Now, in an April piece for The New Yorker, Solomon brings us “The Mystifying Rise of Child Suicide,” a riveting, 10,000-word exploration of a reality that is almost unthinkable. As he states, in one simple and searing sentence:
Children are often secretive about suicidal impulses; parents are often in denial.
The children we meet through Solomon are not the teens featured in coverage of social media bullying, but pre-teens, some barely old enough to start school:
As early as 1996, a review of research indicated that major depressive disorder appeared to be “occurring at an earlier age in successive cohorts.” Two studies on preschoolers suggest that around one per cent of them suffer from depression. Early-onset depression often persists.
The story blends a succession of shocking statistics and harrowing examples into a powerful, deeply unsettling picture of the mental pain in which some children live ― and die. He finds several grieving families who want their stories told in hopes of helping others. Throughout, he follows the story of Trevor Matthews, who was in private elementary school with one of Solomon’s sons. This from the opening of his story:
Trevor was perhaps the brightest kid in the class. In first grade, he was already reading adult narrative nonfiction. He could be charming, generous, and humane. But he could also turn suddenly violent. At my son’s seventh-birthday party, Trevor bit another boy on the ear so hard that the mark was still visible when that child next went to school. Trevor terrorized the smaller kids in the class, and, if they pushed back, he would try to get them in trouble. He was shrewd in his manipulations. In second grade, he tried extracting cash from other boys by threatening to spread embarrassing rumors.
Trevor’s parents open their lives to Solomon in ways that are generous and painful. He, in turn, is transparent with readers about his relationship with the family and the subject.
Now, in an extensive interview with Storyboard, Solomon goes deeper on his reporting process, laying out how he found and gained trust from heartbroken parents and suicide survivors. He also talks about his fears for his own teenage children, and the toll such reporting takes on his own mental and emotional health.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve written about depression and mental illness for so long, I wondered if anything in this latest story, about child suicides, really surprised you?
The whole story surprised me. The fact of the matter is that if you read about many forms of mental illness you can say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have wanted to be depressed, but in being depressed, I learned an awful lot of things I could never have learned in any other way.’ You can find strength and encouragement in the whole experience. But there’s no upside to having your child die by suicide. There’s no hidden lesson that makes you stronger and better. It’s just devastating.
Additionally, I was shocked at how confident these children were, and how young — as young as 5. When I was 5, I didn’t have a concept of suicide or understand that one could end one’s own life. But even if I had understood that wanted to do it, I don’t think I would have had the skill to carry it off.
The number of children who are suicidal is very underestimated. Lots of children don’t have the ability to carry it off, but I was surprised at how early the feelings could be that intense ― even in situations where there wasn’t abuse, there wasn’t cruelty, there wasn’t anything. As a parent one always wants to believe that love will carry the day. But the reality I discovered is that, while love certainly can be very helpful, and children who come from abusive homes are more likely to kill themselves than children who come from loving homes, even with little children, love is not an adequate medicine.”
How long did the reporting and writing take for this story?
Almost exactly a year.
Can you describe how you went about approaching the parents of children who had taken their own lives? One of the skills reporters are expected to develop is this ability to persuade people to talk on the record, but I suspect this was a different situation.
The family at the center of the piece are the family of a classmate of my son’s. As I spent time with them in the period just following the loss of their child, I said, ‘Look, you have an extraordinary story. I’m not gunning for anything.’ They kept saying they wanted to help other children and spare other families what they were going through. I said, ‘If you’d like me to write something, I certainly am willing to do so.’ And they said that they would like that and so that was kind of by mutual agreement.
Then I found the secondary family in the story, which was the family of Seven Bridges (the child’s name). I had interviewed Michael Lindsey at NYU, who has been working for a long time on the issue of Black suicide. I asked if there anyone he thought might talk to me and he agreed to call around and ask. The two young women who talked about their suicide attempts had both been involved with a film produced by the Jed Foundation (a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing suicides by teens and young adults).
So it was a variety of approaches but they were mostly approaches by someone whom the subject I was approaching trusted.
It sounds like you didn’t try to persuade anyone to speak to you. You just offered…
Yes, even the family that’s briefly quoted from Albuquerque, their children had gone to school with the children of friends of mine. Most parents who have lost children to suicide tend either in the direction of feeling deeply ashamed and wanting to keep the story extremely secret, or in the direction of feeling like the lack of open discussion about children’s mental health is part of what led their children to die, and they find a sense of purpose in talking about what their children have been through.
My experience is that teenagers can be difficult to interview on subjects much less sensitive than this one. Was it difficult to get the teenagers to talk?
Actually it wasn’t. The two primary teenagers had already done some speaking about their situation. They hadn’t talked about some of the details that we talked about so I got at some other things beyond what was out there, but the filmmaker had connected me to them and they were quite forthcoming.
We talked on a Zoom interview that I did with both of them at the same time.That format had been proposed by the filmmaker, and I had started off thinking, ‘Hmm, do I really want to do it that way? It’s a little weird interviewing them together.’ But each of them was encouraged by how much the other was saying. Over the course of our interview each grew more vocal and had more to say and was saying it to me, but they were also saying it to each other. They’ve actually become rather good friends with each other through the process initially of making the film, but also through that conversation that we had.
I like to think that I’m good at interviewing people and drawing them out, but there is also that moral imperative that people are dealing with.
It’s been a controversial practice in journalism, but I wondered if you let people to see the story or parts of the story before it was finished?
The New Yorker does not encourage that. Well, more than does not encourage; it doesn’t really let you show stories when they’re in progress. But the fact-checking is so unbelievably thorough that people really know everything you’re saying about them before the story comes out. And there’s a deliberate policy also in fact-checking of saying anything that may be upsetting or difficult for the people you’re talking to. The idea is for nobody to feel ambushed on the day the story goes into print.
Are there any other things that you do to reassure sources when they agree to tell stories this emotionally difficult?
I recounted in the story itself having said to Tami Charles (mother of a 10-year-old boy lost to suicide), ‘Don’t worry I’ll be as nice as I can be,’ and her response being, ‘This is not a nice subject. If you’re really going to write this article, you cannot be nice.’ So I think I said to people that the point was to write a sympathetic story, and it wasn’t to catch them out, or seduce and betray them. But they had to want to tell the story. On other subjects that I’ve written about, with sources I’ll say, ‘Come on. I’ll do it this way. What if I agree to that?’ There can be a kind of negotiation. Here, I felt like the subject matter is too sensitive and I’m only going to write about people who want to be written about.
I was intrigued by your description of Trevor Matthews. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen as nuanced a portrait of a childhood bully. In fact, it was a shock to me that a bully would have experienced so much depression. Was that something that surprised you?
It absolutely was. I had no idea before Trevor died that he was in that kind of mental anguish. I thought of him as someone who inflicted mental anguish. I thought that the bullying behavior was cruel and maybe even psychopathic rather than recognizing it as despairing and desperate. So I was so shocked as I read the statistics: While suicide is highly correlated with bullying, it’s just as highly correlated for bullies as for victims of bullying. As somebody said to me, ‘It’s a very simple principle,’ but it had never crossed my mind before. Bullies are not very happy people. They’re socially isolated. They’re unpopular. People don’t want to be with them and so on. If Trevor had not been so bullying, the fact that he was brilliant and could be charismatic would have made him a super-popular kid. But his treating other people the way he did had the reverse effect. The tendency of bullies to be desperate was one of the real revelations.
I thought that the bullying behavior was cruel and maybe even psychopathic rather than recognizing it as despairing and desperate.
You’d done so much interviewing and reporting; was it hard to structure the piece?
It was unbelievably hard. The first draft was 180 pages long —nearly a book. And I will ultimately write a book based on it. But I just had to get all of the material down before I could begin to organize it. And then I had to organize it before I could figure out what was expendable and what was absolutely essential to the story. I did work with my editor on that. He asked to see all of what I’d written and I gave it to him and then proceeded to discuss with him what was and was not crucial. I’d been so in the weeds with this material for such a long time that it was sometimes difficult for me to have the perspective that you could tell the story you wanted to tell and not use this statistic, or not use that anecdote, or not use this character.
Just checking: Your first draft was 180 pages long?
Yes. It wasn’t a coherent piece that flowed from beginning to end. When I wrote up all the material, I had 180 pages of prose and then I had to begin to figure out what I really wanted to use.
Does it take a certain amount of courage to begin the writing process when you’ve got something that long?
It’s the way I’ve tended to work. My last book was a thousand pages but the draft of it was slightly more than twice as long as the version that I published. I tend to write very long and then cut. Simpler subjects, I don’t, but with this kind of subject, there’s just so much material, there’s so much emotion that has to be put down on the page before I can see what’s crucial and what’s expendable.
Did you start writing while you were still reporting?
I started writing before I’d done all the interviews, but not right at the beginning. I did a lot of interviews and thought about them a lot, but didn’t write anything. I would like to say it’s because of my profound editorial genius, but it was actually partly because I was overwhelmed and trying to avoid the subject. Then as I started writing, I’d think, ‘Oh I really need X, or I really need Y. There isn’t enough of this, or there’s too much of that. Or it isn’t explained thoroughly enough.’ So that was the process of getting to know the material.
We don’t talk about this much in journalism, but I wondered if when you are working on a piece like this one, you feel anxieties or fears?
Yes. There are two aspects to that in a piece like this. One of them, and a profound one, is that I’m a father of youngish children, teenagers now, and I’m aware that what I’m looking at could become my own story. That’s utterly terrifying. In addition to that, there’s fear of my own emotional vulnerability. These stories are painful to write. The idea of even going back and rereading the transcripts of these conversations — it felt like living through an automobile accident every day. It was traumatic and sad.
These stories are painful to write. The idea of even going back and rereading the transcripts of these conversations — it felt like living through an automobile accident every day.
I really would have loved to discover a guiding principle in which I could say, ‘Terrible things happen to these families, but they’ll never happen to me and they’ll never happen to you. This is how you steer safe.’ You know, I came up with a certain amount of wisdom that may be helpful to some people, but overall I felt like people are probably going to go on dying by suicide and there’s nothing I can do to make that not happen to anyone.
Is it hard for you to keep your own emotions in check when you’re doing these interviews? Do you even try?
Tami Charles had said to me while we were doing the interview that people tried to interview her, and then, as she told her story, they would start crying and she felt like she ended up having to take care of them. I wanted to avoid imposing unwelcome emotion on the people who I was talking to. That said, you can’t talk about these topics in a tone of pure journalistic neutrality; it’s always with a sense that you have to be emotionally engaged with the people you are talking to. It also just impossible to sit with a mother who’s lost her child and not have an emotional response. So, it was a mixture of all of these things.
You’ve written a memoir of your own experiences, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.” How did writing this story on child suicides affect your own mood? Are you able to separate the two, or is it sometimes a case where working on a certain story is almost unhealthy?
That’s a good word for it, unhealthy. I definitely had days when I thought, ‘I’ll just do email today. I’m not feeling emotionally up to doing the work on this story.’ And the final fact-checking, edit process — even though I love my editor at The New Yorker and love working with him, I felt like I was having bamboo splinters stuck under my fingernails, to go back to everything, to go over those details, having to be on phone calls with people who have been interviewed, saying to them, ‘You went through the trauma of telling me all of this once, now we have to go through it again because we have to make sure the facts are all correct.’ It was an agonizing experience ― a worthwhile but agonizing nonetheless. There were times when I thought, ‘I’ve dealt with depression. Am I going to get more depressed by doing this?’
The sort of celebratory feeling that you have when you finish an article, when you publish an article, I didn’t have much feeling of celebration about this. I had feelings of intense anxiety.
I don’t know if this is an accurate observation, but I wanted to ask about an uncomfortable theme that emerges in the story, that children have this ability to keep secrets, especially when it comes to their mood. Was that something that surprised you?
I grew up a gay person who was incredibly close to my parents and incredibly involved with my family but who nonetheless managed to keep the fact that I was gay a secret from them until I was 23 or 24 years old. I know that you can be incredibly, warmly attached to your parents and still be keeping a really significant and profound secret. So that didn’t surprise me, but frightened me. I like to think that I’m close to my children and I suddenly have to reckon that they could very well be keeping secrets like this.
I like to think that I’m close to my children and I suddenly have to reckon that they could very well be keeping secrets like this.
In some ways, the fear in writing this was not only that it would make me depressed, but that somehow with my children as I was writing this, it would make them think about suicide even though all of the evidence is that it helps children to talk to them about that issue.
I was excruciatingly anxious through the whole process. I just was aware as I looked at my children ― we’ve had cozy, snuggly, open times ― I thought that they could be keeping a terrible secret. Not necessarily this particular secret but I did think in a more general sense, ‘Oh, my children could be keeping terrible secrets from me.’ That made me sad. I think if my children were troubled I could do as good a job as anyone could do of finding them the right care, of responding in the appropriate ways. But the possibility that they might be suffering terribly in ways that I don’t know about — it was excruciating to come to that realization…
I do plan to write a book about this and just sold the idea to my publisher. Usually if you make a book sale, you feel exuberant. I made the book sale and I felt like, ‘OK, I’m doing this because I think there’s a real need for it, and because I think I can do it reasonably well. But the idea that I’m going to go talk to more families and plunge deeper into this material fills me with horror and dismay.’ I had a sense that, ‘OK, I’ve made a commitment to this, so I need to do it and I think I can do it adequately well.’
You asked about my mental health and I feel like these stories have more than the usual demands of having to persuade people to talk to you or organize material. In the middle of writing it, I would think, ‘Ok, I need to write such and such a section,’ and then I would check Facebook 11 times and look to see what the headlines were on nytimes.com and do 97 other avoidant things before I finally was able to sit down and force myself to write.
Mark Johnson is a health and science reporter for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and author of the new climate apocalypse novel, “Though The Earth Gives Way.” In 2011, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting with four colleagues at The Journal Sentinel.