Past the Tipping Point: Two teen suicides influenced by social media

Past the Tipping Point: Two teen suicides influenced by social media

BATTLE GROUND, Wash. - What role did the Internet play in pushing two young girls past the emotional tipping point and into taking their own lives?

KATU On Your Side Investigator Anna Canzano has learned that disturbing messages and online postings on two popular websites – Facebook and Instagram – preceded the deaths of Anna Ishikawa on January 12th and Isabelle Sarkinen on December 5th.

Both of the girls were 8th graders in the Battle Ground School District.

Friends Aleia Baker and Nicole Lastiri are in a unique position to shed light on what happened to Anna and Isabelle. The two, who are stepsisters, were friends with Anna and Isabelle.

Aleia was closer to Anna and Nicole was closer to Isabelle.

“The month before she did it, Isabelle told me, ‘Nicole, they’re calling me a fat slut. Fat and ugly.’ And I was just, ‘They’re just jealous.’ But they weren’t stopping. She was like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’” Nicole said. “She told me she felt that nobody cares about all the hateful words being said to her over Facebook and nobody would do anything about it.”

Nicole said Isabelle was particularly hurt by something a boy had said to her, which was related in a Facebook message to Nicole. The boy wrote Isabelle to say things like “why would I date you?” “you don’t deserve to be treated right” and “you got dumped you deserve it.”

Other parts of the message are so disturbing and profane that we didn’t think it was prudent to publish them. 

We don’t know what else Isabelle was dealing with in her life, but we do know that ten days later she killed herself. She was 13 years old.

“Isabelle was bullied a little bit - I don't know if she did it because of the bullying. Anna was bullied, too: rude name calling, people just putting them down," Nicole said.

Aleia explained that Anna was the target of criticism for, of all things, her hairstyle.

"Sometimes people called her a guy because she had that short haircut. People would talk to her, tease her, like, 'you're so weird, you're different than anybody,'" said Aleia.

"She told me in school, 'I just hate my life,’” Aleia added. “I was like 'don't say that.' And she said, 'Well, everybody is calling me a slut and saying that I'm so ugly.' A lot of people were saying that and calling her that."

Aleia said Anna also recently went through a breakup.

“Then she started cutting herself a little bit,” Aleia recounted. “Off and on for months. She had been doing it a little bit last year then she stopped. Just her fiends knew. But I saw she cut her wrist - she was wearing a long sleeve shirt over and told me not to touch her. That made me worried, so I was talking to my step-mom, making a plan."

A day later, Anna was dead – another 8th grader gone, leaving the children around her trying to unravel what went wrong.

It’s a question that the adults in these girls’ lives are also grappling with.

KATU visited a parent training session held last week in the middle school gym where mental health experts told moms and dads they need to check their kids’ phones and Internet activity. In other words, plug in to their lives and know what’s happening.

"We need to let them talk about what they are feeling,” explained Mary Jadwisiak, field coordinator with Washington’s Youth Suicide Prevention Program. “And then we need to validate those feelings."

Otherwise, Principal David Cresap explained, so-called “frenemy conflicts” can end up amplified in the echo chambers of Facebook and Instagram. The term “frenemy” in a slang term for kids who are friends one day and enemies the next.

The Battle Ground School District will also convene a “prevention committee” on Thursday night to help families cope with what is becoming a crisis.

"What we have seen is this back and forth name calling, people getting upset,” said Cresap. “But it gets magnified in a social media setting where it can go out to a whole bunch of people."

Nicole’s mother, Jennifer Lastiri, agrees.

“In our day, you'd have to insult somebody to their face, or have enough guts to call them on the phone and insult them,” Jennifer said. “Now you can text them or Facebook them and say, ‘you're a slut’ and hide behind a computer. It just makes it so much easier to hurt people and bully them without any repercussion.”

Anna’s Instagram account reveals a girl who was hurting. Multiple images and messages point to her pain.

The kids who knew these girls weren’t trained to see the signs, but they are now sharing what they know in hopes that their messages will prevent future suicides.

They are middle school students hoping to prevent more middle school deaths.

Said Nicole, “When another girl says, ‘oh, you’re fat, you’re ugly,’ I think it hurts more than getting into a physical fight.”

“Talk to us more often,” added Aleia. “Check in, make sure we’re all right. Parents, be more protective of your children, make sure they’re not being bullied.”

Another school friend, Brandon Bishop, said adults need to be more aware of the unspoken messages they’re sending.

“I know a lot of parents who go to work, come home, do nothing – they play their Facebook games, zone out of everything – then kids are hurting in their homes,” he said. “There's still kids who are silent about it and some parents don't have the relationship with their kids to open up and talk like that. But just put yourself out there. Eventually, your kids will come and talk.”

According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Project, 39 percent of sixth graders in Washington reported feeling depression or sad most days in the past year. One out of five Washington eighth graders considered suicide in the previous year.

We want to be clear that this story is not an effort to assign blame, but rather to share lessons that could help save young lives. The parents of both girls are aware of our story and realize it is important for the public to know what happened.

We’re also not trying to blame bullying alone on social networks like Facebook or Instagram.

But what’s different than when many of us were kids is that if a child has conflict with someone at school, they can’t escape it when they head home. A mean text message or Facebook post can pop in at any time and because of technology it can spread to an entire school very quickly.

And bullying is a pervasive problem. In 2010, Washington’s Healthy Youth Survey found that 30 percent of Grade 6 and 8 students, 24 percent of Grade 10 students, and 17 percent of Grade 12 students reported being bullied in the past 30 days.

Research has shown that being a victim, perpetrator, or even a witness to bullying is associated with multiple behavioral, emotional, and social problems. According to the most recent HYS analysis of the problem:

  • Nearly 1/4 of 10th graders who reported being bullied also reported having made a suicide attempt in the past 12 months
  • Half of the 12th graders who reported being bullied also reported feeling sad and hopeless almost every day for two weeks in a row

Resources for youth:

  • Mind Your Mind: A non-profit dedicated to providing reliable information for youth dealing with depression, anxiety, and suicide. The site contains youth-specific resources, tips for coping with mental illness issues, and the personal stories of youth who have experienced and overcome these issues.
  • Reach Out: A website for youth, by youth, with information on how to help yourself or a friend who is thinking about suicide. Allows youth to share their stories about overcoming depression and suicide in an online, supportive environment.
  • We Can Help Us: A collection of videos made by real teens who have gone through a variety of different challenges and overcome them. Also allows other youth to share their own stories in a supportive environment.
  • The Trevor Project: A website dedicated to helping LGBTQ youth dealing with depression, anxiety, and suicide. Also operates a 24-hour crisis hotline, 1-866-4-U-TREVOR.
  • The Jed Foundation: A resource for college students containing information about depression and anxiety among college students, and information about how to get help at school.
  • An online resource that offers information about how to find and contact a therapist, and how to make sure your therapist is right for you. Also offers resources for connecting to a therapist online for 'e-therapy'.
  • Teen forum on suicide being held in Battle Ground

Resources for parents:

  • Association for Behavioral Cognitive Therapies: Offers information for parents about childhood mental health issues and advice on finding the best treatment for you and your family.
  • Lok-It-Up: A campaign to promote the safe storage of firearms. Offers advice on how to safely store firearms and prevent teen firearm suicide.
  • ASK Campaign: A website dedicated to gun safety. Information about firearm deaths and tips for preventing your children from gun violence.

Resources for Educators:

  • Evergreen Education Association: The Evergreen Education Association is holding a "Diversity and Social Justice Conference" in February with a session that will focus on suicide prevention.

Letter from principal at Chief Umtuch Middle School:

Dear Parents of Chief Students,

     As you know the past week has been difficult at Chief. Our students have been dealing with some very heavy issues. Emotions have been high and many students have had to confront themselves and how they deal with others students. For many, relationships have been “on again, off again.” A new word has even been coined: frenemy. This refers to a person who is your friend today, your enemy tomorrow, your friend the next day, and so on.

     And here’s what makes it worse: Facebook. Now I don’t have a Facebook account, and I don’t want to speak out of place. I’m sure some aspects of social networking have merit. But I also know what I observe each day in working with our children. For most, the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. Kids engage in petty disagreements and small problems become large; they lose a sense of what it means to be confidential; they spend far too much time doing something that adds almost nothing to their skills and abilities in becoming productive adults. And worst of all: they tend to be meaner when they type than when they talk face to face. In most cases, in my opinion, our kids when Facebooking, are developing poor habits that diminish their ability to form and maintain positive relationships.

     As you might suspect, this has great impact on our school. Nearly all Facebooking by students is done outside school walls and outside school time.  Yet it comes to us each day. Before we even begin our day, some students are upset with each other because of comments made late in the evening before – often in a “conversation” that didn’t even involve them at the start. Sad.

     So … I want to challenge you. For the good of all our children, please monitor closely your kids’ Facebook accounts. Limit their time; read their comments. For some, I’d even suggest closing their accounts altogether and going without. This would actually be my first choice. Hopefully the word frenemy will be short lived. May our kids learn to develop relationships where a friend today is a friend tomorrow.  True, we face many challenges in helping our kids learn – not all our bad habits can be attributed to Facebook. But the challenge of controlling Facebook is immediate, and, if we succeed, the impact will be positive and great. Please, let’s accept this challenge now.

-Dave Cresap