LEE COUNTY, FLA — Please note: If you're struggling please know that you are not alone and that there is help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
It's been said that life is a dance.
Sometimes it's fast other times it's slow and sometimes you just end up tripping on your own two feet.
But health experts say, far too many dancers on life's stage are cutting that dance short.
They're people like 17-year-old Andrew Baltodano.
He was a musician, artist, and comedian to a tough crowd.
"He made me laugh, which doesn't come easy let me tell you. (laughs). for people who know me. I don't laugh very easily, and he made me laugh,” said his mother Dr. Laura Baltodano.
But above all else, Laura says for 17 years, he was here.
"Just a beautiful, beautiful soul,” she said.
But there were also struggles.
Laura says they noticed a shift in Andrew around 13-years-old.
"He'd be more in his room, where he'd be playing on the computer more, where he seemed to be more grumpy. we thought 'Well this is strange.' He wasn't doing as well in school,” she said.
It was behavior that Laura says the family and Andrew's counselor, originally thought might be a case of teen hormones.
“We thought all of it was normal even though it wasn't normal for him and how we'd known him to be up until this point in life,” she said.
But she says that behavior really came to a head in his junior year of high school.
"We had no idea he was struggling at all until his counselor called us and wanted to Baker Act him and we're like 'What?'" she said, "At that point, we did everything we could that we knew to do to get him help. He was seeing a different counselor, he saw a psychiatrist, did all these different things, finally started on medications, and seemingly he was doing better."
Laura says they would later learn through journal entries that "the better,” was only surface-deep.
"He was future-thinking. He was talking about going to see his girlfriend and in fact, had texted us that night, 'please contact her parents, I want to go see her.' He was talking about how he wanted to get his haircut. So, it was very shocking to us to find that he had taken his life."
That was in June of 2018.
"For me, it's just all the pain of like, 'How could this have happened?' We loved him, he loved us,” she said, “What I sense is that he just couldn't see his place in the grander scheme of things in life."
According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death among kids and young adults ages 10 to 24.
And the pandemic isn't helping that trend.
"All these protective qualities they had with friends of going outside or doing the activities that they're used to now are gone. And that isolation is really one of the things that's putting them in the place where there's this [mental] disease,” said Dr. Baltodano.
And there are numbers to back up... that concern.
A CDC report shows a rise in the number of kids brought to emergency rooms for mental health concerns last year. The American Academy of Pediatrics says they saw spikes in suicidal thoughts and attempts in kids, between January and July of last year, right at the height of most lockdowns. The fear now, is that as the pandemic drags on we could see those numbers bump up even more.
The founder of Valerie's House in Fort Myers, Angela Melvin, says she’s seen this firsthand.
“It's just a dark time, a dark time for all of us, but especially for children,” she said.
Melvin’s organization provides mental health services and long-term grief counseling to Southwest Florida, with a special emphasis on kids.
And Melvin says over the last year, they've had several families come in to grieve the loss of a child who died by suicide during the pandemic.
"It's taking a heavy toll on kids and initially I don't think people realized the toll this was taking on children,” said Melvin, “What's so tragic is when a child makes this decision because a child is just getting started in their life and how it can get better and there's this huge world ahead of them. they don't see that."
Melvin says there's no rhyme or reason to suicide and "warning signs" often look different and sometimes there aren't really any.
"What we do know is that they believe leaving this world is going to be a fix for the pain that they're in here," she said.
But is there a way to stop this? Or at least decrease it?
Melvin says it starts with parents, or loved ones, having a very important talk with kids in that 10-24 age bracket about suicide.
"Have you heard the word before? That's a great question to just start with, 'Have you ever heard the word suicide? Well, I think so.' what does it mean? Do you know what it means? Do you know anyone who's talked about it? have you ever thought about it?" she said.
Yes...you heard her right.
She says you need to ask them and don't shy away from using the word "suicide" either.
"A lot of kids if you just ask them, if you're brave enough to just ask them and they're thinking about it, there's a good chance they may say what they're really thinking,” she said.
It's a conversation that Laura says is vital, but she adds that your approach matters too.
"If for example, you come to your child and say 'You're not thinking of hurting yourself, are you? It's very judgmental and that puts them more in a place of wanting to shut down versus coming from that place of curiosity, questioning, and care,” she said, “And here's the other thing, really listening, that's huge. You might feel very alarmed inside depending on what they say but trying to be as neutral as possible that will allow them to share without judgment, without speaking over them or necessarily giving advice, sometimes they just need to speak and say. and then at that point, depending on what they say, say 'Okay, we're going to work through this together.'"
They're techniques Laura says she learned after her son's death.
"Through that pain and that process became my purpose,” she said.
But it's knowledge she's putting to use to help other kids in Southwest Florida, through her non-profit called "Andrew's Anthem,” which she started a few months after Andrew's death.
The group provides kids with community and increases the chances of them sharing their struggles with someone.
"Kids need other people to understand what they're going through and to connect with them in ways that even though they love their family, to not cause you further pain or struggle they may think that they can handle things on their own, and maybe they won't tell you,” she said.
Laura adds that they also offer activities and training that give kids in that high-risk age group a sense of purpose and the tools to process difficult emotions.
"Each program that they come [to] they learn different skills that build resilience and knowing that they're not alone in this and that we're going to be okay,” she said.
Laura says its work that she feels is now more important than ever, to help keep kids in the great dance of life.
"The fact is unless you experience it, you truly can't imagine. And as a parent who's been through it, I don't want people to imagine, I don't want anyone to go through that."
Please note: If you're struggling please know that you are not alone and that there is help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.