‘We just didn’t even have a chance to save him’

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In an open letter to the Daily News, Eric Bartlett expressed his love for his son, Connor, and concerns for at-risk teens.

Special to the Daily News

DESTIN — The suicide of 14-year-old Connor Bartlett shocked and saddened an entire community.

The Fort Walton Beach High School freshman was an athlete with good grades, lots of friends and a loving family.

He showed no signs of depression or mental illness, said his father, Eric Bartlett, who has been grappling with trying to understand the reasons behind his son’s Sept. 26 death.

In an open letter to the Daily News, Eric expressed his love for his son and concerns for at-risk teens.

“We just didn’t even have a chance to save him,” he wrote.

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It is my hope that when people understand the circumstances of Connor’s death that they will understand this can happen to anyone, that we can’t assume anyone is safe from it, and that education and vigilance are vitally important.

There is a tendency to avoid the topic of suicide because of concern about glamorizing it or planting an idea. But experts all say that you need education and you need to directly ask a person “are you thinking of hurting yourself?” because this is the best way to get them to talk about it and the statistics clearly show that the thoughts are often there anyway. Like drug or sex education, or talking about bullying, the subject requires education for people to know how to deal with it.

Incredibly, about 1 out of every 5 high school students have thought about killing themselves and almost 1 in 10 have tried to. In an average high school class of 25 students, 5 students have considered killing themselves and 2 have tried. Across all age groups about 1 in 25 attempts are successful, for teens only about 1 in 200, but even with that low success rate, suicide is right up there with accidental death and cancer as the three leading causes of teen death. Other causes aren’t even close. Rates have increased significantly since about the year 2000 (widespread internet use and social media began at that time and has increased which most agree is no coincidence).

Risk factors are probably what you would expect: depression, other mental health problems, social withdrawal, rage, social issues like bullying or social awkwardness, relationship issues, family issues, family history, exposure to suicidal behavior or a suicide of someone close, alcohol and drug abuse, risk taking or lack of fear, increased stresses such as school, and other mental demands and stresses.

Connor did belong to some of these risk factor groups but we will never know which of these factors were weighing most heavily on him because, unlike nearly all suicide victims, with Connor there was a complete lack of the telltale signs usually apparent in someone that contemplates this act. This child had everything to live for and if he could do this then anyone could.

Most significant is that Connor showed no signs of depression or mental illness, as is usually seen, and he did not present to us any inkling of a suicide risk. There is almost always some warning or signs but not with him; we just didn’t even have a chance to save him.

Connor did have some social and relationship issues which are common to most or all teens at various times; these issues are the only thing that he had ever in his life mentioned bothering him emotionally, and he talked about them the night before, so it is likely that those factors were significant.

The scariest part of that for a parent is that all teens have these issues so it is difficult to identify a danger stemming from them unless accompanied by other concerning behavior. Unlike with adults who are more apt to be bothered by health or financial issues, with a teen suicide it is nearly always social issues that are the driver in their mind. There are nearly always other factors or signs that parents become aware of but Connor never did act depressed or even remotely suicidal about anything at any time; he always seemed amazingly sane, mature, and level-headed about his approach to life. He was outgoing and gregarious, caring and kind, happy and fun-loving.

Connor’s main known risk factor was his level of exposure to suicidal behavior. One of his best friends had killed himself three months earlier; this was a significant and intense experience for him but he seemed to handle it well and was very supportive of the parents and siblings; he reacted in a caring and mature way but we know it affected him deeply. Our family was on a surf vacation in Costa Rica but Connor insisted on coming back early to be there for his friends and for the family. Connor was always moved by the needs of others and was always there to help another human being in distress. I so wish that we could have been there to help him in his time of need.

Additionally, two school days before he died, he was present for a student remembrance of another freshman that had killed himself two years earlier; it involved a poignant and vivid public display of emotion. While education on the issue of suicide is so important, public memorials are not recommended. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends against them. That’s because students already vulnerable to suicide may be attracted to the idea of getting recognition or gratification in death.

These types of memorials are common; a normal human response for people grieving a loss. It is not intuitive to know how the psychology could play out and it can seem like the right thing to do; just one more reason that more education is needed. Though so appreciated, we would ask that memorials not be organized for Connor. We considered not even having a service but realized that the outpouring of eulogies on social media could be balanced by a service incorporating suicide prevention education, both spiritual and psychological.

Suicides often happen in clusters and two well-liked teens choosing this path now within 3 months and coinciding with this remembrance of the last occurrence is providing unusual exposure of our children to suicidal behavior. Any one that knew these kids has this risk factor. We must be vigilant, we must know the signs, and we must know what to do.

Another risk group for Connor was lack of fear; he was clearly not afraid of death or personal harm. Connor never seemed afraid of anything in life; he would paddle out into insanely big surf and he wanted to go to North Shore Hawaii to surf the biggest waves on the planet. The idea of skydiving, base-jumping, free rock climbing, and diving caves was very appealing to him. He sought adventure in life and didn’t fear the end of it. Fear usually prevents this act, When I was told that day that he had said it was his last day on earth I knew he meant it and that he was in grave danger. I fully expected at that moment that I would never see him alive again and I did not.

Connor was also deeply bothered by the evil in the world. He couldn’t understand why there was so much suffering, so much meanness, and why people hurt each other. He was a pacifist. He said he could never kill someone under any circumstances. He felt it was always better to turn the other cheek and approach the world with love. Connor was a champion of the downtrodden and a friend to everyone that would have him. He loved people and he loved life

There are a hundred things that could have made that day go differently but here are a few that we have some control over. Some may seem trivial to an adult but in a teen mind many things are blown out of proportion and when a child like Connor chooses to take his life you have to look hard for the underlying reasons because the big obvious ones that you’ll often find weren’t there.

I wish I would not have put pressure on Connor to make good grades. It was not excessive, probably less than most parents, but he knew we expected him to make good grades and it was just one more pressure of life for him when what he really wanted was to marry his girlfriend, move to Bali, and go surfing every day. It came easily for him but he didn’t really care about making good grades himself. The night before he died he was up doing homework and I let him stay up to finish. It’s very difficult as a parent to encourage productive behavior because it inherently involves adding stress to a child’s life. All kids are different and need direction but it is so hard to tell how exactly they are truly feeling inside so we need to be cautious in applying pressure to excel. The lowest suicide rates in the world are on many Caribbean islands where people try hard to live stress-free lives. Now that I’ve lost a child I realize how really unimportant his grades were.

I wish I would have told Connor to quit organized sports and just do the things he liked (surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, wake surfing). He didn’t like structured sports and would have been happier not doing them. We always told him he could quit any time and he probably wanted to but he kept on because he was a gifted athlete and because he was a pleaser; he always tried to do what parents and adults expected of him and what would make them happy; he didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I have come to realize that a child’s happiness needs to be of paramount importance and if they’re doing something that is not making them happy they should find something else. There are lots of great paths in life and maybe we should more let kids choose their own and encourage them to do only what makes them happy during their short time on earth.

I wish that Okaloosa County didn’t make our high school kids wake up in the dark for school. This is bad for any age group but worse for teens because their circadian rhythms change. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends school start times no earlier than 8:30 am. Only 2% of schools in the country start as early as 7 a.m. High school teens in Okaloosa County are sleep deprived and often miserable in class. Connor did well academically but, after loving school his whole life, he hated this first year of high school. He didn’t have first period and we made him go to bed by 8:30-9 p.m., but we still had to wake him from a sound sleep in the dark hours of the morning, much earlier than his body wanted to get up; he was sleepy and wasn’t eating as well in the morning anymore; typical for teens in our area, many of whom get up much earlier than he was.

I wish I would have gotten into my child’s phone more. I did more than many parents but it wasn’t enough. I had restrictions on his phone so it stopped working at 8:30 p.m. I had restrictions that prevented him from getting to above school age sites. I looked at his text messages and photos and his apps like Instagram and never found any problems, but I could have done more.

Removing the means can help prevent suicide. Guns account for about half of suicides, prescription drugs are about a third, and other means like suffocation can’t really be eliminated (Connor’s friend died from hanging; hanging has nearly the same lethality success rate as guns). I have guns in the house that are always locked up and Connor grew up without access to guns other than the couple of times we went bird hunting or the couple times he shot guns at skeet ranges or at our friends’ farm. Connor never killed anything; he was too young for the other hunters to allow him to shoot and he just picked up the birds. I remember how he would look at them lovingly and even pet their feathers for some time before he put them in the bag. It breaks my heart to remember how this impacted me; even then. Connor even wanted to be a vegetarian and we did it together for a while but I talked him out of it because I was concerned about nutrition with a child’s eating preferences. Connor was just a better person than me in so many ways. It’s so hard to reconcile the goodness that was in him with how his life was to end.

Teens are resourceful and can find ways to get at something in the home. As a minimum, in a home with any known suicide risk, the means need to be removed to the maximum extent possible. No one that knew Connor would have imagined in their wildest dreams that he was a suicide risk but the safest policy is not to have guns or pharmaceuticals in the house; pharmaceuticals are a risk to many age groups and guns are much more likely to be used in unintended ways than in any self-protection scenario (western states with strong gun cultures have the highest suicide rates). But based on the statistics it would be reasonable to assume that any teen in the home is a suicide risk.

Maybe the most important point, especially for teens, is that 80% of those who take their life tell someone that they are considering it. Whether or not you believe they mean it, you have to tell someone. Connor did say something but only fairly recently and not to an adult. We were not aware of this until he was already gone.

In general, the teen years are difficult but Connor always seemed to be doing just fine. There were no warning signs that would concern an attentive parent. This was a bolt out of the blue; completely unexpected. He had many friends, a loving family, incredible talents and beauty; everyone loved this kid and he had everything to live for. We tried to lead him to God and he believed in God and the afterlife. Connor is truly the best human being I have met in 53 years of life; an amazing force of goodness and humanity; he was my best friend, an amazing son, and an example to me in so many ways.

I am so fortunate to have had 14 years with him and I can’t help but to feel that I wasn’t good enough for him and that I failed him when he needed me most. I just know in my heart that God wanted him back; in my moments of complete despair I have felt God telling me this. I can only hope and pray that I’ll see him again someday.

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