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Suicide: One family's loss, a nation's story
Kristen Vaughan shows a picture of her late nephew, Samuel Barrow Jr., who took his own life in August at the age of 15.

FORSYTH COUNTY -- Four yellow daisies and a single white rose rested atop the 15-year-old’s oak casket, the flowers placed gently in a row. No one wants to talk about suicide, but Samuel Barrow Jr.’s four siblings, his father, his relatives and his friends were looking at its effects.

The former Forsyth County resident – he had been living in Roswell the last two years – is one of a growing number of teens who have lost their lives to suicide in recent years in north metro Atlanta, Georgia and the nation.

He is not alone, though he may have desperately felt so.

Experts are trying to understand what drives someone to take that fatal action, but they say the root of the action is pent up deep within, and there may not be one uniform reason or one that is even clear to anyone but the person suffering.

“He loved to hunt and fish. He loved the lake, he loved water – he was just your typical teenager,” said his aunt, Kristen Vaughan. “He had so many friends, and that was his main happiness – his friends.”

Fulton County saw the largest number of suicides in the state from 2008 through 2012, with 473 reported deaths, according to data from the Georgia Violent Death Reporting System, or GA-VDRS.

That rate was 9.6 deaths per 100,000 people. In the same time period, Forsyth County saw 77 suicides, a rate of 9.2 per 100,000.

Those numbers are lower compared to some counties that saw upwards of 25-30 deaths per 100,000, but they represent a clear public health concern: more people are dying by suicide than homicide annually, and the numbers are increasing.

“I will never know what it was; he had so many friends and he had so much going for him,” Vaughan said. “That’s why it just does not make the least bit of sense at all.”


A rising crisis that is hard to pinpoint


In the last 10 years, Georgia’s suicide rate increased by about 16.6 percent – nearly 1 percent greater than the national average – according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

From 2013 to 2014, the rate rose by 5.6 percent, double the national increase of 2.8 percent for the same time period.

Studies and research have not determined a clear reason for the rising numbers and the CDC does not attempt to find reasons behind their data, but Sheri McGuinness, president and CEO of the Suicide Prevention Action Network-Georgia (SPAN-GA), said she thinks of it as an overflowing cup.

“We each know when our cup is full to the brim,” she said. “There are lots of things that put drops in our cup, including pressure at school [or] sports, grades, bullying, divorce, financial stress, work stress, relationship stress, etc.

“People with mental health issues have a lot of drops in their cup, and often they don’t have the resilience to keep their cup empty. If we live constantly with our cup full to the brim, it takes a toll on us, and it could take one big drop or even just a small one to make our cup overflow. But the reason that our cup overflows is not just that one drop, but the accumulation of all the drops in the cup.”

The night of Aug. 16 was Barrow Jr.’s final drop.

Shortly before 10 p.m. that Friday, he argued with his father and his father’s fiancée, according to Roswell Police Department incident reports.

Barrow Jr.’s father, Samuel Barrow Sr., told police he caught his son sneaking out of the house and confronted him about it, according to multiple reports.

He took away his son’s phone and sent him upstairs to bed, reportedly saying they would discuss the matter in the morning. Instead of going to his room, the boy, who would have turned 16 in two weeks, entered his father’s room and shot himself.


“No single reason why”


That night and that exchange with his father doesn’t begin tell the story of why Barrow Jr. made the fatal decision in that moment. Kids get caught for sneaking out all the time. Adults exert parental control all the time.

“There is no single reason why anyone decides to take their life,” McGuinness said. “That’s part of why it is such a challenging crisis.”

Part of it may have been the death of his 39-year-old mother on Aug. 3, 2014. Part of it may have been the then-13-year-old having to uproot his life and move from Forsyth County to Roswell. Part of it may have been trying to deal with that while being the youngest of five children.

His aunt said she thinks the anniversary had to do with his sudden death, but Barrow Jr. was also depressed, his father told Roswell police, and was in counseling.

And further, he was about to begin his second year of high school, in a county he had only been in for a year.

Fifteen is also a volatile age, and, McGuinness said, “the rates for our youth are high and climbing.”


“A place where we feel hopeless”


In Georgia, suicide is the third leading cause of death in those aged 10 to 24, according to the CDC.

Nearly twice as many people die by suicide than by homicide annually in the state, and the total number of deaths by suicide reflect a total of 25,194 years of potential life lost, data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or AFSP, found.

Nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death in people aged 10 to 24. A CDC study published in November also found that from 2007 to 2014, the rates among U.S. middle school-aged kids doubled.

“Our kids [have] a lot of stressors and if you add them all up, it is a lot to manage,” McGuinness said. “We don’t seem to be raising a generation of resilient kids. The social/school climate that they operate in has changed in many ways and is not easy to navigate.

“Although depression and suicidal thinking is often a combination of chemical issues, environmental issues and emotional issues that bring us to a place where we feel hopeless, kids are feeling very alone as they try to fit into somewhat of a distorted environment.”

Other groups, such as military veterans, members of the LGBT community and older adults, too, seem to be more at risk.

But there are ways to combat the crisis.


“We have to be advocates”


Each of the yellow daisies at Barrow Jr.’s funeral represented one of his siblings, all of whom are still alive.

Despite losing their brother, Vaughan said she thinks her nieces and nephews now have a better idea of how deeply their brother was struggling – she knows she does.

But it doesn’t need to take a death to learn the warning signs and help someone who is struggling.

“One of the greatest challenges related to suicide is the stigma and embarrassment that keeps people from reaching out for help,” McGuinness said. “There is good help for mental health challenges, but we aren’t reaching out for that help when we need it or encouraging our loved ones to do so – because of the stigma. Physical health is no different than mental health, and we have to start believing that and sharing that belief.

“Most people who take their lives don’t ever make it to a mental health professional, or they are in mediocre care that treats a symptom rather than the problem. So we have to be advocates for those who need resources and get them to the right services.”

Community institutions, such as schools, police departments, religious organizations and others offer services and help for those struggling, which the Forsyth County News will examine in future installments on this topic.

“We’ve got to help our friends,” Vaughan said, “and we’ve got to help each other.”