‘It has brought us to our knees’: Small Oklahoma town reeling from suicides

Police chief Jason Smith’s heart broke when he learned about the suicide of Jaidon DuBois. Friends and family described the 16-year-old as thoughtful, good-looking, earnest. He was the kind of kid who doled out hugs to everyone he came across, whose presence lit up rooms.

Smith’s heart broke again weeks later, when a 21-year-old from his small town of Anadarko, Okla., shot and killed himself. And again, not long after that, when a local 22-year-old did the same.

But when an 11-year-old committed suicide last week, the fourth person from Anadarko to kill him or herself in less than two months, it didn’t break Smith’s heart. It strengthened his resolve.

Smith took to Facebook with a desperate plea for young people in his town:

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“I’m unsure and left at a loss for articulate words in this fourth case worked in the past few weeks,” he wrote, “But believe that as a community we can make a difference. If you are reading this post and you have thoughts of suicide please understand YOUR LIFE MATTERS!”

“Not talking about the last three didn’t prevent the fourth one,” Smith told KOTV.

He had to do something, Smith said in separate interview with KOFR. The suicides were devastating his town. “It has brought us to our knees,” he said.

It’s not clear what might be behind the rash of suicides in Anadarko, a town of about 6,700 people about an hour’s drive from Oklahoma City. It’s a modest but proud place with a large Native American community. Many residents are farmers, or work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs or various tribal offices. The town, named for the Nadaco tribe that lived there, calls itself the “Indian Capital of the Nation.”

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So far, the suicides – all of which involved guns – are just four data points on a chart with no discernible trend. The victims attended different schools or were done with school altogether. Jaidon DuBois’ father Jamie told KOTV that the 16-year-old suffered from depression and had been taking medication for his mental illness. The other three victims have not yet been named.

It’s not clear that the incidents are connected at all, except by the fact that “they’ve been violent and they’ve really shook the community to the core,” Smith told KOTV.

But something broader does seem to be at work. The national rate of suicide in 2014 was about 13 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the CDC. In Anadarko, the rate has been four times that over the course of just seven weeks.

Smith told KOFR that the police department is investigating possible causes of the suicides, including looking into whether bullying was a factor.

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“If we could put it under a category, like bullying, we’d put our resources toward addressing bullying,” Smith told the Lawton, Okla., Constitution. “That’s the problem right now. There are so many causes. Suicide is a feeling of helplessness and that there’s nothing you feel you can do about it.”

Meanwhile, residents of Anadarko are grappling with the gaping loss.

“I knew every single one of them. I taught every single one of them or I was their principal and all of them are loved and they didn’t have to choose the course,” Lynn Bellamy, a longtime school teacher in Anadarko who is now pastor at the town’s First Baptist Church, told KOFR.

First Baptist is handling the funeral arrangements for the latest victim, an 11-year-old girl.

On Wednesday, as news of her suicide spread through town, a group of people gathered outside Anadarko High School holding signs against suicide.

“You’re alive for a reason. Don’t ever give up,” one read, according to the Lawton Constitution. “We care. You are strong,” read another.

Without an obvious link between the four deaths, city officials have no clear path to preventing more. Some fear that publicizing the deaths may only make other teenagers and young adults more likely to commit suicide themselves.

Donnie Edmondson, pastor of Virginia Avenue Baptist Church, told the Lawton Constitution he worried that a “spirit of suicide” had taken hold of the town, a concern echoed by Smith.

“Someone’s initials are on a bracelet that’s passed around and someone sees that and feels that’s how they can be recognized,” he told the Oklahoma paper. “That’s not the right way.”

Research does show that adolescents are most susceptible to “suicide contagion,” when one suicide is followed by a series of several others in an unsually short time frame. Last month, the Atlantic published a report on Silicon Valley high schools that have been plagued by clusters of suicide – the 10 year suicide rate at the schools is four to five times the national average. In Virginia, Fairfax County’s W.T. Woodson High School recently saw a spate of six suicides over the course of just three years.

It’s not that one suicide suddenly gives others the same idea, according to a CDC report on suicide contagion. But news that someone has taken their own life – especially if it appears they did so as a way of “coping” with hardship – may convince other, already vulnerable people to do the same.

“Slowly, people just kept breaking down,” said Bailey Bishop, a senior at W.T. Woodson, told The Washington Post in 2014.

Native American teenagers commit suicide at a rate much higher than the national average, according to the CDC. A poisonous tangle of problems – poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, domestic violence, the devastating toll of history – that often persist in Native communities, coupled with an often-dire lack of mental health resources, leaves them even more vulnerable than the average teenager.

It’s not clear how many of the victims in Anadarko were Native American. According to Census data, roughly 48 percent of residents identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. The town is home to a Bureau of Indian Affairs office that serves members of seven federally-recognized tribes living in the area.

Bellamy, the pastor at First Baptist Church in Anadarko, said he wants to convey that suicide isn’t a coping mechanism or solution to life’s problems – it’s only a source of more pain.

“They see it as an option and it’s not an option. It’s the end. It’s final. All that’s left is the hurt and suffering of the family and friends,” he told KOFR.

Edmondson and other local church leaders are organizing an outreach event for next Sunday for people affected by the tragedies – which, in this close-knit community, is basically everyone. The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health has set up a “care station” at the local hospital for people who need assistance themselves. The city manager is also looking into obtaining suicide prevention courses for the high school.

And all around town, urgent fliers flap in the winter breeze.

“When it seems like there’s no hope, there is help,” one reads, offering the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “Honor your life.”