Bonnie McLelland had just sat down to a
Mother's Day dinner with her son Tim when she
spotted something shiny on his arm. Show it to
me, she said. No, Tim answered. "You're going to
fall asleep at some point and I'll just go in
and look," she countered. "You might as well
show me now."
Tim unveiled his left forearm.
"I am in hell," it said. He had scrawled the
words with a hot ballpoint pen.
Eighteen months later, on Jan. 21, 2002,
Timothy Michael McLelland would commit suicide
in his bedroom in the Seminole house he shared
with his mother. He was 17. He was one of 40
people ages 15-24 to take their own lives in
Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties last
year. He was among the roughly 1,600 teens to
commit suicide in the United States last year.
Tim McLelland's suicide note, barely legible
because of his severe dyslexia, ended, "Learn
from this and help each other." His death caused
a series of aftershocks that left his friends in
a black hole of guilt and hopelessness. Some of
them also considered suicide, and two actually
killed themselves. His mother, meanwhile, was
moved to form a suicide awareness organization
that would help teach the kids to watch out for
each other and foster a collective healing. But
she, too, would nearly opt for the permanent
In the face of continuing anguish, Bonnie
McLelland leads the Pinellas chapter of the
Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program, which
meets twice a month in the showroom of Scott
Buick in Pinellas Park. Tim's death is never far
from her mind. "It's the only thing I can do for
my son," she says. "It was his last request."
Youth suicide is not exactly a hot-button
issue. When Gov. Jeb Bush held a news conference
for Florida Suicide Prevention Day on March 26,
veteran St. Petersburg Times reporter
Lucy Morgan opened the Q&A period with a
question about the Equal Rights Amendment,
effectively squeezing suicide out of the
"For most people, [suicide] is probably a
squeamish topic," says Dan Casseday, whose
16-year-old son killed himself in March 2002.
"But it's certainly a huger issue than SARS. If
people understood the statistics about suicide,
there'd be panic about that."
Suicide ranks as the third leading cause of
death for young people, behind accidents and
homicide. Suicides account for 1.2 percent of
all deaths in the U.S., but they comprise nearly
13 percent of deaths in the 15-24 age group. In
2000, Florida's overall suicide rate ranked 11th
among states, the highest in the eastern part of
The death toll tells only part of the story.
Recent data released by the Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration showed
that approximately 3-million youths ages 12-17
thought about or attempted suicide in 2000. More
than a half-million teens a year make suicide
attempts requiring medical attention.
Girls are nearly twice as prone as boys to
attempt suicide, but boys are more than four
times as likely to kill themselves. Girls tend
to take pills, while boys resort to more violent
means: guns or ropes.
Can there be a worse way than suicide for a
child to die? Can there be a more devastating
event for a parent? "It's against the nature of
things," says Sheryle Baker, director of Life
Center of Tampa. "Parents are supposed to keep
their kids safe."
Bonnie McLelland walks into the Scott Buick
showroom and props a framed photo collage of her
late son on a table. She's wearing black pants
and a black Yellow Ribbon T-shirt with "Learn
from this and help each other" inscribed on the
back. She greets 23 people -- split about evenly
between adults and kids -- who sit
classroom-style in front of her.
A palpable pain courses through the room. Jan
Plum has had six friends and relatives take
their own lives. Her daughter, sitting in the
row behind her, threatened suicide a couple of
months ago. Carol Yaros' husband attempted to
kill himself two weeks before her son completed
suicide last June. Her husband, she says, is
still in bad shape.
A burly 15-year-old we'll call Brendan, with
dark features and deep, sad eyes, attempted
suicide on Jan. 1 by mixing powerful cold
medicine and alcohol. Barely conscious, he
staggered into the living room and mumbled, "I
don't wanna die." His mother, who sits next to
him during the Yellow Ribbon meeting, says she
took him to the emergency room, where he stayed
five days, followed by a short spell in a mental
health facility. Caregivers mistakenly gave him
anti-psychotic medication, she says, which
caused her son to have severe muscle spasms.
Brendan is withdrawn, speaks in clipped
sentences barely above a whisper. Why did he try
to end his life?
"I thought my family and friends were better
off without me," he murmurs, his hands wringing
a piece of paper into a tube. Some five months
later, Brendan's mother is still anxious. "After
having gone through that, I don't know if I can
ever comfortably feel that any of my kids are
out of the woods," she says. "I was totally
unprepared. I didn't think it would ever
She's not alone. In a recent poll, 90 percent
of parents said that they would recognize
suicidal tendencies in their child. But such
recognition, experts say, is seldom the case.
Young people are extremely adroit at masking
their feelings; amid the tumult of teenage years
they are more inclined to keep suicidal thoughts
It's all out in the open for Brendan, of
course. He says suicide is no longer a solution.
"A lot of people want to end their life once in
awhile," he says. "And I have those thoughts.
But I don't wanna do it."
What separates youngsters who consider
suicide and those who actually go through with
it is generally a prolonged mental illness,
usually depression. A 1995 study showed that 63
percent of people committing suicide had been
psychiatrically impaired for 12 months or more.
"Suicide is the lethal result of untreated
depression," says Laurie Flynn, director of the
Carmel Health Center for Early Diagnosis and
Treatment at New York's Columbia University.
"Suicide rarely happens in the absence of
depression, and depression can be treated."
Tim McLelland was depressed for a long time,
says his mother, and he did not benefit from
His father was rarely around. He was an only
child. His dyslexia was chronic. During Tim's
pre-teen years, Bonnie placed him in a series of
private and alternative schools. She moved to
Seminole because she was told that Seminole High
School would be a comparatively good environment
for a dyslexic child. In her view, it didn't
turn out that way. Bonnie says he was
humiliated, not helped, by the way school
officials handled his special needs during
Despite his problems, Tim grew into a tall,
handsome kid with his share of friends. When his
mother hit financial straits, he took a job
washing dishes at a retirement center to help
out. At 16, he landed a gig stocking soda
shelves at Publix.
Bonnie tells the story of her son's short
life while seated on a sofa in the living room
of her modest Seminole home. The ringing of wind
chimes outside occasionally wafts through the
house. Her eyes well up with tears now and then,
but she never breaks down.
Tim was highly sensitive. When Bonnie
discovered the "I am in hell" burned into his
arm, she asked him why he did it. "He said that
when he looked into people's eyes, he could see
their souls," she recalls. "And he could see
that people were not connected."
Alarmed, Bonnie sought help. She says she
called the school guidance counselor, who in
turn brought in the school psychiatrist, who
then consulted with the assistant principal.
Next thing she knew, her son was committed to
Pinellas Emergency Mental Health Services under
the Baker Act, which allows involuntary
psychological evaluation of people if it's
deemed they are a danger to themselves or
others. "He hated that facility," Bonnie says.
"He was there for five days. Kids were
screaming. They fed him crap. It was like a
After his Baker Act ordeal, Tim gradually
improved. That summer, he and his mom went
whitewater rafting in Tennessee. "He seemed like
he was doing great," Bonnie says. "The
psychologist's notes said he was getting
Not all youth suicide trends are bad. While
the number of suicides has tripled since the
'50s, it actually began to dip in the mid '90s.
Statistics from the Center for Disease Control
say that in 1991, 10 of 100,000 people in
Florida ages 10-24 committed suicide. By 1999,
that number had dropped to six out of 100,000.
The decline is accompanied by a major increase
in the number of antidepressant prescriptions
written for young people.
Columbia's Flynn does not think that's a
coincidence. "We feel it's a reflection of
better treatment -- the increased use of
antidepressants like Prozac that are easier to
tolerate," she says. "Also, depression seems to
be getting a little de-stigmatized. As a result,
we think we're seeing more people raising their
hand and getting the treatment they need."
But not enough people are getting help. A
recent study said that only 36 percent of young
people at risk for suicide receive treatment.
Most mental health care professionals share the
notion that youth suicide could be all but
eradicated if the public health system were set
up to get kids the care they need.
For his junior year, Tim McLelland began
attending Pinellas County Technical Institute
part time, studying electronics. As his mother
tells it, the teacher instructed the students to
bring in a pocketknife to strip wires. Bonnie
describes it as a "good-size pocket knife that I
bought him at Wal-Mart for Boy Scouts."
One day, she says, Tim missed the bus and
decided to skip school. The high school resource
officer apprehended him, found the knife and
marched him through the school in handcuffs. Tim
was charged with a second-degree felony and
expelled from school in September. He was
sentenced to 10 days public service. "He never
recovered from that," Bonnie says. "The pain
they put him through -- all he had left was his
pride and they made him a felon."
Tim joined a program for expelled kids but
was not allowed to continue his electronics
studies. After a while, he quit school and
decided to get a GED. The test had to be read
aloud to him. Tim received his failure letter in
Meanwhile, he wasn't making his psychologist
appointments. The office staff left messages,
but Tim would come home and erase the answering
machine so his mother wouldn't find out.
Tim had three days to live when he gave his
best friend Sebastian Urbanczyk a ride to pick
up his car. Tim seemed in good spirits.
Sebastian now thinks Tim might have already
decided to end his life and was relieved to have
made up his mind. Sebastian called his friend
the two following nights, but Tim didn't feel
like getting together.
The evening before Tim died, another friend,
Tracy Consoli, looked at the Publix nametag he
had given her and thought she should phone and
see how he was doing. "I should've called him,"
she says. "I'm the type of person who tries to
make other people happy. Maybe he would've
thought, 'Someone was actually thinking about
me.'" Her voice drops. "But I didn't."
On Sunday, Jan. 20, Bonnie McLelland went to
visit a friend in Tampa. "Tim called me there
and asked me if a girl can be pregnant and still
have her period," she recounts. "He said a
friend of his was having a problem. I said,
'Tell your friend his girlfriend is snowing
him.'" Bonnie knew her son was talking about
himself but, at the time, thought it better to
Driving home amid thick fog, Bonnie had an
eerie feeling. She thought maybe her father, who
had terminal cancer, had died. She woke the next
morning, read the paper, drank coffee. Tim's car
was out front. Bonnie decided to run the vacuum,
which they kept in Tim's room.
That's where she found him.
"I think Tim had made the decision to kill
himself but didn't know what day," she says. "He
did it on a day that the shit just piled up too
Most activists think suicide should come off
the taboo list. Put it on the table for open
discussion, they insist, even among young folk.
And the best place for it is in the schools.
But some researchers aren't so sure that's an
appropriate strategy. In a 2000 report, the
National Institute of Mental Health gave a
failing grade to the in-school suicide awareness
programs it evaluated. "By describing suicide
and its risk factors," the report said, "some
curricula may have the unintended effect of
suggesting that suicide is an option for many
young people who have some of the risk factors
and in that sense 'normalize' it -- just the
opposite of the message intended."
Flynn of Columbia, whose current focus is
suicide prevention in schools, essentially
concurs. "In case examples, we've seen it stirs
up some kids, makes them more anxious, seems to
give them permission," she says, adding that
while suicide should not be a forbidden topic,
it's better taught in context of a "general unit
on mental health that covers a lot of material.
To dwell on suicide is probably not
Instead, Flynn advocates screening kids for
mental health disorders. She is joined by David
Shern, dean and professor at the Louis de la
Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the
University of South Florida. "The initiative is
to see that every kid in the United States
receives [mental health] screening," he says,
"just like they do for vision and hearing and
scoliosis. It's all about growing up
At the leading edge of the screening, or
"case-finding," approach is a system developed
at Columbia called TeenScreen. After receiving
parental permission, students take a
10-15-minute written questionnaire that queries
aspects of their mental health. About 40-50
percent of kids move to the next phase: Using a
computer and headphones, they enter responses to
a series of yes-or-no questions about their
mental state. "Do you have trouble staying awake
in school?" the computer asks. "Do you have
trouble going to sleep at night?" Each yes
answer elicits a more specific question ("does
it happen every day?"), thus drawing a detailed
profile of the disorder. "If a student affirms
that he's thought about killing himself," Flynn
says, "the computer asks, 'This week?' 'How
frequently?' 'Have you made a plan?' 'Have you
tried to kill yourself?' What we're finding out
is that the kids'll tell ya. They get into it.
It's about their favorite subject: them. They're
relieved to talk about it."
Columbia TeenScreen offers the technology for
free, but a health professional must be on site
during testing to assess results and respond
accordingly. Thus far, the program has found
that about 20 percent of the youngsters tested
need counseling; 10-15 percent show some
Local mental health professionals, including
representatives from the Hillsborough and
Pinellas County school systems, have seen
presentations on TeenScreen. They recognize its
effectiveness but are concerned with what
happens after kids are diagnosed.
Who will treat the new influx of students
with mental disorders? Who will pay for it? Most
mental health institutions are stretched thin
and feeling a budget squeeze, be it from
government cutbacks or a drop in donations.
Schools, the most obvious venue for such a
program, are reluctant to take the lead.
"We felt that we could not set up a system to
provide the necessary services for students
identified to need treatment," says Linda Jones,
Pinellas County's supervisor for Safe and Drug
Free Schools. "It's not a good idea to screen
unless you can provide care."
Gwen Luney, assistant superintendent for
supportive services and federal programs at
Hillsborough County Schools, says TeenScreen
would cost the school district roughly $200,000
a year -- $200K they don't have. Although she's
impressed with the screening technique, she
said, "We're hesitant to commit to a new program
if there's a strong possibility we'll be seeing
some [money] shortfalls. Also, are we going to
find a place for this [diagnosed] child to go?
If so, what if the child doesn't have insurance?
Who picks up the cost? Does it get passed on to
the county? It can't be passed on to the school
district. And the liability factor is greater
now that you've identified [the at-risk
Flynn maintains that creative synergy between
schools and mental health institutions can save
lives. She says TeenScreen pilot programs have
not overstressed treatment resources in other
communities. "How many are they willing to
help?" she asks. "Two, three, five cases a
Nancy Pape is the program manager for
Children's Crisis Services at Mental Health
Care, Inc., the only facility left in
Hillsborough County where young people can get
in-patient psychiatric treatment. Last year, her
facility did 1,392 psychiatric evaluations of
young people. Of these, 909 showed "specific
suicidal ideation," or about two-and-a-half per
"I think something like TeenScreen would be
especially effective in picking up early signs
of emotional problems," Pape says. "So in that
sense I think it would [have more impact on]
outpatient programs. I'm confident that our
program could handle the referrals of the most
acutely suicidal or depressed."
Bonnie McLelland's father succumbed to cancer
on the Easter Sunday following Tim's suicide.
She says her three sisters abandoned her. "They
can't forgive me for what happened to Tim," she
But Bonnie did stay in touch with Tim's
friends. And on May 31 of last year, she formed
her Yellow Ribbon chapter in Pinellas. The
organization was founded nine years ago by a
Colorado couple whose son committed suicide.
For a few weeks, Tim's friends stayed locked
in a kind of surreal disbelief, even though they
knew their friend had been troubled. Guilt made
their days darker. "Everybody knew [Tim was at
risk]," says Tracy Consoli. "You could see it.
We pretended it wasn't there, that he was fine,
that he'd be OK. We were afraid to risk our
social value, to be the one who actually stood
up and did something. Tim was asking for help
and we didn't give any."
Meanwhile, Sebastian was sinking lower and
lower. He dropped out of school: "It got to the
point where I couldn't concentrate."
Sebastian says he had considered killing
himself before Tim's death, but "Tim's suicide
pushed the idea in front of me."
One of Yellow Ribbon's main tenets is to urge
kids to inform a responsible adult if they fear
someone they know is contemplating suicide.
Bonnie drummed it into the kids' heads.
One day in August, Sebastian was driving
around with his friend Jessica. He was speeding
and vaguely threatening to end his life that
night. Jessica told Tracy. Tracy called 911. The
sheriff's department heard, erroneously, that
there was a gun involved.
Tracy and some other friends watched as
police carted off Sebastian in handcuffs. He'd
been Baker Acted. Spent a few days in Windmoor
Health Care in Pinellas Park. Sebastian, now 19,
says he was never completely serious about
killing himself last summer. "One of the reasons
I didn't do it was seeing how everyone got hurt
by Tim, all the pain it caused," he says.
But that's not a good enough reason, and
Sebastian has gradually come to the conclusion
that "I'm not gonna kill myself 'cause I wanna
At first, he was mad at Tracy for having him
Baker Acted, but no longer. "I don't hold
nothing against her," he says. "I understand why
she did it."
Last December, the shit nearly piled up too
high for Bonnie McLelland. Her stepsister died a
week after her father. A friend was killed in a
motorcycle accident in November; another friend
died of a stroke two weeks before Christmas. "I
came really close," Bonnie says. "I laid plans
out, wrote down what people should have that I
left behind. Then I thought, 'If someone has to
come and pick my body up like I did Tim's, I
don't care if it's an EMT, I can't do that to
But that too wasn't a good enough reason, so
Bonnie worked on healing herself.
She knew her decision to live had really
taken hold in February. While she was riding
home from work on I-275 in Tampa, a truck
crowded into her lane. She swerved and her car
started to spin in traffic. "I was headed toward
a concrete embankment," she says. "And I
thought, 'I choose to live.' I ended up facing
traffic on the Interstate. I felt my son's
energy come and save me."
Bonnie knows that her efforts with Yellow
Ribbon will always keep the tale of her son's
death fresh in her mind and close to her lips.
But it's worth it. Besides, she says, "It's
therapy. It gives me fire. It keeps me in the
Senior Writer Eric Snider can be reached
or 813-248-8888 ext.