Paragraph 25 reads: "But in the months since Melissa's death, her relatives believe the sexual assault was not the primary factor in her death. Michelle Mayeaux, Hudgins and Clemons searched Melissa's journals, computer and cell phone and said it was clear Melissa had been thinking about suicide long before her first attempt."
Questions linger amid memories and grief
Family and friends say teenager hid her depression
June 19, 2010|By Cathy Grimes, firstname.lastname@example.org | 247-4758
Why? The question lingers seven months after Melissa Cameron kissed her grandmother goodnight and headed to bed, only to rise later and slip out of the house, leaving behind a pillow in her place and a note.
The 16-year-old walked to a nearby railroad crossing, where she laid down in the path of an oncoming train.
"I'm sorry," she wrote on the outside of her note. The Warwick High School junior's family and friends describe her as vivacious, well-loved and always ready to help someone. But Melissa wrote she felt rejected, outcast and hated.
"It was inevitable," she wrote. "I couldn't stand it here anymore on this cruel world."
Family, friends, coaches and teachers wonder what they missed in the girl known for her athletic and academic excellence. And they ask themselves how they could have helped her and prevented her death. They have reviewed their relationships with the teenager who excelled in gymnastics and field hockey and hoped to earn a college degree in foreign languages.
Melissa was driven and goal-oriented, said best friend Alyssa White. The two girls had known each other for 14 years. "I don't remember her not being there," White said of their lives.
White was devastated by her friend's death, but said, "Once she did it, I knew she'd been pretending to be happy for a long time."
Melissa's death was tragic, but not unique. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 10 out of 100,000 teens will die by suicide, a rate that has held steady for about a decade. Even more consider or attempt suicide.
Melissa's grandmother, Ruth Clemons, said family members were aware of the unhappiness behind the girl's smile. Melissa's mother, Michelle Mayeaux, said Melissa had "an ongoing sadness about her." Mayeaux thought it was related to separation from her biological father.
Melissa also slept deeply and as often as she could, keeping herself alert to study and attend classes with caffeinated beverages, her mother said. "I saw the extreme hyperness and the extreme crashing, but we never saw anything remotely suggesting she would kill herself."
Others say there were warnings.
Melissa's aunt, Kimberly Hudgins, said some of Melissa's friends knew she cut herself and that she had contemplated suicide. In fact, Melissa attempted to kill herself in August, using a relative's medication. That attempt heightened her relatives' concern.
Her family admitted her to Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters, and later sent her to the Riverside Behavioral Health Center in Hampton for counseling and treatment. She was seeing a therapist regularly and was taking medication to control her depression when she died, said her mother.
But family and friends initially did not link Melissa's August suicide attempt to ongoing clinical depression or other mental illness. Instead, they said they thought it was connected most closely to the fact that Melissa's stepfather sexually molested her in early July. She told her mother, and they notified the Newport News Police Department and filed a complaint.
Edmund Mayeaux was arrested on charges of molestation and later pleaded guilty, receiving a seven-year, seven-month prison sentence.
Melissa testified molestation had occurred only once. Clemons said relatives and friends attributed the first suicide attempt to the shock of the molestation and testifying against her stepfather, with whom she said she had always had strained relations.
"Before the incident, he barely spoke to her," Clemons said. White agreed with her, saying Melissa often stayed with friends' families when things were difficult at home and had an uneasy relationship with her stepfather.
Melissa moved to her grandmother's house in September. Clemons said relations at Mayeaux's home were tense because of the allegations. The court awarded Clemons temporary custody of Melissa prior to Edmund Mayeaux's trial. Clemons said her relationship with her daughter, Michelle Mayeaux, became increasingly strained during the period prior to the trial, as did Melissa's relationship with her mother.
Melissa's friends and her grandmother said she wanted her mother's attention, support and approval, which the 16-year-old felt she did not have.
"Her family was divided in half," White said, noting the tension between Melissa and her mother. "She probably felt she was to blame."
Sexual assault or molestation can lead to depression, blame and guilt, said Shawna Gray, executive director of the Center for Sexual Assault Survivors. In more than 80 percent of reported sex crimes, the victim knows the assailant. The statistic jumps to 90 percent with children and teenagers.
Melissa's willingness to tell her mother was unusual, Gray said. Children and teenagers often are not believed when they report sexual assault.
It may take telling about it multiple times," Gray said. "Even then, they may recant because they are told their story will ruin the family." Such messages compound guilt and can lead to depression. With teenagers, another factor comes into play, she said. They worry, "Am I sending out signals?"
Gray said sexual assault "is a huge burden for a child to carry," and often leads them to believe they are damaged goods. Depression is common and girls do consider suicide.
But in the months since Melissa's death, her relatives believe the sexual assault was not the primary factor in her death. Michelle Mayeaux, Hudgins and Clemons searched Melissa's journals, computer and cell phone and said it was clear Melissa had been thinking about suicide long before her first attempt.
Melissa diligently researched suicide methods, Clemons said. Her mother and grandmother found evidence of her investigations on her computer. After the earlier failed attempt, Melissa wanted something quick and final. Mayeaux said her daughter found several accounts of suicide on train tracks reported in California.
Melissa was careful about the people with whom she chose to share such information. "Melissa controlled what people knew," Hudgins said.
White, her best friend, agreed. As close as the two teenagers were, "she kept things to herself." White tried to talk to Melissa about the suicide attempt, wanting to support her friend during therapy, but
Melissa always changed the subject. Those conversations were "awkward," White said.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, almost 20 percent of teenagers asked in a statewide survey had considered suicide and about 9 percent had attempted to kill themselves but lived.
Data collected by the National Violent Death Reporting System revealed the major underlying causes of teenage suicide were mental illnesses, including depression. Mental health professionals and counselors concur.
Chris Gilchrist, a clinical social worker who founded Survivors of Suicide, said depression is a leading factor behind suicide and might be undiagnosed or undertreated. Gilchrist said those who die by suicide often choose that option to stop the pain.
Her words echo those of Pastor Helen Casey Rutland of Grace United Methodist Church, who spoke at Melissa's memorial service in November.
"She confused ending her pain with ending her life," Rutland said to an audience of more than 300 mourners. "She would never have wanted to cause pain. She lost perspective."
People who are determined to kill themselves do not always exhibit signs of their intentions, said Linda Askew, supervisor of student assistance for Newport News Public Schools. "Some students don't give us the 'go to' signs," said Askew, who worked with Warwick High School teachers and counselors after Melissa's death, reviewing what people knew in hopes of learning more to prevent another death.
Melissa avoided detection at Warwick High. At her memorial service teachers described her as pleasant, kind, outgoing. But after Melissa's death, classmates began contacting Mayeaux and other family members, reporting they were aware of Melissa's depression and thought she would kill herself.
Hudgins said she was upset to hear students knew.
White said Melissa shared her suicide plans with only two students, but not with her best friends. In fact, as Melissa walked to the train tracks on Nov. 13, she sent text messages to the two students who knew of her plans, as well as her friends. The messages to her best friends sounded normal, White said. Melissa was to spend the next night at White's house and they were confirming plans.
"I told her to come over right after work," White recalled. "I texted, I miss you, and she texted back, I miss you, too. That was the last thing we said."
Clemons has mentally relived the last weeks of Melissa's life over and over. She said she now sees the preparations. Melissa spent the night with each of her best friends. She was supposed to see her therapist Nov. 12, but a Nor'easter blew through town and the appointment was cancelled. The next day, Melissa's last, the girl who disliked housework helped her grandmother with chores and washed her grandmother's dog. She decorated a Christmas tree. She spent the afternoon with her boyfriend, then returned home to watch television with her grandmother. Then she hugged Clemons goodnight, a regular routine.
"It didn't dawn on me," Clemons said. "She knew what she was going to do."
Melissa's friends and family are determined that another teenager not choose death as a way to end pain. White said she would have done anything to stop her best friend's death, even if it meant destroying their friendship. Clemons would have worked to intensify treatment for Melissa's depression. Mayeaux would have pushed professionals harder to help her daughter.
White said she worries that there are people aware of other teenagers' intentions to end their lives.
"I would tell them to tell everyone. Do everything they can to make people listen. There is no way you should keep that quiet, even if it means you lose your best friend," she said, tears filling her eyes.
Counselors and mental health professionals agree. Askew and other counselors and therapists said anyone concerned about a friend or relative's mental state should share their worries.
Askew said the district trains teachers, counselors and other adults to watch for signs and symptoms signaling a deeply troubled student. But those signs often are hidden. The district encourages students to tell someone if they are worried about their friends or suspect they may be depressed, suicidal or victims of sexual assault. Counselors can contact parents or guardians and provide referrals for assistance. Askew said students do seek help for their friends.
"Children know who is available to talk to them," she said.
When troubled students are referred to counselors, Askew said they work delicately but diligently to determine risks and whether the student needs referrals to mental health or other professionals.
"We don't nag, but when I talk with kids and something is not right, I keep digging," she said. That often means pushing past the comfort zone and probing. "I would rather you not like me than not be here."
Clemons said she believes Melissa resisted efforts to help her. "She put on a good show, even for the therapist," Clemons said sadly.
Friends and family continue to ask themselves why Melissa died. Askew and other mental health professionals said the true reasons for suicide may never be known, but the deaths haunt those left behind.
"I don't think anyone in any suicide situation knows the whole story," she said, "except the victim."
Suicide warning signs
The following could be warning signs that a depressed teen might be considering suicide, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
•Withdrawal from friends, family
Difficulty getting along with others
Trouble in romantic relationships
Changes in the quality of schoolwork or lower grades
Unusual gift-giving or giving away possessions
Appearing bored or distracted
Writing or drawing pictures about death
Running away from home
Changes in eating habits
Dramatic personality changes
Changes in appearance (for the worse)
Drug or alcohol abuse
Talk of suicide, even in a joking way
History of previous suicide attempts