Start the Presses: Of bullying, depression and suicide

Our communities have been rocked in the last few weeks with a spate of suicides: Two teenage boys have killed themselves and a 13-year-old girl tried to do so.

What is going on?

In the case of 15-year-old Drew Ferraro, the specter of bullying has been raised by fellow students and his parents. Drew jumped to his death from a three-story building on the Crescenta Valley High School campus during lunch period in early February.

But school and public safety officials have steadfastly denied bullying was the cause, pointing to a series of suicide notes stating a different reason. That reason has yet to be made public. Perhaps it never will be.

The Crescenta Valley community reacted immediately in a way that both warmed my heart and frustrated me. The outpouring of friends and neighbors, all rallying to the side of the Ferraro family, was an amazing, beautiful thing. Leo’s All-Star Sports Bar & Grill put on a car show and fundraising event called “Drew’s Voice.” People laughed, they cried, they got through it; they got through it together. That’s the point of community.

But where was Drew’s voice? Was it his? I was troubled and frustrated about the lack of reflection. It is telling that people — egged on by other media outlets — latched onto the bullying boogeyman, an external evil, rather than Drew’s internal strife, the depression he is said to have suffered from.

It’s easy to see why, frankly. People can have rallies, hold fundraisers and eat pancakes in support of the anti-bullying cause. If the root cause of Drew’s suicide was depression, we, as a community, are essentially powerless. But perhaps we are.

Despite the good intentions, I am wary that ignoring these inconvenient facts will lead to additional harm. I hope to God it hasn’t already happened.

On Tuesday night, Matthew Smyser, 17, a football player at Burbank High, killed himself at his home in Shadow Hills. Matthew’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer, perhaps leading to his decision.

Early Wednesday morning, a Glendale middle school student jumped from a bridge near Jackson Street and Monterey Road into the Verdugo Wash. The 13-year-old girl, who sustained non-life threatening injuries, was carrying a suicide note, upset about not being able to go on a school trip.

Did Drew’s very public suicide and the ensuing media coverage inspire those who followed? I don’t know, but I do know it’s important we put a lot of thought into how, and how much, we write.

We do not want to be seen as glorifying these suicides. But we must cover them; it’s our job. These stories have exposed the deep hurt within our cities and neighborhoods, pulling back the cover of our perfect little suburban lives.

But to tell it true, let’s not forget the overwhelming reason why people, and teenagers in particular, kill themselves: mental illness. A quick survey of our newsroom revealed nearly every person had been bullied at some point in their teen years. I certainly was. No one tried to kill themselves.

This in no way makes bullying OK, nor does it make pointless the community and school efforts to minimize its harm. But it does make putting bullying on the marquee a red herring, fixing a problem that may not actually be related.

So, parents: Listen to your children. If they are depressed, get them help. Teens: Try to get over your embarrassment and talk to someone if you are down. It’s worth it, and it does get better.