Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series about how communities are addressing rising teen suicide rates. This article tells the story of an affluent urban high school. Read more about a rural community's response here.
ALPINE — When Rhonda Bromley became the principal of Lone Peak High, she recognized many of the names on the rolls.
She had grown up in Alpine back when it was nothing but horse farms and hay fields and took her first teaching job there. She knew families who had lived in Alpine and Highland and Cedar Hills for generations. But she’d seen the place change, too.
Now Alpine included one of the wealthiest zip codes in the state with 11,000-square-foot homes with tennis courts and swimming pools and marble floors.
Bromley knew not everyone who went to Lone Peak lived in a house like that (she certainly didn’t), but the school had come to represent the aspirations of a place that had become synonymous with wealth, success and status.
Walking into the gym you couldn’t miss the banners: state champs in football, basketball, golf and diving. If the weather was warm, you might see kids on the lawn with textbooks open. Lone Peak had cliques like any other school — the jocks, the drama kids, the band geeks — but there were no stoners, hardly any slackers, and no snickering about who got wasted over the weekend or who was pregnant. The school was 95 percent LDS, had the highest AP pass rate in the state, and a composite GPA of 3.7. The kids called it mini BYU for a reason.
And yet, there was another story about Lone Peak no one wanted to tell. In 2012, the year Bromley became principal, there were three suicides. The school had held a meeting for parents in the auditorium, talked about warning signs and drug use, and the media had turned out. Suddenly, Lone Peak's reputation had become associated with suicide.
Lone Peak High School Principal Rhonda Bromley, at Lone Peak in Highland, Utah, on Dec. 6, 2016| Nick Wagner, Deseret News
An energetic woman with long blonde hair, blazing blue eyes and the sunny disposition of someone who seems like she never gets down, Bromley didn’t think this was fair — there were other schools in her district with more suicides — but she couldn’t say this, of course. One suicide was too many.
It was 2014, Bromley’s second year as principal, and by March they’d already had two suicides and several high-profile attempts. With every attempt, news spread through social media and messaging apps. She’d see groups of kids during lunch, huddled close, and she knew what they were saying. Oh my gosh, I’m freaking out. Do you know him? There had been overdoses, hospitalizations, a suicide note left on Twitter. The fear of suicide had come to grip the school.
Bromley knew about the threat of contagion, which is most common among teenagers, and how to curb it: Don’t glamorize a suicide. Avoid overflowing memorials. And yet, what could she do when students decided to dress up in their Sunday best to honor a popular lacrosse player who had suddenly taken his life in November? What could she do when the students, on their own, created a social media campaign called I Choose to Stay, and brought a huge poster to campus that hundreds signed?
With her staff, she created a video called “We See You.” The message, delivered by teachers, was simple: we all experience failure. She knew how much pressure kids at Lone Peak felt to measure up. You’re OK just the way you are, she wanted them to know.
Now it was spring. They had made it through the dreary days of winter in Utah County, when the inversion hangs over the valley like a thick layer of smog. It had begun to lift, revealing blue skies above Mount Timp. Spring brought new life, hope. Maybe the We See You campaign was working.
Then one night, Bromley's phone rang. There had been another suicide. She felt a sharp intake of breath, a looming sense of dread rising in her. A boy she knew well, a popular kid taking AP classes, had taken his life.
Bromley thought of her teachers, what she would say to the kids the next day. She stepped into her bathroom to gather herself, quietly sobbing. She had lost another one, and even though she had been trained to know she couldn’t prevent every suicide, she still felt like she had failed somehow.
She needed help.
This summer, the Utah Department of Health issued an alarming report that suggests an emerging public health crisis: suicide is the leading cause of death for 10- to 17-year-olds in Utah, and has tripled since 2007.
The numbers are troubling, but they come with a caveat: most kids and teenagers don’t die, and of the roughly 550 people who die by suicide in the state every year, about 50 are under 18.
Experts aren’t sure why suicide rates in Utah are higher than the national average, but they say isolation, easy access to firearms and the stigma associated with recognizing and getting help for mental illness, common in the West, are all contributing factors. Starting next year, the state health department will begin tracking sexual orientation as part of its Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which could help address speculation that Utah's religious culture could be contributing to the problem. Nationally, nearly 43 percent of LGBT students seriously considered suicide in 2015, compared to 14 percent of heterosexual students.
Read more about recognizing and addressing warning signs of suicide.
When it comes to teen suicide, 63 percent of youths who take their lives in Utah have contact with the juvenile courts, more than half had problems with substance abuse and 35 percent have been expelled from school, according to the state health department. In other words, teens who kill themselves typically display worrisome warning signs.
That’s why the suicides at Lone Peak have garnered so much attention: they upend what we know. Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s psychiatry department and one of the most respected suicidologists in the country, has found that some of the greatest inhibitors against suicide are religiosity, social cohesion and intact families that spend time together — all hallmarks of life in Alpine, Highland and Cedar Hills.
And yet new research has found the very things that make the Lone Peak community special could actually be contributing to the problem.
In October, two professors, one at the University of Chicago and the other at the University of Memphis, released a paper in the American Sociological Review showing how tightly knit cultures can increase suicide risk among teenagers. The study focused on a homogenous, upper middle class community that experienced several suicide clusters and found that teenagers there faced intense pressure to succeed academically and conform to very narrowly defined standards of success. When researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied recent suicide clusters in Palo Alto, California, and Fairfax, Virginia, highly affluent communities similar in many ways to Alpine, they found similar pressures.
Paul Dymock in his office at Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, on Dec. 6, 2016. | Nick Wagner, Deseret News
Some kids at Lone Peak said they felt stressed, anxious and depressed. One senior said she often goes in her car to cry because of anxiety, and that some of her friends cut or burn themselves in places their parents can’t see to release tension. Paul Dymock, a licensed clinical social worker who works as a full-time therapist at Lone Peak, said he’s already seen 285 kids this year who are experiencing significant anxiety and depression. One student recently came into his office sobbing because she’d got her first A minus and worried she might not qualify for a certain scholarship. Another kid couldn’t get out of bed for a week because he got a 33 on the ACT (36 is a perfect score).
Experts on suicide are quick to point out that these pressures don’t necessarily lead to suicide, but they contribute to rising rates of anxiety and depression in affluent communities, which can be risk factors.
Each suicide is unique, suicidologists say, and in 90 percent of cases there are significant underlying mental health issues.
“But that doesn’t mean what we’re seeing with today’s kids — rising rates of anxiety and depression associated with what they see as narrow paths to success — aren’t reason for concern,” says Victor Schwartz, the chief medical officer at The JED Foundation, the nation’s leading nonprofit dedicated to preventing suicide among teens and young adults. “These are risk factors and we need to figure out how to address them.”
Long before Bromley became principal at Lone Peak, she heard of the work of Greg Hudnall, a former principal in Provo who has made preventing teen suicide his life’s work.
As a principal, Hudnall had spoken at a few funerals, but the event that changed the trajectory of his career came in 1997, when the Provo police called him to identify the body of a 14-year-old.
“He was a great young man, came from a great family, and there were no warning signs that I was aware of,” Hudnall said. “That one pushed me over the edge. When I got done identifying him I walked to my car and literally threw up, and then I sobbed for about five minutes. Sitting in my car I vowed I would do everything I could to prevent suicide.”
Hudnall started working with Doug Gray, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah, to understand the roots of youth suicide. Gray and his team have studied 151 youths from the ages of 13 to 21 who have taken their lives, performing what’s known as a psychological autopsy. They met with parents, relatives and friends to piece together their stories.
“Most were really struggling,” Doug Gray recalls. “But then there were 10 to 15 percent who were student leaders, got good grades, had good friends and good parents, the whole basket of goodies. And those are the ones where you’re really scratching your head.”
From Gray’s research, he knew that there was no way to prevent all suicides, but Hudnall was convinced they could stop most by working to educate kids caught up in the court system, parents, teachers and schools.
“The piece we were missing was peer to peer,” Hudnall recalls. “Adolescents pull themselves away from everybody but two or three friends. They will text, they will contact them.”
When Hudnall's crisis team visited families immediately after a suicide, they'd ask who the teen's closest friends were. And what he found is that at least one friend of the teen who took his or her life usually knew in advance, but either hadn't taken the threat seriously or didn't know what to do. Often, they were afraid speaking up would betray confidence and trust.
What if Hudnall could train teenagers to recognize the signs of suicidal ideation and how to intervene? He decided to start at Timpview High School in Provo.
“This was 14 years ago, and Timpview was what Lone Peak is today. It was very affluent, very successful,” Hudnall says. He asked the students to identify three classmates they would go to with problems. To his surprise, the same names turned up again and again.
Hudnall formed the first Hope Squad at Timpview, training 40 kids to recognize suicide warning signs and how to intervene. Today, there are Hope Squads in 180 schools throughout the state.
Read more about how to talk about suicide.
After the third suicide at Lone Peak in 2015, Bromley called Hudnall and asked for help. Hudnall agreed, but on one condition: they had to implement his program, including a Hope Squad.
When Hudnall showed up at the Lone Peak auditorium for the parents meeting, it was standing room only.
“I said, ‘If we’re going to solve this, we have to come together. We have a chance to turn the tide, but I have to tell you right up front this is a contagion.”
The subject of contagion is controversial in mental health circles, but Gould and other leading suicidologists say it’s a real phenomenon, especially among adolescents and teens. The idea isn’t that someone can “catch” the desire to commit suicide like a cold or a flu, but that someone already considering it because of severe anxiety, depression or biological mental health issues might make the impulsive decision to take their life.
Hudnall identified factors that can contribute to contagion and then explained to parents how to spot warning signs and talk to their kids about suicide and mental health. When he was done, parents concerned about their children approached him. That night he made 53 referrals to Wasatch Mental Health to get counseling for students at risk.
Hudnall had one other recommendation: hire a full-time mental health counselor.
While Bromley was working on implementing his suggestions, Hudnall and his team met with the mayors of the three communities, spoke at sacrament meetings of the LDS Church and began hosting what he calls cottage meetings with small groups of students to hear their concerns.
They told him they felt pressure to measure up — to get good grades, play sports and fulfill their responsibilities at church. They worried that the pressure was too much. And sometimes, they talked about the three boys who had taken their lives that year. It had begun with a boy named Jonny.
When Jonny Ellis was a kid, his dad noticed he had unusual drive and determination. Dave Ellis encouraged this; he was driven himself. “We never quit. We don’t back down from obstacles, we go through them,” he’d tell his three boys. This became a sort of family motto.
At Lone Peak, Jonny was known as the music man, a kid who had taught himself to play eight instruments, from the ukulele to the bagpipes, and could play just about anything if he heard a few bars.
David and Laurel Ellis at their home in Cedar Hills, Utah, on Dec. 6, 2016. They say they remember the day their son, Jonny, committed suicide like it was yesterday. | Nick Wagner, Deseret News
Dave isn’t sure why things started to unravel for Jonny, but he traces it back to the loss of his first wife when Jonny was 12. Jonny had a particularly strong bond with his mother, who died of breast cancer, and while all three of Dave’s boys processed her death differently, Jonny seemed to take it hardest. “Even to our therapist he was like a locked vault,” Dave says.
Midway through his junior year, Jonny’s grades started to slip. He was taking three AP classes, including physics, determined to go to BYU. His dad had remarried and Jonny’s step-mom, Laurel, told him he was pushing himself too hard.
One day toward the end of January of 2013, Dave got a call at work. Jonny hadn’t come to school, which had never happened. Laurel eventually found him sitting in the basement, sobbing. He’d been there all day, sitting in the dark. With prodding, he eventually broke down and confessed he was addicted to pornography, a taboo in LDS culture.
“With his personality and having to be a perfectionist, he couldn’t forgive himself if he did anything wrong, and so his pornography problem had torn him apart,” Laurel says. “He felt so guilty about it and couldn’t forgive himself. We said, ‘OK, we’ll get you some help.’”
Before long, missing one day at school had turned into two and three days straight. Jonny refused to get out of bed and had lost all interest in playing his instruments. “In a three and a half week period, it was like he had become a different person,” Dave recalls.
Jonny started disappearing, and once his family found what seemed like a suicide note. I’m going for a hike and I have no idea when I’ll come back or if I’ll come back. They found him seven miles up American Fork Canyon, shivering in the cold, but when they begged him to get in the car, he just kept walking.
“There were times when it was like no one could reach him, like he was in a trance,” Dave recalls. Dave’s side of the family had a history of mental illness: he had a sister who suffered from depression that was so crippling she’d rarely left her house in 20 years and a grandfather who had been institutionalized for a year. Dave worried something similar was happening to his son.
Dave and Laurel met with their LDS bishop and together they agreed that Jonny needed professional help. They took him to Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake to get him evaluated and later met with a psychiatrist and a psychologist to form a plan of treatment.
With medication and weekly talk therapy, Jonny seemed to improve and by his senior year he’d agreed to go back to school. But after a few weeks, he slid back into depression and was once again sleeping all day and staying up all night.
Jonny had more or less dropped out of school and stopped going to church, but he remained haunted by his addiction to pornography, which Dave had come to conclude was a coping mechanism for him to deal with his anxiety and depression. They got him a counselor who specifically dealt with porn addiction, and that, coupled with his psychiatrist and psychologist, weekly talk therapy and antidepressants, seemed to be helping.
By the spring of 2014, he was back at Lone Peak to finish his senior year, taking a full load of classes and getting good grades. He’d even started to play his instruments again.
“He was pretty much back to normal. He seemed pretty darn happy,” Dave says.
On Easter Sunday, he even went back to church, the first time he’d done that in months. At a family gathering at his grandparents’ home in Orem that night he had pulled out his ukulele, playing songs he’d made up to the delight of his cousins.
The next morning, Dave and Laurel, an elementary school teacher, got ready for work. Laurel checked in on Jonny and he said he was getting ready for school and would leave soon.
But he didn’t go to school. That afternoon, he took his life.
In the time since Jonny’s death, Dave and Laurel have become outspoken advocates of suicide prevention. Dave can’t help but feel like Jonny’s story is part of a bigger puzzle, and that if he can understand his son he can help others. “I feel like we did everything we could,” Dave Ellis says. In fact, mental health experts say the way they responded to Jonny’s mental health issues is nearly textbook perfect. They didn’t just seek out a therapist; they found a psychiatrist and a psychologist who could make a proper diagnosis, come up with a treatment plan and get him proper medication.
But there are some things Dave and his wife Laurel wish they’d done differently. Because their neighborhood in Cedar Hills is so tightly knit, they kept Jonny’s struggles private.
“There’s stigma about depression and so I think we tried to hide what Jonny was going through so people wouldn’t judge us,” Laurel says. “I wish we would’ve been more open about it. Knowing other people are going through something similar can be really helpful to someone else out there struggling.”
Around the time Bromley and Hudnall were trying to stop suicides at Lone Peak, a woman named Suniya Luthar was in Palo Alto, California, studying two suicide clusters at a high school there.
Since the 1990s, Luthar, a professor at Arizona State, has been researching the pressure teens often feel in affluent communities. Parents are just part of the equation, she says: pressure is transmitted from the community as a whole. Coaches want state titles, guidance counselors push elite colleges and teachers stress the importance of high test scores.
“These are kids who have been surrounded by affluence, with every opportunity, and so there’s this idea: ‘I can therefore, I must,’” Luthar says. “I have to get into the best college, I have to take those five AP courses. It’s within reach, and my parents have the resources to help me, so I must.”
Lone Peak High School Principal Rhonda Bromley prides her school's proactive approach toward addressing suicide and mental illness. | Nick Wagner, Deseret News
Parents and kids at Lone Peak told the Deseret News they felt similar pressures, but also different ones. Most kids want to get into BYU and sense that getting in will require at least a 30 on the ACT, a 4.0 and high performance in extracurricular activities. On top of that, since most are LDS they feel a pressure to go on a mission or marry in a Mormon temple.
“I think our school has a perfection problem,” a junior who plays lacrosse said.
“There are a lot of ultimatums here. Either you’re going to get into BYU or you’re going to be homeless. You’ve got to be varsity by your sophomore year, or you’re not athletic. There’s no gray area, no room for failure.”
Gordon Flett, a professor of psychiatry at York University in Toronto, says this tendency toward perfectionism is troubling, and his recent research has focused on the links between perfectionism and suicide. Flett stresses that perfectionism itself doesn’t lead to suicide, but it is an amplifier, and an underappreciated one at that.
What worries Flett most about perfectionists is their tendency to mask pain. At the University of Pennsylvania, which has had its own recent rash of suicides, they call it the Penn Face, which is acting happy even when stressed out or depressed. At Stanford, they call it Duck Syndrome: A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, but below the surface it paddles frantically.
Kids I talked to at Lone Peak told me that while they often felt stressed, and figured most of their friends did too, they rarely talked about it.
This is worrisome to researchers like Luthar. In other affluent communities, kids often turn to substance abuse to deal with pressure. But in a tightly knit religious community where substance abuse would only bring more guilt and shame, kids tend to internalize the pressure more, and deal with it in other unhealthy ways — eating disorders, cutting, and in the most extreme cases, suicide.
Luthar, Flett and others have several suggestions for parents. First, parents need to decouple praise and love from achievement. If praise comes only when a child succeeds, love can feel conditional, like it depends on making the varsity basketball team, going on an LDS mission, or whatever else the parent’s priorities may be.
Luthar has collected data from schools around the country, and in one study she asked kids to rank their parents’ top five values from a list of 10. Half of the values were linked to achievement (attend a good college, get good grades) and half were linked to character (be honest, be kind to others). She found that the higher the emphasis parents put on achievement-related goals, the more likely kids were to be troubled.
“I tell parents to take a good hard look at themselves. What are your priorities, what are your values? It’s often not what we think they are. And it’s not just in what you say to your kids, it’s what you do. If I tell my son to not worry about grades, but I’m acting like my world will fall apart if I don’t get a certain grant, or a promotion, that sends them a different message about my values,” Luthar said.
This doesn’t mean parents should avoid constructive feedback when a child fails. In fact, Hudnall thinks this is one of the main things parents can do to help their kids: teach them that failure is OK. Flett suggests sharing stories of times you’ve failed as a parent, and what you learned from it.
“Oftentimes kids feel like they’re alone, that they’re the only ones experiencing this,” Flett said. “Talk to your kids about times you’ve made a mistake and felt ashamed and embarrassed. Talk to them about how famous people struggled before achieving something. If kids are feeling anxious or depressed, that’s pretty normal. It’s helpful to realize it’s not them, it’s the challenges and pressures of this time of life, and they’ll be just fine.”
On an unusually warm morning in November, I visited Bromley in her office. Pinning Bromley down is difficult; she never seems to stop moving, and until she turned off the walkie talkie she wears on her hip, it didn’t stop squawking. And yet, the demands of her job didn’t seem to drain her. She was like a student body president who had just been elected, delighted at the tasks before her.
In the nearly two years since the school formed a Hope Squad and hired a full-time social worker to serve as a therapist on campus, there hasn’t been a suicide. Bromley explained how hard they worked to integrate the therapist into the school and the community and how this had helped the school flag and screen for mental health issues, something national experts say is a must in prevention.
They also worked hard to decrease stigma around mental illness and failure. Not long ago, the school held an event in which it drew a line across the gym floor and asked people who had experienced divorce or depression, a death, addiction or anything they might be hiding, to step forward. By the end of it, everyone had crossed the line.
“The pressure is a real thing, and especially in communities where 95 percent are LDS, 90 percent take seminary, and we send more to BYU than any school in the world. I’ll be honest, this can be a hard area to make a mistake in, it can be a hard area to come out and say you’re transgender or you have same-sex attraction, so some of these things that the kids are dealing with we need to learn to help them,” Bromley said.
And yet, for all the focus on what Lone Peak did to address suicide and depression, she said it was important to not lose sight that most kids were thriving. The school has the highest AP pass rate in the state, a 95 percent graduation rate and 90 percent will go on to attend college.
A few weeks ago, a large group of Lone Peak students got on the southbound train at South Jordan, heading home from the state football championship.
Lone Peak is a school of champions; as Dymock, the school therapist, said, these kids don't experience failure, and it hits them hard. Based on the laughing and jostling among these Lone Peak kids, it would be easy to assume they had won.
But they didn't win. Lone Peak led the whole game and lost in the final minutes.
Yet the kids crowding the aisles didn’t look dejected or depressed. They looked ebullient, resilient and buoyant.
They looked like they had their whole lives in front of them.