SCARBOROUGH – Ashley Johnston was, her friends say, their rock – that particular person each and every one of them could always count on to be there with a smile, a small gift, or a bit of sass – whatever it took to pry them out of their doldrums.
But on May 24, at the end of two-week period that included a traumatic breakup, a job loss and some hateful words posted about her on Facebook, that rock cracked. In the 10 minutes she was alone on that day, Johnston sought out and found a permanent solution to her pain.
She wrapped a cord around her neck and she hanged herself.
A friend called 911, but it was too late. Paramedics from Scarborough Rescue resuscitated Johnston, literally brought her back to life, but the young woman never regained consciousness, doctors say. Johnston lingered in a coma for 10 days until she died June 3, less than 48 hours after her breathing tube was removed.
Johnston’s suicide was the fifth in Scarborough in the last year, part of an alarming statewide trend that shows an increase in suicides and threats of suicide. Confronted with the death of their daughter and sister, and with the reality of a community that has dealt with suicide all too recently, the Johnston family is wondering what can be done.
‘It has to stop’
More than 400 people packed the EastPoint Christian Church in Portland to standing room capacity for a celebration of life June 7. It was, friends and family say, a testament to the impact that Johnston, always “beautiful, loving and compassionate,” had in her short 23 years.
But it was also, her mother says, one sad signpost in an alarming trend, both in Scarborough and across Maine, where suicides are on the rise.
“One of the previous suicides in town did exactly the same thing she did, and she was the last person he talked to,” said Margie Johnston.
“It seems like there might be a contagious effect in this area,” said Johnston’s older sister, Elizabeth. “All of these suicides have been right around the same age.”
“A lot of it is stress, but a lot of it, too, is the idea,” said Johnston’s friend, Chris Dinan.
“It can be contagious,” agreed another friend, Jon Vose, who knew or knew of many of the recent suicides in town, having also lost a cousin and a grandfather to suicide. “Once the idea is put in somebody’s head that it is possible, I feel it makes it a much easier decision for others, in a way.”
With that in mind, the Johnston family opened their home last week, granting an interview in their Downeast Lane living room, mere feet from where the youngest of their four children died, in hopes of building awareness and prevention of the mental health issues that have claimed too many young lives.
“It has to stop,” said Margie Johnston. “We need to keep other kids who may be sad from doing the same thing.”
“Who ever thinks their child is going to commit suicide? You think it’s never going to happen in your house, but it does,” said Johnston’s father, Russ. “But you can’t bury it. Nothing is served by not talking about it.”
Talking is exactly what is needed, according to Nancy Thompson, of Cape Elizabeth, whose son, Timmy, killed himself in 2004.
Recently, Thompson was able to get a bill passed in the state Legislature that will require that all school districts train staff to spot red flags.
“Suicide is a hugely complex problem,” said Thompson. “It’s bigger than a family issue. It’s huge, huge. It requires a sense of community, it really does take everyone to help out with this problem.”
According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in the state and ranks 10th for all age groups. It is the most common type of violent death, beating out homicides 7 to 1.
Between 2005 and 2009, an average of 181 Mainers per year, or 902 in all, killed themselves. That was an 11 percent jump from the previous five-year period. Maine’s annual death rate from suicide then rose to 186 in 2010 and 204 in 2011, the most recent year on record.
In Scarborough, suicides also have been on the rise. Data released Monday by the Scarborough Police Department show actual suicides to clump in groups, with four in the reporting year ending June 30, 2008, none in 2010, and three in both 2011 and 2012. Johnston’s was Scarborough’s fifth suicide in the last year.
Perhaps more tellingly, police calls for attempted and threatened suicides have shown a steady upward trend, climbing 54.8 percent, from 31 in the 2007-2008 reporting period, to 48 in the last year, from July 1, 2012, to June 16.
In other words, one person per week, on average, has either threatened suicide or succeeded at an attempt in the past year in Scarborough.
Requests to have police perform “well-being checks” on local residents feared to be suffering from psychiatric issues related to depression and concern for suicide also have been on the rise, more than doubling from 10 to 23 annually, over the past six years.
As to what is driving the increase in people wanting to hurt themselves, opinions vary.
Russ Johnston sites a lack of community, particularly the church, without which, he said, he and his family would have had a much harder time weathering this personal trauma.
“Everybody talks about what a beautiful spirit Ashley had and we all agree with that,” he said, “but in anyone, that spirit needs to be nurtured.”
And, although he does not blame any Internet poster, Russ Johnston also says social media may play a role.
“People aren’t face to face, but it goes out to everybody and it’s high, high impact,” he said. “These kids, they internalize that.”
Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton and Fire Chief Mike Thurlow agree, saying they’ve both witnessed a desensitizing effect of social media and the Internet on young people. However, perhaps counter-intuitively, they both say there may be too much structure in place at the community level.
“When I was a kid here in Scarborough, we didn’t really need anyone to tell us how to play, to just round up a bunch of guys and play ball,” said Moulton.
Instead, Moulton said, with all the organization young people experience in school, once they hit their early to mid-20s and that’s gone, life can seem unbearably complicated, with people feeling isolated even in a world that’s more connected than ever before.
That was partly the case with Ashley Johnston, who thrived in Scarborough’s alternative education program, and then transitioned directly into the workforce, where she had fewer opportunities to pursue her two passions of fashion and dance.
“It’s harder times that it was maybe for previous generations,” said Vose, who has completed two tours of duty overseas while his friend was adopting the nickname “AJ” due to the number of Ashleys at the restaurant where she worked. “There’s a world full of opportunities, sure, but the world is so much smaller and it’s harder for young people to survive, to just get by. With that and job security and family, all that stress, people are dwelling on things more.”
The two chiefs, Moulton and Thurlow, point to the resiliency program launched last year through the Scarborough Public Library to help people hone their coping skills in times of crisis. Both also say the website, familyhopeme.com, founded by Scarborough resident Donna Betts, is a tremendous local resource.
Betts, whose son Joshua committed suicide in 2009, also at age 23, said she founded the site to help others build their awareness and navigate the many resources that are available.
“I found after Josh died there was help out there for me, I just didn’t know about it at the time,” she said, in a recent interview for local newsmagazine “207.” “With Family Hope, our goal is the educative, encourage and guide.”
Elizabeth Johnston, however, says the help lines and websites are not the answer. Something more proactive, such as the program Thompson helped launch, is needed, she said.
“No one is talking to these kids. My sister wasn’t going to call a help line. That’s just not who she was,” she said. “It should start in the schools.”
The Johnston family has launched a website of their own, rememberAJ.com, through which they hope to raise awareness and funds, eventfully staging walkathons and other events to continue telling Ashley’s story.
“If we can get even a few people through that door, to realize they are not alone in whatever they are feeling, that can’t hurt,” said Russ Johnston.
It’s a message family friend Bobby Leavitt said he learned long ago, from Ashley herself.
“As long as I’ve known Ashley, she was always so uplifting. I never would have seen this coming. It still doesn’t seem real to me,” he said. “I think everybody that’s going through a hard time, they have to know that, yeah, on rainy days people get sad, they have to know you have to hold on to that hope and know it can’t rain all the time. There’s always that chance of a better day and a brighter future.”
More about Suicide
- ARTICLE: Scarborough family lobbying for suicide prevention methods in schools
- ARTICLE: GUEST COLUMN: For suicide-related grief, there’s help
- ARTICLE: Murder-suicide claims two lives