In April of her junior year of high school, Olivia Rowe brought a plastic bag into a hallway bathroom and tied it over her head to stop her breathing. She thought she wanted to kill herself.
“I had my hand on the stall, so if I passed out the door would open,” she said. “I realized I didn’t really want to die.”
After nearly 20 minutes of waiting in the stall, she left to seek help.
Rowe had emailed her high school guidance counselor for help earlier that year, but felt her therapy program wasn’t helping her overcome her depression quickly enough. She continued to battle depression and began cutting herself after watching an episode of Degrassi, a popular teen drama, which featured a character who struggled with cutting. Now a junior at Ithaca College, Rowe continued to struggle with cutting during her first years as a college student.
Rowe said she thinks people tend to cut themselves for two reasons: Either they have emotional pain they need to get out, or they are trying to distract themselves by thinking about physical pain instead. For her, deciding to cut came from a desire to do both.
“There was one point freshman year [at IC] that I ran laps around my building because I had all this anxious energy,” she said. “I tore up magazines to try to get it out, and nothing worked. I had always known that cutting was harmful, but I didn’t care.”
Rowe said leaving her troubles at home to go to college and having the freedom to act on her own helped her realize that she wasn’t trapped in her difficult day-to-day life.
“The thing that I got stuck with in high school was that I never really saw the better part of life,” she said. “That’s where people who contemplate suicide get stuck, because they don’t think things get better and that they’re always going to live like that.”
Now, Rowe works with the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service of Ithaca to raise awareness about suicide and prevention in the community.
“People who are considering suicide often feel very much alone,” she said. “If you know of other people in that situation, or there are other people around who have gone through that same thing, it helps.”
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, every 14.2 minutes someone in the United States dies by suicide. In 2009 about 36,909 people took their own lives, 4,371 of those dead were between the ages of 15 and 24 years old. But for Rowe, her own suicide attempt isn’t her only connection to the issue. On Aug. 4, 2010, Rowe received a phone call from the sister of her best friend, Brittany Helton, telling her that 19-year-old Brittany had killed herself. At the time, Rowe had been waiting for Helton to text her back so the friends could spend the day together.
“I didn’t know my friend had struggled with anything I had struggled with at all,” she said. “She would make anyone happy, which I found out later was one of the reasons why she didn’t tell anyone — because she felt too much pressure to act the way everyone had always seen her and to be the one who was always full of life and the one who makes everything better.”
Christie Helton, Helton’s adoptive mother, said Rowe and her daughter were like the Olsen twins growing up, “funny and carefree.” Helton was a dean’s list student in college with a family and group of friends who loved her. Helton did not fit the stereotype of a suicidal teen, Christie Helton said.
“It doesn’t just happen to kids who come from a broken home or kids that come from ‘lower class society,’ as they call it, or kids with drug problems,” Christie Helton said.
After their daughter’s death, her parents founded the Brittany Helton Memorial Foundation, an organization that promotes awareness about suicide and honors Helton’s life.
“College kids and high school students relate to younger people,” Christie Helton said. “With the work she’s doing we’re able to utilize her to get through to the kids, telling her own story and telling Brittany’s story.”
Rowe said the shock of losing her friend and standing by as Brittany’s family and friends mourned their loss helped her overcome her own thoughts of suicide.
“Watching everyone go through that pain and thinking, ‘How could she have done this?’ just turned me around,” she said.
Rowe recently developed the project “Unspoken Stories: The Tragedy of Suicide,” a series of photographs posted on Facebook that shows her struggle with losing her best friend to suicide. She said she and her colleagues at the Ithaca prevention center were inspired by a series of Tumblr blogs that told stories of people who thought they had no voice to express their personal hardships through photo strips of them holding signs.
She said the project is part of an effort to make resources more accessible to young people that includes an expanded social media presence and online chat forums.
“People don’t really call on the phone anymore and talk to people,” she said. “So how many are really going to want to call the crisis line?”
Lidia Bernik, associate project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said the lifeline has 152 crisis centers across the United States and works to connect people considering suicide to local resources. Part of this mission is a partnership with Facebook that makes it possible for users to report content they think represents signs of suicide. Facebook administrators evaluate a reported post and send the user information about the lifeline if the content is shown to warrant that action. Currently, the lifeline is running a pilot program that offers professional assistance to people by online chat.
“We feel that there is certainly a role for technology in assisting folks in need,” Bernik said. “It’s just become a very normal means of communication. There is some evidence to suggest that people feel more comfortable disclosing sensitive information via electronic means.”
Though talking about Helton makes some of her friends uncomfortable, Rowe said it’s important that her friend’s memory be preserved and used to prevent other people from making the same painful decisions.
“[My friends] don’t talk about her that much because they’re like, ‘It makes us sad to even talk about the good things,’” she said. “But it’s helpful, and I think she should be remembered.”
To learn more about Rowe’s work with suicide prevention, visit facebook.com/pages/Suicide-Prevention-and-Crisis-Services/361595137186509.