STILLWATER — Once again parents and a community are left to grieve and grapple with questions after a young person violently ended his life.
Cade Poulos, 13, shot himself in the head with a handgun 10 minutes before the morning bell Wednesday morning at Stillwater Junior High School, sending shocked students fleeing the grisly scene in a school hallway. His very public death highlighted the problem of teen suicide in a state that far exceeds the national average for this problem.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Oklahomans ages 10-24, according to the state Health Department.
It's a complex problem requiring community involvement, said Ken Elliott, a licensed family and marriage counselor who serves as co-chairman of a suicide prevention task force in Edmond.
The task force has been around for several years, but after a rash of youth suicides in January — three in three weeks, one of them an eighth-grader — it began taking on a new prominence.
“Suicide cuts across all places of worship, places of work, public and private schools — it's a community tragedy,” Elliott said. “We as people tend to be too judgmental and too quick to decide, ‘Oh, it's a school problem,' or, ‘Oh, that's a bullying problem,' but it's not. It's more complicated than that.”
Bullying became a question after Wednesday's shooting in Stillwater, with numerous comments posted on a memorial Facebook page for Poulos. Most criticized the school for failing to protect its students. None, however, named a specific act of bullying waged against the eighth-grader. Authorities said they were investigating the possibility of bullying but said there were no official records that he had been bullied.
Friend didn't see problems
Clairissa Mouton, a ninth-grader at Stillwater Junior High who was familiar with Poulos, said if there was bullying she never saw it. But her school, she said, is no different from others. Bullying, for some kids, is a problem. The junior high houses about 750 students in grades eight and nine.
“Sometimes younger kids and new kids and stuff that really don't know anyone yet, or kids that might not be as smart as anyone else — we're like other schools,” she said. “But if a teacher hears about someone being bullied then they go up to them, and the first week of school or something they always have an assembly and you hear about bullying.”
Mouton said she's seen plenty of joking, teasing and bullying at the school so far this year. But she never saw Poulos, described by school officials as a good student with a friendly smile and a shock of red hair, as a target.
“I know he was really happy and stuff in school. He never actually said he was bullied to anyone I know of,” she said. “But he didn't hang out with the really popular-popular kids; it was more like the normal groups. He was just kind of in the middle.”
State's suicide rate
The suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 in Oklahoma is a moving target in any given year, but the recent average is just fewer than 10 incidents per 10,000 people. For every suicide, there are 100 to 200 unsuccessful attempts, according to the state Health Department.
Oklahoma's general suicide rate is 31 percent higher than the national average.
“It is not caused by a single event such as a bad grade or an argument with parents or friends, or the breakup of a relationship — in most cases we know that suicide is caused by an underlying mental disorder like depression or substance abuse,” said Susan Parks-Schlepp, spokeswoman for Edmond Public Schools and a member of the Edmond suicide task force.
According to state Health Department data, boys are four times as likely as girls to commit suicide, but the prevalence of suicide attempts is higher among girls. The rate among Native American youth is 66 percent higher than that of whites, the data shows.
Depression can be a factor
Depression accounts for about 41 percent of youth suicides, according to the state Health Department. Other significant contributing factors include relationship problems (38 percent) and a personal crisis in the two weeks before the incident (30 percent), with many cases involving multiple factors.
Parks-Schlepp said Edmond Public Schools learned quite a bit about grief, mental illness and working together to identify possible suicide victims after January's spate of suicides.
The district sponsors annual training programs to teach suicide awareness to students and faculty and often focuses on bullying prevention, she said. Following Wednesday's tragedy, the district sent letters home to parents.
“While this incident has no direct effect on Edmond Public Schools, our entire school team is being extra vigilant in our sensitivity to and awareness of the mental and physical health of our students,” she said.
Part of the concern is that youth suicides can sometimes be contagious.
Though the incidents were unrelated, Stigler High School was closed Tuesday to mourn the suicide death of a senior and star football player there. One of the three students who died in six days' time in Jenks this month was a 15-year-old who committed suicide.
“Sometimes with youth suicide you can see trends, and so even if they don't seem to be related to each other, sometimes there can be increased youth suicides when these things hit the public,” Elliott said.
He said the best antidote is public awareness. To remove the stigma of suicide, he said, is to allow teens and young adults to express themselves in times of dramatic crisis. It might also help their support network become better acquainted with their individual cues, both verbal and nonverbal.
“Ask up front — ask the question: Are you having suicidal thoughts?” Elliott said. “Contrary to what people think, asking the question honestly and respectfully and carefully is not going to increase the anxiety and likelihood of suicide — it does the opposite. By asking the question you're conveying so much good information.”