Mother of teen suicide victim: Parents think, 'My kid won't do that'

Posted February 23, 2012
Updated February 24, 2012

— Every year, more than 1,000 North Carolinians commit suicide, and about 5 percent of those are under the age of 20, according to a study by the North Carolina Division of Public Health. Children often show signs they’re struggling, but experts say many family and friends don’t recognize the signals.

Carolyn Zahnow says she knew her 18-year-old son, Cameron Stephenson, was struggling with depression, but says she missed the signs that he was suicidal. In 2005, she found Cameron dead, hanging from a rafter in their attic.

“Parents have got to be in touch with their kids,” Zahnow said. “They just push them aside. They say, ‘Oh, you're a teenager. You'll be alright.’ You have to pretend they're little kids still. They need you.”

Zahnow shares her story with parents and teenagers and urges them to see the signs she missed. She also wrote and self-published a book called, Save the Teens.

Looking back, Zahnow says she realizes her son began a downward spiral of depression and drugs around age 15, just after his father died from melanoma.

He started having trouble in school and went to rehab several times. One of the key signs she discovered after Cameron’s death was a journal filled with suicidal poetry and disturbing pictures, as well as a suicidal blog.

“You could read in the journal all his paranoid thoughts. It was really kind of scary,” she said.

Experts say the biggest predictors of youth suicide are depression, relationship problems and substance abuse. A February 2011 study on suicide by the N.C. Division of Public Health showed that, on average, 1,600 people in the state, ages 10 to 19, visit the emergency room each year after suicide attempts. More than 50 children kill themselves each year in the state.

“(Parents) all have these blinders on, ‘Oh, my kid won’t do that,’” Zahnow said. “Over and over, I hear parents who have lost teens say, ‘If only I’d seen the signs.’”

Cameron Stephenson Mother talks about losing teen son to suicide

Zahnow says, although she missed some signs her son was struggling, she feels she did everything she could for him at the time, including sending him to several doctors and therapists.

“You just can't save all them. Some people are just determined to die,” she said.

Jane Miller, director of the North Carolina Suicide Prevention program, says today’s fast-paced society has contributed to the stress young people feel. Children dealing with crises can often be prone to suicidal thoughts, she said.

“Worthlessness, loneliness, you'll see individuals isolate from others,” she said.

Miller says the state's research has shown the number one way to prevent youth suicide is parent and community involvement in their lives. Parents should not be judgmental or offer advice – just listen.

“(Try) to set aside a time just between you and your child to discuss what's going on in their lives,” she said.

The state's Youth Suicide Prevention Task Force has launched a campaign called It's OK 2 Ask, which encourages children and their parents to talk about the issue.

“For every suicide, there are at least six individuals that are profoundly affected,” Miller said.

Hayley McHugh, a 10th-grader at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School, says she knows what can happen when teens spiral downward. She lost a friend to suicide last year and has had several other friends try to kill themselves.

“I think I blame myself for it a little bit. If I'd stayed friends with him, I could have done something,” she said. “It will always be with me. It's not something that you can just have that process of grief and just get over it an accept it. It will always be with you, no matter what.”

Cyberspace is a place where teens often share intimate thoughts and, in troubling times, pleas for help. Hayley, 15, says she has seen these pleas. (Report suicidal users on Facebook.)

“There (are) more drugs and more problems. Our generation is pretty much diseased,” she said. “We're so deep in the hole that we can't make it better.”

Bullying often plays a role in teen depression and suicide, especially name-calling, according to Hayley.

“It not only makes them question themselves, but question humanity and what they're doing and how their life is,” she said.

Experts who work in the suicide prevention field say one of the biggest issues they face is the unwillingness of parents and school leaders to talk about suicide with children. Some believe talking about suicide puts the idea in a young person’s mind, which health experts say is false.

Hayley reiterates the message that communication is key. She says most teenagers strive to make their parents proud.

“Acknowledge them in what they do, that they are good enough,” she said. “Just listen to them. That's what I think they really need.”


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  • claygriffith01 Mar 2, 2012

    This trend of increasing suicides seems like another symptom of the busy, gotta make sure I get mine, type of people this generations parents have become. It's time to remember what's important in life. Our kids learn their value by how they are treated by their parents. If they are just another check box on your busy list of things to do, how can they grow up with a strong sense of confidence and self worth?

  • snowmentality Feb 24, 2012

    I wonder how much early school start times contribute to teen depression. Teenagers have trouble physically falling asleep until 11 PM or later, because of hormones and the way their brains are developing. And then they have to get up at 5 AM to get to school by 7. Chronic sleep deprivation isn't good for anyone's mental health. If you're already prone to depression, it can make things a lot worse.

    And as nic and SingleLensReflex.SLR said -- teenagers are often dramatic. But if they're talking about or threatening suicide, take it seriously. Don't dismiss it as just teenage drama or an attempt at manipulation. No matter how they say it, it's a cry for help.

  • connieleigh4 Feb 24, 2012

    This is such a tragedy. For anyone to see that suicide is the only option and they see no other way out. My heart is just heavy with grief that anyone would be in such need of help, and no one reaches out or cares to help them.

    pskunk119: I am so sorry for your loss. Praying for everyone involved.

  • pskunk119 Feb 24, 2012

    Just found out today that the daughter of a good friend of mine committed suicide last night. I just saw him last night before hand. She was 19. Terrible news.

  • Supie Feb 24, 2012

    so true. My job brings me in contact w/parents of 3-5 suicidal teens every week and they ALL say "yes he said he had the thoughts but he won't do anything, the situation isn't that bad". But we ALL have to remember, teens are highly dramatic, that comes with the age. Its their developmental level to be dramatic and they do act on it. Its reality to them. Take the large bottles of Tylenol out of the meds cab, liver damage.

  • barbstillkickin Feb 24, 2012

    I feel what this Mother is doing should be highly commendable She has lost her son and is trying to save others children. Mine are both grown up but I have known many parents rich and poor that have lost children to suicide. It does not have a barrier so please talk to your children. I know she wishes she could have seen the signs well enough/ Pay attention parents it can happen to you. Please do not regret talking to your child before you lose that child to suicide.

  • NC Reader Feb 24, 2012

    I'm not sure whether there has been an actual rise in suicides or whether there has only been a rise in REPORTED suicides. When I was growing up, "suicide" was a word that wasn't even mentioned. Families kept it quiet when a member killed him/herself. Sometimes even doctors and police would report suicides as accidental deaths to avoid "shaming" the family. Now, although it is still something that many families hide (and I don't pass judgment on those families), it is much more out in the open. Parents will talk about it in hopes of helping other parents recognize the signs.

    It wasn't until I was grown that I learned that several deaths of young people I knew of were due to suicide. A couple of them had been bullied horribly, both physically and socially.

  • Relic Feb 24, 2012

    fishstory - And kids have been that way since Cain and Able. What is your point? That every young person that commits suicide because of "peer pressure"? Simply not true. I've rarely met a "sweet" kid in my life. That's why they're supposed to have ADULTS to lead them in the right direction. But I have known kids to attempt or commit suicide when there was no evidence of peer pressure or bullying, etc. Sometimes it is an inability to deal with true depression that parents and many doctors and counselors are not able to recognize and diagnose. In the end the only person that knows why a suicide occurs is the person that committed the suicide and that's the hardest thing for many parents and friends.

  • Relic Feb 24, 2012

    A "suicide victim" is the parents, family and loved ones of someone that commits suicide. If you intentionally do something to yourself you are not a "victim". And, yes, I have experienced family members committing suicide so I know "what it's like". It is tragic, horrible and no matter what you do or say it will never be "right" again because of the guilt and the loss. But to call the person that committed suicide, as much as I loved them, a "victim" is simply political correctness and a way to avoid dealing with the issue. This tragic young man committed suicide, he was not a victim of it.

  • momeeee Feb 24, 2012

    Kids do have it better in some ways but with social media they are "always on" - always seeing what "fun" others are supposedly having. My child also had friends commit suicide & it is terribly sad for all involved. Parents please try to spend one-on-one time with your teens. They really do need you!