Sitting down with families touched by teen suicide

Emily Smith (Photo courtesy family)
Emily Smith (Photo courtesy family)
Emily, Ash (Source: Family)
Emily, Ash (Source: Family)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Children and teens are killing themselves at an alarming rate. For youth 10-14 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death in North Carolina. And the second leading cause of death in kids 15 and older.

If you are worried about someone you love and think they might be a harm to themselves, call this number now, 1-800-273-8255. Or text “Connect” to 741 741.

That is why WBTV is helping open the important conversation so we can help stop what many consider an epidemic among our youth.

April Quick and Debbie Smith of Charlotte, both lost children to suicide in 2015.

"When I lost Ash, a part of my soul was just ripped out. Who I was just ripped's just hard," April told me.

"You never get over it, you never do," Debbie said of losing Emily to suicide in September of 2015.

Both moms wanted to share their painful stories to help stop the stigma, they say, that surrounds suicide by children and teenagers.

Debbie holds a book put together for Emily's funeral. The glossy pages are filled with beautiful pictures of Emily's 19 years. Each page with messages from friends who, like Debbie, still grieve Emily's absence.

"It's two hundred and fifty pictures of her life and how beautiful and treasured she was, what a gift she was. She was a gift," Debbie said.

Debbie first became aware of Emily's emotional struggles when she was 15.

"Emily had shared with a friend on the phone some of the words she was writing in a notebook. Her friend said you go take that book to your mom right now or I'm calling her. So, Emily just came in sat down next to me and handed it to me," Debbie remembers.

"She had this pressure to be prefect. So, in every aspect of her life she felt she was a failure and it was so the opposite to other people. Nobody saw her as a failure.  It was what she saw internally, what was in her head…that she just would not measure up," Debbie said of Emily's early struggles.

Debbie immediately sought mental health care for Emily. And looks back now and sees part of her problems began with bullying.

"Emily wrote an email to herself not too long before she passed. It was 'If I Could Be Born Again'. She said, if I could start over, I would have been born pretty, my sister would not have gotten cancer, I would have not have been bullied in middle school. If I could I would, but I can't start over."

Emily was even hospitalized on several occasions. After four-and-a-half years of therapy, in the fall of 2015, Debbie says Emily seemed excited about life. She was helping he uncle write his wedding vows, even went shopping for a dress. She had a job doing make up she loved. But what her mother didn't know, is Emily had stopped taking the medication doctors prescribed to try and help deal with her depression.

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"That's the problem with medication. They take it and start feeling better and think, 'I don't need it anymore!' And that's dangerous. And the medicine also made her hands shake. And customers would ask if she was nervous. So, she stopped taking it. It is very dangerous to do that," Debbie said.

Ash Haffner was 16-years-old when Ash died by suicide. Ash's mom looks back on Ash's life and holds on happy memories.

"There was lots of laughter in the house with Ash," April remembers.

Ash was fond of dancing and playing with the younger siblings, loved music, poetry and playing the guitar. The real emotional struggles came as Ash moved into the teen years.

April describes the two years prior to Ash's suicide.

"I had known for a couple years and it had been a struggle. It would kind of be cycles and Ash would really be struggling and then Ash would get better or you would think Ash was getting better. The time leading up to it, I thought we had got Ash back on track," April told me.

It was the unlocked iPad Ash left on a desk that reveal the truth about how deeply Ash hurt inside.

"I am now realizing through the journals Ash had become tired and I think had maybe accepted the decision, (to take his own life). In kind of a series of notes leading up to it," April says of the entries Ash made before stepping into traffic near their home in Union County. Ash would die from the injuries.

April also sees bullying as the real beginning Ash's struggles. April says Ash had always been a tomboy with long hair. When Ash, whose full name was Ashlyn, got a short haircut, the snickering and comments intensified.

When I asked April if Ash was considered transgender, she said she couldn't answer that because that is something Ash felt a lot of pressure about.

"I can't say because I can't speak for Ash for as far as how Ash ultimately identified, even though Ash expressed confusion about gender. Even Ash didn't know how to identify and expressed frustration. And you know because of Ash's back and forth I guess other people were getting frustrated, trying to pull Ash, "ok choose one!" You know the way Ash saw it was 'I'm just Ash. Even I don't know!'" April told me.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LBGTQ youth face an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, behaviors and suicide attempts.

February will always be a difficult month for April. Ash took his life on February 25, 2015.

April believes our mental health support system needs to be expanded, be more inclusive.

"I had actually tried to get Ash into a six-month long-term program but they turned Ash down because of the severity of the cutting, cutting was what Ash did to deal with the pain. It is still so frustrating because I have to wonder if Ash would have been in the program? Would Ash have still been here. I feel like them turning Ash down because of the severity, I'm like are you giving up on my child?" she said fighting tears.

The hardest time for Debbie is 5 o'clock. That's when her frantic search for Emily ended on September 4, 2015. At 5:00 p.m. that night Debbie got the call.

"When he called he said, 'We found them.' And I said, 'And they're dead.' And he said, 'Yeah.''s something that no parent wants to get that phone call. It is just you don't even know what to do. You immediately go into this different place. And I don't think you ever really get out of that place," Debbie's voice trails off.

Emily had taken her life in a hotel room in Tennessee. She was 19-years-old.

It is hard not to feel their heartache. As a parent, how can you not?

I asked the moms, "What can we learn from your tragedies?"

"Take bullying seriously. Don't let your kids accept that for any reason. It has to be stopped!" Debbie said.

April says teach your children to have compassion.

"Like with Ash, when people were judging Ash and bullying Ash, you don't know the struggles Ash is already going through or the depression Ash has been struggling with. You don't know how fragile somebody already is," April said shaking her head.

Both moms are working to shine a light on the darkness that comes with teen suicide. They want to break the stigma so families can be informed and lives can be saved.

To learn more about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention suggestions click here.

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