Past the Tipping Point: Family left only with questions after Salem teen commits suicide

SALEM, Ore. - What's especially troubling about 16-year-old McKenzie Otjen's death is that there were no textbook warning signs.

She wasn't cutting; she wasn't talking about suicide; she wasn't being bullied online or otherwise. It's why her family says it's so vital for them to share her story.

Instead, McKenzie Otjen was confident, well-liked at school and planning for her future.

"The week before we were filling out scholarship applications and prepping and she was in her junior year of high school," said her father, Jeff Otjen.

It's what made her decision to take her own life on Nov. 16 so difficult for her father and sister-in-law, Jessica Otjen, to comprehend.

Just two months later, what they're able to understand is this: "If McKenzie was capable of going that far and committing suicide - that there is no stereotype to suicide," said Jessica. "There is no type of person that is more at risk than any other."

They believe the worst thing anyone can do is glorify the permanent decision McKenzie made. The best thing everyone can do? Begin a conversation with the kids you know.

"In the past, suicide has been kind of a stigma that nobody wanted to put out in front of anybody and say well, my daughter committed suicide. Yeah she did, and I don't know why," Jeff said. "I wish I did know why. I wish I still had her here with us, but I sure hope this helps another teen or I hope this teaches another person to speak to their teens about the effects of teen suicide."

Mary Jadwisiak, a field coordinator with Washington's Youth Suicide Prevention Program said she's hearing there has been an increase in suicides among teenagers in the region. She said it's hard to say if the suicides are connected.

"We know that when a student sees somebody that they can relate to (who) takes their own life it becomes an option for them," she said. "So if you see someone who you can relate to that solves their problems by suicide, it increases your risk."

She also said not talking about suicide increases risk.

"One of the biggest myths that we have is if we talk about suicide we're going to plant the seed. Not talking about suicide increases the risk," she said. "When a person has an opportunity to talk about how they're feeling it slows down the process, it gives us time to give them the help that they need to process their thoughts and to come up with other options besides suicide."

Jadwisiak said that about 80 percent of people who are thinking about committing suicide give off warning signs. She said it's possible that McKenzie Otjen was in the 20 percent who don't.

While she couldn't speak specifically about McKenzie's situation, Jadwisiak said, "Certainly, I'm not going to tell (the family) that they missed it. Parents know their children better than anyone, which is why it's so incredibly vital for parents to be educated about suicide prevention (and) how to talk to your kids about suicide prevention and get them the help as soon as they can."

McKenzie's family is in the process of putting together a documentary about their ordeal. They want to take a deeply personal look at what happens after a teenager is gone in this way.

Resources for youth:

  • Mind Your Mind: A non-profit dedicated to providing reliable information for youth dealing with depression, anxiety, and suicide. The site contains youth-specific resources, tips for coping with mental illness issues, and the personal stories of youth who have experienced and overcome these issues.
  • Reach Out: A website for youth, by youth, with information on how to help yourself or a friend who is thinking about suicide. Allows youth to share their stories about overcoming depression and suicide in an online, supportive environment.
  • We Can Help Us: A collection of videos made by real teens who have gone through a variety of different challenges and overcome them. Also allows other youth to share their own stories in a supportive environment.
  • The Trevor Project: A website dedicated to helping LGBTQ youth dealing with depression, anxiety, and suicide. Also operates a 24-hour crisis hotline, 1-866-4-U-TREVOR.
  • The Jed Foundation: A resource for college students containing information about depression and anxiety among college students, and information about how to get help at school.
  • An online resource that offers information about how to find and contact a therapist, and how to make sure your therapist is right for you. Also offers resources for connecting to a therapist online for 'e-therapy'.
  • Teen forum on suicide being held in Battle Ground

Resources for parents:

  • Association for Behavioral Cognitive Therapies: Offers information for parents about childhood mental health issues and advice on finding the best treatment for you and your family.
  • Lok-It-Up: A campaign to promote the safe storage of firearms. Offers advice on how to safely store firearms and prevent teen firearm suicide.
  • ASK Campaign: A website dedicated to gun safety. Information about firearm deaths and tips for preventing your children from gun violence.

Resources for Educators:

  • Evergreen Education Association: The Evergreen Education Association is holding a "Diversity and Social Justice Conference" in February with a session that will focus on suicide prevention.