When bullying leads to suicide - A mother's story
Her life will never be the same.
Susan Deveau’s son Keith ended his life at age 20. The victim of bullying and taunting by his peers for years, he was found one night locked in his car with the engine running. It was not an accident. Keith chose to die by carbon monoxide poisoning and Deveau still struggles daily to find answers in the 1995 suicide of the eldest of her three children.
The wound was reopened this week with news reports of a B.C. teen who took her own life after being sexually exploited, then bullied, online.
“I’m a private person usually but the suicide of Amanda Todd makes me want to speak out now,” Deveau told the Free Press on Wednesday. “What really upsets me about the Amanda Todd case is not just that it was youth bullying youth but it’s said to be also adult bullying of a teenager. I think there should be very harsh penalties for people like that. To me, this is all like a hate crime and the [perpetrators] of bullying should be punished.”
Recent years have brought a new wave of bullying, one that is far more wide reaching given the vast social media its audience, but the problem has been with us since time began.
“There has always been bullies. And they are not just at high school. You meet them throughout your life from the school yard to the workplace – and I’m pretty sure they will be in the seniors homes when I get there.”
Freedom of speech doesn’t mean destroying someone’s life, she notes.
“The Internet is fantastic but it has opened up a whole new world for bullies, pedophiles and pranksters. They can post terrible things online – anonymously– and never get caught.”
She believes that bullying and taunting led to her own son’s death.
“I get so angry because nothing’s changed. Kids are still dying and I think more people have to step up and get involved so that this does not keep happening.”
Deveau is aware and thankful that there is now an increased focus on bullying, more media attention, and anti-bullying days [on which students wear pink] and programs in the school system. But more needs to be done, she says.
“I think there should be support groups in each school, made up of trained young people who can look for signs of kids at risk for suicide. They would report to a professional in the field. Kids have their groups and you can’t just butt into that.”
Had there been someone outside the family who recognized the early signs of distress, her son might be alive today, she says. The family moved to Prince George in 1989 and Keith’s high-school years were made miserable by bullies.
“Keith had a kind of learning disability and that made him the brunt of jokes for other students. They were cruel to him. It happened to him all the way through his school years.”
How did he respond?
“My son was a gentle person, he would never hurt anyone. He wasn’t that kind of kid. He just took it, but I know it affected him deeply. Bullies get something out of this, it gives them an ego boost. But they can’t stand alone. If no one supported them, or looked up to them, most of them would stop.”
Her son first attempted suicide when he was 18. Deveau claims this was an opportunity for the mental health system to step in – before it was too late.
“He was discharged as soon as he was stable. That was wrong. I think counselling after a suicide attempt has to be immediate. It’s not good enough to send them home with a phone number and tell them to make an appointment.”
As a mother, Deveau said she did her best to be supportive.
“I gave him the usual motherly advice about sticking up for himself. It’s very sad because he tried hard to ignore it. He was outgoing, he had friends, he had a girlfriend. He was no loner but they still picked on him.”
The pain and alienation by his peers took its toll over time, she said.
“I keep asking myself – even after all this time – if there is anything I could have done to prevent this. I was a single mother, raising three children and I wonder what I could have done differently.”
Earlier intervention may have helped. The signs were there, said Deveau, who confesses she is still wracked with guilt, even after attending years of counselling.
“I still feel guilty because a mother should be able to protect her children. But I can’t turn back time. I just wish kids who are contemplating suicide could know there is hope. Suicide is so final. There’s no going back. Teens may see suicide as a way to end their pain but they don’t think beyond today, they just want to stop the pain.”
Even though he’d tried suicide before and failed, his death two years later still came as a shock.
“I did a lot of reading about suicide after my son died and I learned that once a person has made up their mind to commit suicide, there is a huge stress release. The night Keith died, I remember phoning home and I could hear him in background. He was headed off to the movies and he said, ‘bye, Mom’ so cheerfully as he was going out the door.”
She pauses before continuing.
“He never came home. Now that I think of it, I realize that he’d decided that night what he was going to do. A group of boys saw him in his car slumped over and phoned police. The car doors were locked, so they had to break a window to get him out.”
In the years since his death, Deveau has sought not just answers but peace. She has his initial tattooed on her wrist so that every beat of her heart means a pulse wave in his memory.
“When Keith died, I joined a local support group called Heartbeat and you only have to enter the room to feel the overwhelming grief there. They are all people who have lost someone close to them and who understand. Losing a child under any circumstances is always painful whether it is terminal illness or a tragic accident which like suicide is sudden and often unexpected.”
Today, Deveau enjoys visits from her two grandchildren (she still has two adult children) and life goes on – but she wants others to be spared her grief and that she says, can only happen when people care enough to “get involved.”
“We have to do something. We have to do more,” she said, holding tight to a high school graduation photo of her son Keith.