal people feel they’re “trapped in a tunnel” with no other way out.
“Many of the people who complete suicide want their pain to end, not necessarily their life,” said Covington. “This is a tragedy that can be prevented if we can help people see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Willitts has learned not to blame herself for Ashley’s death.
“It’s been three years of healing,” said Willitts. “She was such an important person in our family. She was like the glue.”
But Willitts also wants people to realize it’s OK to talk about suicide, and to move on.
“You should not be ashamed to say how your child died, because if you don’t talk about them, who is,” Willitts said. “And it’s okay to smile.”