Scott Norwood’s life dramatically changed March 12 when his 13-year-old daughter Marlee Sutton took her life.
“It’s been devastating to our family,” said Norwood, a public servant and poultry farmer from Hatton. “It’ll never be the same.”
Sutton’s death is part of an alarming trend in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control reported in June the rates of death by suicide in the U.S. are up about 25 percent in the past 20 years. The internet and drugs are the driving forces, experts said.
Norwood believes cyber-bullying on social media played a large role in his daughter’s decision to commit suicide.
He said Marlee had been communicating with two or three people on Snapchat for days leading up to and the morning of her suicide.
He said she was upset following a social media chat the previous week. After her death, he said the Alabama Bureau of Investigation was not able to retrieve the messages from Snapchat.
“The pressures of social media, the kids are exposed to it 24/7,” he said. “This is evil stuff. There should be age restrictions on smartphones, which are really mini-computers. We don’t allow 10- to 12-year-olds to drive cars because they can’t handle the responsibility. But we give them access to everything on the internet, which can be just as deadly, especially for kids who aren’t mentally and emotionally mature enough to handle what’s out there.”
Norwood, Courtland’s fire chief, said social media paints a distorted picture of life.
“I believe social media is everybody’s perfect world,” he said. “You see people smiling, on vacation, with their friends. They don’t post their bad moments. Then, take a child who is 12 or 13 seeing this all of the time. They don’t realize it’s not real life, that everybody struggles.”
He added the opioid epidemic has gotten out of control and is costing lives, too.
“I want to make opioid awareness available to our kids,” Norwood said at a political forum in May. “Twenty-five percent of our population is our children, and that 25 percent is our future.”
Law enforcement agencies and crisis counselors agree with Norwood.
Moulton Police Chief Lyndon McWhorter said young people are being bombarded with pressure from television and the internet, especially social media.
“We would all probably be better if we went back to the days of three channels on TV and one phone in the house,” he said.
In Lawrence County, Coroner Greg Randolph said he worked 20 suicides in 2017 in the county of 35,000 residents. So far in 2018, Randolph said the county has had 16 suicide deaths, including five in a 10-day period in March.
“Our numbers could be higher,” he said. “They don’t include drug overdose deaths that might be accidental or might be intentional. Drug overdose deaths are skyrocketing. Most are from opioids.”
He said in 1995, during his first tenure as coroner, he investigated fewer than 10 suicides. He said Lawrence now is averaging about two drug overdose deaths a month.
According to the CDC’s 2016 figures, the latest available, Alabama experienced 788 suicides, which averages to one death every 11 hours.
Figures show Alabama had 12.39 people per 100,000 take their lives in 2007. That number for 2016 was 15.6. Alabama ranks 24th nationally in that statistic. Wyoming was first with 29.2 deaths per 100,000.
In 2016, about 45,000 Americans age 10 and over died by suicide, according to the CDC. Nationally, the number of suicides per 100,000 has risen from 11.27 in 2007 to 13.42 in 2016.
In a study for the American Journal of Public Health in February 2017, doctors Jennifer Brennan Braden, Mark J. Edlund and Mark D. Sullivan authored a report concluding opioid involvement in suicides has doubled since 1999.
“These analyses underscore the need for health-care providers to assess suicidal risk in patients receiving opioids,” they wrote in the report.
Lawrence County Sheriff Gene Mitchell said the fight against opioids must increase before suicide rates fall.
“We’re seeing opioids playing a larger role in the deaths,” he said. “In many suicides, when we dig a little deeper, we find they’re drug-related. The opioid explosion has just come upon us. Our jail population is up because of it. In the past six to eight months, the jail population has jumped from about 115 to about 180.
“I’ve talked with surrounding counties, and they’re having the same problems. So many are getting addicted to opioids, and it is leading to this.”
Decatur’s Connie Kane, crisis counseling program manager for the Crisis Services of North Alabama, said her agency saw a large spike in suicide counseling calls in the days following the suicide hanging deaths of fashion designer Kate Spade and traveling chef and author Anthony Bourdain in early June.
Kane said her agency received 3,679 calls to its suicide prevention phone line in 2017. She said calls this year through July 31 are at 2,478.
“People call and sometimes just need somebody to listen to them,” Kane said. “They are in so much agony sometimes, they can’t problem-solve. They will tell us what is hurting them and we can allow their problem to be validated. We try to get them calmed down and disable their plan.”
Kane, a master’s-level therapist, said family violence and sexual abuse are also contributing factors leading to suicides.
“Also, people with bipolar diagnosis are more likely to have a higher risk for suicide,” Kane said.
She said she has received calls on the suicide prevention line from children as young as eight years old.
“Most frequently they’ve been involved in social media bullying or a relationship breakup,” Kane said. “And suicide is an under-reported death, just like sexual abuse and domestic violence are under-reported crimes. Anybody is at risk for suicide. You don’t have to have a mental health issue. You can have a job loss, get expelled from school. The problem might seem so overwhelming that you can’t deal with it and you do an impulsive act.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention said the national suicide rate for men is 3½ times higher than for women.
“Women tend to seek out help more often,” Kane said.
“About 15 years ago, we used to see suicides mainly from people in their 30s, 40s or 50s,” Lawrence County Assistant Coroner Kris Long said. “Now we’re seeing more people ages 15 to 30. The young people spend most of their time at home and school.
“There is a certain amount of bullying going on. Peer pressure, cyber bullying just adds to it.”
Authorities said the number of notes being left by suicide victims is decreasing.
Authorities said handguns are the No. 1 method in committing suicides. Hangings, especially with younger people who may not have access to guns, are generally second, with drug overdose quickly moving up the list.
But Kane said education can provide some help in the fight.
“We feel very strongly (suicide) is the most preventable death,” Kane said. “It’s about reaching out and talking to somebody, making that connection.”
Kane said her agency is providing suicide prevention education programs this year for Morgan, Hartselle and Limestone school systems.
She added that calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline tripled after rap singer Logic featured a Grammy-nominated song that included the lifeline’s crisis phone number, 1-800-273-8255, at January’s Grammy awards.
Mitchell would like to see more access to assistance programs. He favors the state setting up prisons dedicated to dealing with mental health and addiction issues.
Randolph said his ambulance service regularly transports mental patients to Decatur, Jasper, Birmingham and Tupelo, Mississippi, because Lawrence County doesn’t have a mental health facility.
“We definitely need more awareness programs not just in the county but everywhere in the state,” Randolph said.