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The Syracuse Post-Standard

January 13, 2008 

Author: Maureen Sieh, Urban affairs editor

The night before she took her own life, Corinne Marie Craig text messaged her friends at Bishop Ludden High School.

She consoled a friend over a lost football game, congratulated another friend on her performance in a cheerleading exhibition and apologized to a third.

Throughout the morning of Oct. 30, 2006, Corinne-known to her family and friends as “Corey’ sent a series of uplifting text messages to friends. But it was a text message to one student signaling a goodbye that alarmed students and school officials that something was wrong. They would later learn that Corey, a former cheerleader at Ludden, had killed herself.

On the one-year anniversary of her death, more than 200 people attended a memorial Mass at the high school, where Corey’s death has heightened awareness of teen suicide, the third-leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds nationwide.

In Central New York, about five teenagers kill themselves each year, according to state and local health department officials. In Onondaga County, 14 teens took their own lives from 2002 to 2006, according to the county health department.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that the teen suicide rate among young people nationwide increased 8 percent, the biggest change in 15 years. Among that group, the rate for girls ages 10 to14 increased the most.

At Bishop Ludden, students now ask guidance counselors to keep an eye on friends who have expressed suicidal thoughts or are depressed, said Sister Marcia Barry, a social worker at the school. Before, parents were the main source of that kind of information, she said.

“We always took the whole issue of a student struggling – or someone emotionally distraught seriously, but it’s been bumped up a notch since Corey’s passing, especially from the students,” said John Bruzdzinski, the school’ assistant principal. “I think we respond to any report of that nature with more urgency than we did before.” Corey’s friends say when their peers say, “Go kill yourself” or “I’m going to kill myself” in frustration, they don’t take that lightly anymore.

“People say that as an expression of how things are annoying, but people are more sensitive now,” said Shelly O’Connell, a senior at Ludden from Syracuse and one of Corey’s best friends.

Corey’s parents, David and Lisa Craig, who live in Syracuse, are reaching out to help other parents deal with children who are talking about suicide.

They agreed to share their story to help other parents learn from their experience.

David Craig called the family of an 18-year-old who killed himself after Craig saw the teen’s obituary in the newspaper. He called to say he understands what they’re going through, and is available if they needed to talk. The Craigs also get calls from parents of suicidal children who heard about Corey and were looking to talk.

“People are very comfortable talking to us …and we tell everybody, “Our door is always open,’ David Craig said. “And we’re that way with all the kids. We make ourselves available, not that we know what we’re doing, but we have good ears.

He’s doing for others what strangers did for him and his wife a year ago.

“An awareness has grown out of this tragedy,” he said. “Man, you don’t take anything for granted. If you whispered, “There’s a gun in the school,’ you don’t take that lightly anymore.”

Seeking help

Dr. Robert Gregory, an associate professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University, said teens who kill themselves have difficulty processing their emotions when they experience strong feelings of stress, confusion or self-doubt. Some can’t cope with broken relationships, or put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed.

“It seems like a minor stress, yet they’re flooded with these emotions and don’t know exactly what they’re experiencing, and they feel the need to discharge those feelings in some way, and that is in self-harm,” he said.

“The suicide is the release for them, for all this pent-up feeling that they’re not able to process.”

When Corey killed herself, she was struggling to get over an old boyfriend, her parents said. They had broken up five months earlier.

Corey’s parents, family and friends say she suffered also from depression, she was compulsive about her looks and sometimes put pressure on herself to succeed.

“One day, she didn’t want to go to school because of her hair,” her father said. “She had a crying fit. She didn’t want to be teased.

“These issues these kids have are very real to them,” he said. “Kids break up every day, and some kids get over it and some don’t.”

Initially, Corey resisted attempts to get help, her parents said. She told them she didn’t want to talk to “some stranger,’ and that her friends were the only ones who could help her.

Finally, one morning in February 2006, Corey admitted to her mother that she needed help.

Her mother called at least a half-dozen practitioners before finding a family adolescent counselor who could see Corey immediately. That’s when they learned how hard it is to find mental health services for a teen.

There’s a national shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists. And about a third of the 10 to 12 psychiatrists with that specialty in the Syracuse area are expected to retire in the next four to six years, said Robert Long, Onondaga County’s deputy commissioner of mental health.

After evaluating Corey, the counselor recommended medication, but she wasn’t licensed to write prescriptions, Corey’s parents said. Only doctors can write prescriptions.

Corey’s pediatrician referred the family to an adolescent pediatric specialist at University Hospital, they said.

While the Craigs were working on an appointment with the specialist, Corey shocked her parents when she woke them at 4 one morning in March to say that she had taken a bunch of Tylenol and ibuprofen. She had promised herself that if it didn’t work, she would tell her parents what she did.

The next day, Corey saw the pediatric specialist who later prescribed Prozac and referred her to a psychologist, her parents said. The psychologist determined that Corey had trouble concentrating in school and was easily distracted, they said. He recommended adding Adderall, a drug that helps a patient focus. The pediatric specialist prescribed it, her parents said.

After about a month of therapy and medication, Corey had a more positive attitude and her grades improved significantly at the end of her sophomore year, her parents said.

“Her self-esteem was high and she would come home talking about how she participated in classroom discussions,” her mother said.

In the summer, Corey worked selling lemonade and pizza frites at festivals and the state fair. Her mom gave her driving lessons. She went on dates with other boys.

Over the July 4 weekend, the Craigs took Corey and her three best friends camping at Whetstone Gulf State Park just south of Lowville.

“That was our bonding time, It was just really relaxing to get out in the sun,” said Susie Bell, one of Corey’s friends who lives in Syracuse. “None of us wore makeup. We showered once that weekend. We were having fun. She seemed better all of summer, and we had a really great summer.”

At the start of her junior year, Corey talked about college and studying art at State University of New York at Buffalo.

Then there were setbacks.

She started spending a lot of time in her room and on the computer and text messaging her friends. She stopped hanging out on weekends, canceling plans at the last minute, said her friend Shelly.

When Corey was depressed, her best friends spent time with her on the phone and at her home, cheering her up and trying to talk her out of suicide.

“One night she had us all over. We just told her it wasn’t a good idea,” said Erin Lighton, of Syracuse, Corey’s friend since they were kindergartners at the former St. James School. “We tried to comfort her and told her we were there for her no matter what.”

On Oct. 27, 2006, Corey ran into her ex-boyfriend at a football game. Her parents said she didn’t talk much about what happened.

When asked how she was feeling, Corey said she was fine … the usual response, her parents said.

Final hours

On Oct. 29, Corey watched her friend Shelly perform in a cheerleading exhibition. When she came home, she had pizza and went into her room. Her parents and friends helped reconstruct what happened next:

Shelly received a text message between 11 p.m. and midnight congratulating her on her performance in the exhibition.

Around midnight, Corey sent a friend, Patrick Rosaino, a text message to cheer him up because he was upset about Ludden losing in the high school playoffs against Westmoreland High School. Corey and Patrick, of Syracuse, who had been friends since seventh grade, were going to their junior prom together.

Luke DeWitt, another friend, received a text message from Corey at 2 a.m. Oct. 30, apologizing for anything she might have done to hurt him.

Luke, who had a crush on Corey, took her on a date in the summer of 2006. He wanted to be her boyfriend; she wanted to remain friends.

The morning of Oct. 30, her mother recalled, Corey was in a good mood. Her mother took her to school every day, but on this morning she said she would go with her friend Erin. Her mother didn’t think anything of it.

At 7:30 a.m., Erin was getting ready for school when Corey called to say that she had a doctor’s appointment and would be in school at 10 a.m.

At 9 a.m., Corey sent a text to Shelly saying she was at the doctor9s office. She described the office, and said, “You’re lucky, you’re not me. I have to get shots in my neck.”

Then she asked Shelly to bring her history book to school because an assignment was due and Corey couldn’t find her book. Corey’s last text to Shelly was at 9:04 a.m.

Patrick said he and Corey exchanged several text messages until about 10:30 a.m., chatting about everyday stuff.

Around 11 a.m., a student at school received a text message from Corey that said something about goodbye. The student told school officials about the message.

Corey wasn’t in school, and her parents had not called to say she would be late or absent. Immediately, school officials called her father.

David Craig raced from his job at Sysco Food Service in Warners to the family’s home in Syracuse’s Valley neighborhood. At 11:59 a.m., he called 911 from his car to say he was concerned about his daughter.

On the 12-mile drive home, he called Corey’s cell and the home phone, pleading with his only child not to do anything.

“I wanted to fly like the wind, but I couldn’t,” David Craig said. “I was definitely speeding, but I was concentrating on trying to reach anybody, everybody.”

Rescue crews arrived at the Craigs’ home at 12:05 p.m.; when David arrived, they told him they were working on Corey. She had taken pills and hanged herself.

The note Corey left behind said, “how lucky I am to know people who make saying goodbye so hard.”

Looking back, the Craigs say, parents must never let their guard down when things seem to be going well with a suicidal child.

“We had no reason to doubt that Erin wasn’t coming over,” David Craig said.” She told stories to her friends so they wouldn’t wonder where she was… She set this whole thing up. She had made up her mind that she was going to kill herself.”

“Parenting is trial and error,” Lisa Craig said. “Sometimes you can do everything or try to do everything, and it’s just not enough. You just never know.”

New purpose

Corey was the Craigs’ Christmas present when she was born prematurely on Dec. 24, 1989. She came after the couple tried for seven years to have a child.

“She was our purpose,” David Craig said. “Everything we did, we did for her.” They’ve turned their dining room into a memorial shrine. The table is covered with flowers, angels, prayers and Corey’s pictures.

It’s been that way for over a year. They put fresh flowers there every week and visit Corey’s grave at Onondaga Valley Cemetery, a short walk from their home.

“The most important job of my life, I failed at because I couldn’t stop my own daughter from ending her life,” Lisa Craig said. “I struggle with that. I should have been able to stop it. I couldn’t stop it.”

“That will haunt me until the day I die, that I failed at the most important job. We wanted her to have everything, and we wanted her to be happy, and we couldn’t do that.” The Craigs say they have now found a new purpose, devoting their time to the Ludden community, especially Corey’s friends who are now seniors.

They attend all the football and basketball games.

Lisa Craig baked cookies for the football team every week.

They helped out at the after-prom party.

At Corey’s memorial Mass, her father told the students how their love and compassion saved them. And he said they also saved other students by raising awareness about teen suicide. Suicide, he said, should never be the answer to their problems.

“What we did was try to channel our energy in a positive way,” David Craig said. “Now our purpose is these young people, and when they graduate, we9ll be looking for another purpose.”

Maureen Sieh can be reached at msieh@syracuse.com or 470-2159.