(NEW YORK) — Brittany Tichenor remembers her daughter Isabella, whom she called Izzy, as the “sweetest person” she has ever met, someone who was resilient and amazing, a 10-year-old child whose eyes were “big and brown.”
Those memories of her daughter as a vibrant fifth-grader make it harder, she says, to reconcile that her daughter died by suicide nearly two years ago, on Nov. 6, 2021.
“I just didn’t know how bad it was,” Tichenor told “Good Morning America” of Izzy’s mental health struggles, which she said were a result of bullying. “I think she made a temporary decision in a moment of hurt, and I’ll never forget that.”
Tichenor said it was only after her daughter’s death that she heard from other kids at her daughter’s local public elementary school in their home state of Utah the full extent of the bullying she says Izzy endured.
“I knew part of it, and I kept calling the school. I kept calling the district. But I didn’t know the severity of it,” she said. “I told her, ‘You can tell me anything,’ and she normally did, but I kind of feel like she was trying to protect me. I just wish she had told me.”
Tichenor said on some days, Izzy, who she said was autistic and was one of the few Black students in her school, would open up to her about the taunts she said she endured from her classmates and even some of her teachers.
“I know one thing, she was just tired of the kids at school,” Tichenor said. “That’s what she kept telling me. She said, ‘They keep me making fun of the dot on my head."”
Bullying in schools has been on the rise in recent years, according to a survey of over 130,000 kids ages 9 to 18 released in August by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
According to the survey, 40% of youth say they were bullied on school property in the past year — up from 37% in 2022 — while 18% of youth say they have experienced cyberbullying.
At the same time, data is also showing a growing mental health crisis among young people in the United States.
Approximately 5.8 million children in the U.S. had diagnosed anxiety between 2016 and 2019, and approximately 2.7 million kids had diagnosed depression in that same time period, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with recent years showing rising numbers of diagnoses for both mental health conditions.
In 2021, a report from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy warned of a growing mental health crisis among young people. The report, issued during the coronavirus pandemic, cited statistics including a 51% increase in emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls and a doubling of anxiety and depression symptoms reported across genders.
That same year, suicide was the second leading cause of death for adolescents ages 10-14 and young adults ages 20-34 in the U.S., according to the CDC.
Tichenor said she was in the process of moving Izzy to a new school when her daughter died.
“I didn’t want the next school she went to, to go and get bullied there,” Tichenor said. “By the time I thought I found the perfect school, she had already took her life. I can’t help but blame myself because I wish I would have gotten to it sooner.”
In August, Tichenor and the school district Izzy attended, Davis School District, announced a $2 million settlement amid allegations that Izzy was bullied and that teachers and administrators had not stopped the reported harassment.
“Nobody knows the trauma of a parent who loses a kid,” Tichenor said of what she’s endured the past two years.
Correlation between bullying and suicide
When it comes to the connection between bullying and suicide, data shows there is a correlation, but experts say more research remains to be done.
The CDC defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” Bullying, the agency notes, is also a behavior that is repeated or can be repeated over time.
Both young people who report bullying others and those who report being bullied are at increased risk for suicide-related behavior, according to the CDC.
In recent years, the correlation between bullying and suicide has increased in the public eye as several families, including Tichenor, have spoken out publicly after losing a child to suicide.
In July, the parents of a 12-year-old girl who died by suicide after experiencing bullying reached a $9.1 million settlement in a wrongful-death lawsuit against their local New Jersey school district, their lawyer said at the time.
In May, an elite boarding school, also in New Jersey, released a statement publicly admitting its failure to protect a 17-year-old student who died by suicide in 2022 after experiencing bullying.
That student’s mother, Elizabeth Reid, told “Good Morning America” at the time, “What we’ve realized from our situation is that [bullying] can lead to death. This is a very serious issue. And the internet absolutely makes it even much worse for kids today.”
In the nearly two years since Izzy’s death, Tichenor, a mom of five, has made it her mission to make sure no other parent endures the loss of a child due to bullying or suicide.
She launched a nonprofit organization, Izzy’s Village, that she described as a place for young people, particularly young people of color, to find support for bullying and mental health struggles.
Though she said she feels like a piece of her died when Izzy died, Tichenor said she continues to share her family’s story also as a way to help educate other parents.
“I want people to know her story because I want other parents to check their kids on bullying,” she said. “It’s not OK.”
Can an app help stop bullying and improve mental health?
In Utah, where Tichenor still lives, health officials are putting their hope into meeting kids where they already are — on their phones — to help them cope with mental health struggles.
SafeUT is an app where young people have access 24/7 to chat with a mental health professional and can submit a tip about mental health or bullying concerns regarding their peers.
The app was created by legislators, educators and public health officials in response to data showing that suicide is the leading cause of death for youth and young adults in Utah, according to Rachel Kay Lucynski, director of community crisis services with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah.
Lucynski said the app now serves more than 885,000 elementary, middle and high school, and college students across the state.
The app saw record usage last year, with more than 1 million messages recorded with mental health professionals and over 9,000 confidential tips submitted, according to Lucynski, who said the tips are triaged and responded to by behavioral health specialists as well.
The most commonly reported tip pertains to suicide, typically a young person reporting hearing a friend talk about hurting themselves. The second most commonly reported tip is general mental health concerns, followed by bullying, according to Lucynski.
“We know that students who even witness bullying, not just experience bullying, can be traumatized by that, and it can increase their level of mental health and behavioral health issues,” Lucynski said, adding, “It obviously can have catastrophic impacts on someone’s feelings of self worth, feelings of safety at school, and in really, unfortunately, extremely tragic situations can result in a student taking their own life or attempting to take their own life because of the bullying that they’re experiencing.”
Lucynski noted that parents and educators may also use the SafeUT app to report mental health concerns based on changes in kids’ behaviors.
“We also want to remind parents that if they’re seeing changes in their student’s behavior, if they’re seeing that they’re withdrawn, that they’re not as interested or engaged in social activities, or friends or extracurriculars like they used to be, or they have an extreme aversion to going to school … there could be something else going on,” she said. “So, we want parents to know that it’s important that they talk to their students at home about what they’re experiencing.”
After losing her own daughter, Tichenor is now working with SafeUT to help launch an anti-bullying campaign and a parent advisory council.
“I just want parents to know this is serious,” Tichenor said. “If as parents, we don’t intervene or step in, this kind of stuff will keep happening, and I don’t want it to happen to anybody else.”
Tichenor said that looking back on her own experience, she wishes she had followed her parental instinct and sought help sooner.
“If [children] tell you something, that they’re getting bullied, do what you need to do to protect them,” she said. “And make sure you’re there as a support 24/7.”
Tichenor said parents should also make an effort to know who their kids’ friends are at school, and to talk to their kids at home.
“Talk to them. Talk to them until they’re blue in the face,” Tichenor said. “Because whether your kid is doing the bullying, or they’re the one getting bullied, it needs to be talked about.”
Mental health experts say that when it comes to talking about mental health and even suicide with kids, more is better, noting that instead of putting the idea of suicide in a child’s mind by talking about it, you’re letting your child know that they can open up to you about their feelings.
SafeUT offers resources for parents on its website about ways to talk about mental health, suicide and bullying with kids, including a document with ideas for “conversation starters” on those topics.
Tichenor said that in addition to parents talking with their kids, the willingness of a parent like Tichenor who has lost a child to suicide to speak out and share her story is just as impactful.
“I think it’s very easy to read news stories or watch things online and think, ‘Gosh, that’s horrible, but it won’t happen to me,"” Lucynski said. “But we really all need to stay alert and vigilant as a community for those of us who are suffering and how we can be that hope and that light for someone in a dark moment.”
She added, “Not everyone who has experienced suicide loss is at a point in their grieving process where they’re able to talk about it, so the fact that Brittany is able to share what the impact has been on her and make people more aware of this issue is extremely important … and definitely has the potential to save lives.”
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal, substance use or other mental health crises please call or text 988. You will reach a trained crisis counselor for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also go to 988lifeline.org.
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