Bonnie McLelland had just sat down to a Mother's Day dinner with her son Tim when she spotted something shiny on his arm. Show it to me, she said. No, Tim answered. "You're going to fall asleep at some point and I'll just go in and look," she countered. "You might as well show me now."
Tim unveiled his left forearm.
"I am in hell," it said. He had scrawled the words with a hot ballpoint pen.
Eighteen months later, on Jan. 21, 2002, Timothy Michael McLelland would commit suicide in his bedroom in the Seminole house he shared with his mother. He was 17. He was one of 40 people ages 15-24 to take their own lives in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties last year. He was among the roughly 1,600 teens to commit suicide in the United States last year.
Tim McLelland's suicide note, barely legible because of his severe dyslexia, ended, "Learn from this and help each other." His death caused a series of aftershocks that left his friends in a black hole of guilt and hopelessness. Some of them also considered suicide, and two actually killed themselves. His mother, meanwhile, was moved to form a suicide awareness organization that would help teach the kids to watch out for each other and foster a collective healing. But she, too, would nearly opt for the permanent solution.
In the face of continuing anguish, Bonnie McLelland leads the Pinellas chapter of the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program, which meets twice a month in the showroom of Scott Buick in Pinellas Park. Tim's death is never far from her mind. "It's the only thing I can do for my son," she says. "It was his last request."
Youth suicide is not exactly a hot-button issue. When Gov. Jeb Bush held a news conference for Florida Suicide Prevention Day on March 26, veteran St. Petersburg Times reporter Lucy Morgan opened the Q&A period with a question about the Equal Rights Amendment, effectively squeezing suicide out of the discussion.
"For most people, [suicide] is probably a squeamish topic," says Dan Casseday, whose 16-year-old son killed himself in March 2002. "But it's certainly a huger issue than SARS. If people understood the statistics about suicide, there'd be panic about that."
Suicide ranks as the third leading cause of death for young people, behind accidents and homicide. Suicides account for 1.2 percent of all deaths in the U.S., but they comprise nearly 13 percent of deaths in the 15-24 age group. In 2000, Florida's overall suicide rate ranked 11th among states, the highest in the eastern part of the country.
The death toll tells only part of the story. Recent data released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that approximately 3-million youths ages 12-17 thought about or attempted suicide in 2000. More than a half-million teens a year make suicide attempts requiring medical attention.
Girls are nearly twice as prone as boys to attempt suicide, but boys are more than four times as likely to kill themselves. Girls tend to take pills, while boys resort to more violent means: guns or ropes.
Can there be a worse way than suicide for a child to die? Can there be a more devastating event for a parent? "It's against the nature of things," says Sheryle Baker, director of Life Center of Tampa. "Parents are supposed to keep their kids safe."
Bonnie McLelland walks into the Scott Buick showroom and props a framed photo collage of her late son on a table. She's wearing black pants and a black Yellow Ribbon T-shirt with "Learn from this and help each other" inscribed on the back. She greets 23 people — split about evenly between adults and kids — who sit classroom-style in front of her.
A palpable pain courses through the room. Jan Plum has had six friends and relatives take their own lives. Her daughter, sitting in the row behind her, threatened suicide a couple of months ago. Carol Yaros' husband attempted to kill himself two weeks before her son completed suicide last June. Her husband, she says, is still in bad shape.
A burly 15-year-old we'll call Brendan, with dark features and deep, sad eyes, attempted suicide on Jan. 1 by mixing powerful cold medicine and alcohol. Barely conscious, he staggered into the living room and mumbled, "I don't wanna die." His mother, who sits next to him during the Yellow Ribbon meeting, says she took him to the emergency room, where he stayed five days, followed by a short spell in a mental health facility. Caregivers mistakenly gave him anti-psychotic medication, she says, which caused her son to have severe muscle spasms.
Brendan is withdrawn, speaks in clipped sentences barely above a whisper. Why did he try to end his life?