This is part of a package of stories taking a look at Cherry Creek School District's response to student suicide deaths this year, including policy changes the district has made.
The stories also look at the lives of some of the students who died by suicide this year.
To read the main story and the other pieces, click here.
Suicidal thoughts can be reduced with proper mental health support. If you are in need of mental health help, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255 — or text TALK to 38255 — to talk to a professional.
Walter Sykes couldn’t take it anymore.
“Snapchat is probably one of the worst. You post on your story and people watch, and it blows up,” said Sykes, who grew tired of seeing his peers circulating each other’s posts and “going at” each other. “Everybody’s story, there is something negative there. I don’t like that. I’m not used to seeing people always be negative.”
Sykes, a Smoky Hill High School senior, halted his social media activity. And when it comes to teenagers feeling the weight of social media, he’s not alone: Students’ experiences can range from feeling isolated to severe bullying.
Fifteen-year-old Jack Padilla, a Cherry Creek High School freshman, took his own life after students allegedly bullied him on social media, suggesting he kill himself and threatening use of a weapon, according to his family.
Another student in the Cherry Creek School District — 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis — died by suicide after a video of her fighting with a girl who had allegedly bullied her ended up on social media, her family told FOX31 Denver in 2017. Finding out the video had been posted further caused her pain, the family added.
Suicide is complex, and there are almost always multiple causes. That can include treatable mental illnesses, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The “relentless” nature of people criticizing each other on social media is an issue young people today have to face, unlike their parents, said Rick Padilla, Jack Padilla’s father.
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“Here, acceptance is No. 1 for these kids. When you start getting bombarded at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning … it’s very different. You want to be liked,” Padilla said. “I have a problem with Jimmy at school, I go home, Jimmy sends me a Snapchat and copies 20 other people … (they say), 'I don’t like you either — Jimmy’s right.’ And all of a sudden, where are my friends?”
Sykes, who later resumed using social media to communicate with family, said students feel like social media can be an outlet, but he disagrees.
“It’s supposed to be another world — you’re supposed to be able to get away, but you can’t,” Sykes said. “The same people who treat you bad in school treat you bad in social media, and there’s no outlet, really.”
Cherry Creek schools have taught students about healthy social media use for years, said Tony Poole, an assistant superintendent for the school district.
“Our superintendent is very fond of saying that he has not bought a single student in the district their cellphone — except for one, his kid,” Poole said. “Nor does he allow kids in the district to be on Snapchat at 2 a.m. We need help. We need parents to know what their kids are doing on social media.”
The district doesn’t have a large-scale program to make parents more aware of their teens’ social media use — “You don’t want to be too pushy with that,” Poole said — but he says the district tries to raise awareness in small-scale conversations.
“In the end, what you want to do is teach kids how to have healthy social interactions. That’s the goal,” Poole said. “Have a healthy self-concept.”
Concerning social media posts are among the factors that can lead to a referral for a suicide risk assessment, said Eric Zimmerman, one of the district’s six mental health coordinators.
That’s where mental health staff discuss with a student how fleshed-out any suicidal thoughts may be and, later, work with them on coping strategies or other supports, as well as easing them back into the school environment if they’ve been hospitalized.
Although social media is a modern outlet for venting distress, what students say they’re struggling with hasn’t changed much throughout the years, said Zimmerman, whose position helps oversee mental health in the Grandview High School area.
“A lot (has) to do with relationships, whether it be with a boyfriend or girlfriend or a friend group,” Zimmerman said about what may have students down or depressed. “Some of it has to do with family life.”
There isn’t likely a direct link between using social media and having suicidal thoughts, said Sarah Brummett, director of the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention. And social media can be effective as a platform on which to share experiences, find support and connect with others, she added.
Interactions that play out on social media can contribute to feeling like an outsider, Brummett said, “which could lead to thoughts of suicide, but I wouldn’t say there’s that causal link. There’s a lot of things that can make us feel that way.”
One way social media negatively affects students is by throwing off their “sleep hygiene,” Brummett said.
“Young people’s need for sleep are different than for different ages,” Brummett said. “If someone’s on social media, it can disrupt their sleep patterns, which can exacerbate (other issues) they’re dealing with.”
Young people have other mental health challenges that find them on the other side of a generational line, too. Often, adults reinforce a stigma about mental health that can be counterproductive.
Zimmerman points to a “lack of understanding or awareness from parents understanding mental health and dismissing it as just a phase — those kinds of things are still prominent," he said. Some parents say students are "just trying to get attention," Zimmerman added.
Padilla, the father, said he’s talked to many adults about how conversations surrounding suicide were different when they were teenagers.
“It was the family secret — you didn’t talk about it. Better you deal with it quietly,” Padilla said. “I think today, kids are very comfortable talking about it. The stressors are different today.”
Olivia Langford says her son, Jackson Langford — an Eaglecrest student who died by suicide this spring — struggled with finding meaning in thinking about his future. Langford feels that kind of phenomenon is happening at a younger age for people today.
“He’s definitely not the only kid I know of,” Langford said. “When I talked about this with a few friends who have teenagers, they said their kid is going through that (questioning), and they didn’t go through it when they were a teenager.”
The “existential crisis” that young adults might feel — like Langford said she did when she finished college — is easier to navigate when a person is older, she said.
“But I think the only thing that would have helped him maybe is if it was normal,” Langford said, “and if he knew it’s OK to slow down and it’s OK to say no to things.”
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