Cyberbullying and suicide

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Parents and students alike are bombarded with messages about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse and unsafe sex. Even with word that the number of teens planning or attempting suicide in Kentucky is higher than the national average, we're still not talking about it enough. Being bullied is definitely not new, but the Journal of Adolescent Health found kids who were cyberbullied were much more depressed than victims facing physical bullying.

"What does a kid look like that's bullied?" asked Steve Ulrich, Parent and Suicide Prevention and Awareness Educator. "Walk through the halls and see if you can identify what they look like. We don't know until sometimes it's too late."

Ulrich asked that question with such emotion and importance, it was chilling.  Almost frightening.

Breaking news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and plain heartbreaking news, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Kentuckians 15-19 years old. In the past two decades the rate of suicide among 10 - 14 year olds has almost doubled.

Again with force, Ulrich makes it clear, "their problem is real."

Eighth grader Ashley Moore was quiet, but confident.

"Really don't think parents understand," said Ashley. "When they were younger, I don't think a lot of bullying like how it happens now, happened then."

Thanks to technology and the cyber age, kids can be bullied 24 hours a day anywhere by more people in more ways than ever before. A Neilson study discovered a teen sends as many as 2,200 texts a month. Fifty one percent of teens check their social website at least once a day and 22 percent check more than 10 times a day. Ulrich explains parents who do or do not understand this day and age must watch their approach to treating the problem.

"To tell that kid to 'suck it up, it's not a big deal honey.'  Yes it is a big deal to them.  It's the biggest deal in their life," Ulrich almost begins to shout as he seems to get both emotional and angry.

It could be because what happens to our society's kids here and around the world is also the biggest deal in Ulrich's life. In a gut wrenching confession Ulrich explains, "All I am is a father who's lost a son."

Ulrich's stepson Nathan shot himself. Nathan's headstone reads "tell them momma, a life's too much to lose." Nathan's mother left her job in media after his death and is now Kentucky's state suicide prevention coordinator. Steve is a non-stop educator, activist and very passionate voice for suicide awareness and prevention.  Looking for Lilith, a local theater company has joined the effort with an interactive play on cyber-bullying and suicide.

A simple, but very true explanation comes from Choices/Looking for Lilith cast member Jennifer Kepler-Thalman.

"People who may not bully someone face to face in school will send a message to a blank screen," Kepler-Thalman said.

The play is called Choices. It is based on real life stories, using the story of Rachel Neblett's true-life story as its key inspiration. Rachel's dad, Mark Neblett, writes:

"If I had understood the warning signs and knew help was out there, we might have saved Rachel. She was so bubbly and loved life. We found out she was being cyber stalked. I was like the old school dad and told her not to worry. In my day, we were eye to eye and this stuff didn't last. She said, 'You don't understand, it's different.' She was right. She must have been tore up inside. These kids can't see how much their bullying is hurting that person. The day it happened everything was the same, just like every morning. She walked me out the door and waved. Later, her mother found her dead by suicide. There's not a day that goes by that I don't cry. I'm doing what my heart needs to do, help people and get the word out about cyber-bullying and suicide."

"What is the most difficult to me is the realization that many, many, many students in the audience know exactly how this feels," Thalman-Kepler says tearfully.

In the play, just as the character makes the terrible decision to take her life the play stops, but it begins again giving the students in the audience a chance to talk about the problem and make a different choice that would change the outcome from tragedy to the first step toward of new life of chances.

"We got to decide how to change it," eighth grader Sarah Goble explained, "which is a good way for us as teenagers to figure out different ways and other ways to communicate with people."

Life is the sum of all our choices. Not having the chance to do it over, Ulrich wants other parents to know this.

"If we knew then what we know today Nathan would be alive. We didn't see anything, but we weren't looking."

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