Nick Bales was a kid with enough swagger to pull off a blue velvet blazer for his senior photos, a guy who started his own line of hoodies and artistic T-shirts as a high school sophomore.
He had gobs of friends, played hockey and lacrosse for Arapahoe High School, and, for the first time in his life, had straight A’s in the fall of his senior year. “He seemed to have it all,” said his mother, Maria Bales, her legs tucked under her on her living room couch this week, tears returning to her eyes.
But three weeks ago, on a Saturday morning just two weeks after an epic homecoming party in the Bales’ backyard, where 17-year-old Nick bounced on a trampoline in a Power Rangers costume, he killed himself. His parents found him when they woke up.
Three days after Nick, an Arapahoe High senior girl who was at that homecoming party at the Bales’ stately home in Greenwood Village took her own life.
The suicides on Sept. 29 and Oct. 2 hit the Littleton community like a parent’s worst nightmare on repeat, a deja vu punch to the gut. They were the latest deaths in a youth mental health epidemic that has elevated suicide to the leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds in this state.
In Arapahoe County alone, there have been 11 youth suicides so far in 2018. The county, which includes schools in Littleton and Cherry Creek, lost nine young people age 21 and under in 2016. That number jumped to 19 last year. The youngest victim in 2017 was 10 years old.
A year ago in Littleton, soon after the start of school, two students died by suicide in two days. The boys — a junior at Arapahoe and an eighth-grader at nearby Powell Middle School — posted on social media just before they died, one in a mall parking garage and the other at an elementary school playground, alerting a network of teens linked through Snapchat who rushed to help but got there too late.
Nick knew the Arapahoe boy who died last year, a friend from freshman year. The boy’s death hit him hard, and a group of high school friends sometimes would gather at the spot where he died. For hours, they would “just look down,” said Nick’s father, Will Bales.
And two school years ago, a 16-year-old girl Nick had known since kindergarten killed herself. That student, also at Arapahoe, had been by Nick’s house about a month before she died. She had just gotten her driver’s license and wanted to give him a ride around the neighborhood. Nick was a sophomore then.
But not even that suicide was the first to touch Nick’s life.
When he was 9 years old, a 13-year-old friend hanged himself from a tree. Nick’s parents tried to keep it from him, but when he found out how it happened, “it never seemed to leave his mind,” his mom said.
“I feel like something snapped.” For years, Nick wore a cross around his neck that contained some of the boy’s ashes.
After Nick created his clothing line, Brought to Reality, he posted an essay on his company website about that boy, Zach.
“I remember standing in his yard and looking up at the tree with such curiosity,” Nick wrote. “As if the tree had all the answers. But the tree stood silent. That visual played in my head over and over again, like a horror movie. My parents never mentioned the word suicide, I think they were trying to protect me, but I figured it out anyway.”
Nick started the company to keep himself “busy and grounded in reality,” he wrote, and for the creative outlet that lightened his mood as he used graphics and photos to design his sweatshirts, T-shirts and hats. He had suffered from depression since middle school, and had been seeing a therapist for four years before he died last month. Nick vowed to donate 10 percent of every order to the Colorado organization Be Mental Health Aware.
Before his death, Nick had sold about $2,000 in clothing, mostly to friends and family. On the rare occasion that he received an order from out of state, he was pumped. In the three weeks since his death, though, the company has sold more than $24,000 in merchandise.
“My goal is to encourage my peers to be true to themselves, to stay grounded in reality, and to not numb themselves when times get tough,” wrote the boy with a mop of brown hair who once wore mismatched Timberland boots — one blue, one green — to school because he couldn’t decide which ones looked better. “My message is that life is precious; and I want to live every day to the fullest by being present, being myself and following my dreams.”
“You are not alone. You are loved. We are here,” says the sign at a church down the road from Arapahoe High School.
The principal canceled classes the day after the Oct. 2 suicide and encouraged students to gather at the school to meet with counselors. “We need the help of every parent,” Arapahoe principal Natalie Pramenko wrote in an email to parents, similar to the ones she has sent in previous years. “You need to have your eyes on and arms around your kids. Be sure they are supported and not alone. We will continue to care for each and every one of them here at Arapahoe.”
Teachers and students at Arapahoe, where student Claire Davis was shot in 2013 by a fellow student who then killed himself, are emotionally fatigued and on edge. The fear that one child’s suicide can lead to more is a legitimate concern, said Jenna Glover, a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
The “cluster effect” can span months and even years, meaning teens who lost a friend or even a fellow student they didn’t know to suicide are more likely to consider it as an option if they are already at risk. “It can have that effect — that is something that somebody else did so maybe it’s an option for me,” Glover said.
She advises parents, schools and friends to pay close attention to young people who are depressed, not only in the days after a suicide but in the months and years to follow, particularly around holidays and near the anniversary of the death. Schools should proactively seek out youth who are at risk and ask them how they are coping, Glover said.
After a suicide, the community should focus on helping the teens who knew the person who died, but also any kid who exhibits the warning signs of depression, she said. “If it was a kid on the football team, focus on the kids on the team, but also any kid in the community who is already at risk,” she said.
Last week, as Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced a $2.8 million grant to kickstart a statewide youth mental health initiative, she used the word “crisis.”
The number of Colorado teenagers dying by suicide has risen dramatically in the past couple of years, and the ages of kids who take their own lives are younger and younger.
Colorado has the ninth-highest suicide rate in the nation, and the state ranks 48th in a new report that noted Colorado’s higher prevalence of youth mental illness in contrast to its limited access to treatment.
“This is a deep, societal problem that we all need to get in the same room and talk about,” said Brian Ewert, superintendent of Littleton Public Schools, which includes Arapahoe High. “We all have a responsibility to figure this out for our teenagers.”
The district has ramped up programs to train staff how to recognize and help students who are struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide. It’s also installed Sources of Strength, a peer-to-peer support system. “What is never reported is the kids we save every weekend because of Safe2Tell,” the anonymous tip line that allows kids to text about friends who are struggling, Ewert said. Of the 16,000 referrals last school year, 2,700 were about suicide.
Each time a suicide happens, it’s “horrible” for the entire community, the superintendent said, but at the school the student attended, “it is really a derailing of our work and it puts us all in crisis.”
At Nick’s memorial service, hundreds of people released brightly colored balloons into a blue, October sky. They held his funeral at the Pepsi Center, where Nick and his dad sat together for years to cheer on the Denver Nuggets.
Will Bales and his son had hoped someday to catch Kevin Love, a forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers who talks publicly about his mental health and panic attacks, as he passed by their seats onto the court. They figured it was worth a shot to see if Love would wear one of Nick’s designs, or perhaps plug the teenager’s company on Twitter.
Now the Bales, who have another son who is in eighth grade, are more determined than ever to make professional athletes take notice of Nick’s work and help raise funds for mental health. They also plan to start a scholarship in his honor and work with Littleton Public Schools to strengthen the mental health components of health class.
Colorado Crisis Line: A statewide hotline. 1-844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255.
“This was part of his message. I just promise him that we will make this happen,” said Maria, wearing one of her son’s oversized sweatshirts with an artsy representation of his face on the front. “We can’t just lay low. We have to fight, we have to fight for him. His dying is not going to go in vain.”
Will Bales, who runs his own investment company, wants teens to think of mental health the same way they do alcoholism or cancer. “It’s a disease,” he said, noting one in five people suffer from mental health issues.
After the suicides last year at Arapahoe, a few of Nick’s friends texted his mom to tell her he was struggling, that they were worried. Maria read Nick’s journal and talked to him about the words she found frightening: “I’m sorry I can’t do this anymore,” he wrote about his pain.
She told him, “Honey, this scares me. I would die without you.” He told her, “I won’t do it, I promise.”
Nick had been to his therapist within days of his death, and seemed in a good place. Maria had been helping him plan a senior spring break trip to Mexico. His friends’ texts were ecstatic, asking, “Dude! This is happening?” and “I’m going to pee my pants!”
“Does that sound like a kid who was depressed and could do something like that?” Will Bales asked this week, near their coffee table filled with flower bouquets, a framed photo of Nick and three lighted candles. “We thought we were getting to the point that he was able to cope.”
His parents don’t know what, if anything, happened to bring Nick to such a dark place. “I have to think it was impulsive,” Maria said. “I was very connected to my son, and I feel like I Iet him down.”
“I don’t want another parent to feel like this. My Nick had so much to live for, so much ahead of him. If we could have just gotten in there, he may still be here. We will never see him graduate. We will never see him get married. We will never see him have kids, and he would have been an amazing dad.”
“These kids are too young. They can’t see five years from now, 10 years from now. We have to help them realize they have a lot to live for,” she said.
When a teen dies by suicide, often the first reaction is to point to the school the student attended.
The community asks what the school is doing to prevent suicide, put an end to bullying, and seek help for kids who are struggling. But Colorado communities need to think broadly, said Alex Yannacone, community programs manager for the University of Colorado Johnson Depression Center, based at the Anschutz campus in Aurora.
She has held 150 trainings for parents, teachers and others throughout Colorado, including one last year at Arapahoe High School. What she tells them is that researchers have identified several “protective factors” to keep kids alive as they struggle with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
- Kids who have a trusted, caring adult in their lives are much less likely to attempt suicide.
- Those involved in one extra-curricular activity are less likely to attempt suicide.
- Kids benefit from knowing coping strategies and how to solve problems.
- Young people are better off if they know who to call in a crisis or if they just need someone to talk through their feelings with — whether that’s a hotline with a stranger on the other end, a school-affiliated suicide prevention group or a parent.
The rising rate of teen suicide has been linked by some experts to social media, the stress of constantly knowing what everyone else is doing and everything that is going on in the world. Kids can have 1,000 friends on Snapchat but few meaningful relationships. Others have tied rising rates of suicide to a lack of resiliency, particularly in white, affluent areas where parents are handling their kids’ problems for them.
Yannacone teaches parents, teachers and friends to ask the right questions. Hard as it is, she said, ask the direct one: Are you thinking about suicide? It’s not as effective to say, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself,” she advised, because for many, “hurting yourself” and suicide are two different things.
Also, she urges people not to phrase the question in a way that makes the desired answer clear, as in, “You’re not thinking about suicide, are you?” That can close out the conversation, she said.
Extensive research has found that asking such a question doesn’t put the idea into a person’s head, Yannacone said. “You can’t make someone suicidal just by asking if they are suicidal,” she said. “A lot of research has been poured into that.”
Besides making statements such as “I want out,” other warning signs include drug and alcohol abuse, irritability and isolation. She’s not talking about someone who enjoys a lot of alone time, but someone who pulls back from their usual social activities. Many suicides follow the loss of a major relationship, whether the person is 12 years old or 80 years old, Yannacone said.
Still, it never comes down to just one thing.
“It’s hard,” she said. “You want there to be one thing. You want there to be a cause.”
As Nick’s company grows, the Bales plan to pour the proceeds into local, student-led efforts to save kids’ lives.
In the short weeks since his death, they’ve already met with a group of teenagers from Eagle County who have a plan to create support groups that link high schoolers with group leaders or counselors who are young adults. The kids’ idea is that if they can break through to all the cliques, including the kids who are the school influencers, they will make a bigger impact.
Similar programs are springing up at high schools across Colorado, driven by tragedy.
At ThunderRidge High in Highlands Ranch, three juniors recently won a $10,000 grant for their suicide-prevention organization, called Oasis.
Mia Hayden and two others developed the program over the summer after Hayden lost a ThunderRidge friend to suicide last year. “We got together this past summer knowing that we wanted to start something that was bigger than us,” she said. Each time there is a suicide, whether at her school or at another nearby, it “shakes your reality,” she said.
The group sells T-shirts, socks, and PopSockets for smartphones, then reinvests half of the proceeds into mental health resources for Douglas County schools. The three teens attribute Colorado’s high suicide, depression and anxiety rates in young people to the pressure of achieving high grades and keeping up enough extracurricular activities to get into the right colleges.
Plus, the stress teens feel to make their lives seem perfect on social media is “quite overwhelming at times,” said one of Mia’s business partners, Rohan Nipunge.
For the Bales, dreaming of ways to build up Nick’s company and spread his message is what is getting them through the worst days of their lives, even while the mundane tasks of life remain a struggle. Outside their door, a cooler with a handmade thank-you note taped to the top waits for friends dropping off meals.
Inside, Maria is using Facebook to spread Nick’s story; Will is reaching out to old friends, including a fraternity brother with connections to the singer Jewel, to brainstorm about mental-health awareness events.
“We are now his voice, and that’s what he would want,” Maria said. “He’s here in spirit and he lives all around us. He will make changes through us.”
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