IDAHO FALLS — During the fall of 2016, 13-year-old Destiny Poduska had reached her breaking point.
After months of emotionally spiraling downward, the teenager said her feelings of hopelessness had become unbearable.
That’s when she made the decision that death was preferable to life.
“I told myself that morning that I didn’t want to deal with it and so I just popped a bunch of pills and called it good,” Destiny told EastIdahoNews.com in an interview.
It was an act of desperation — one Destiny had hoped would allow her to stop feeling painful emotions.
Thankfully, Destiny survived the attempt and through lots of work has gotten a new lease on life.
Destiny’s battle with depression started with a common teenage desire — to fit in with the 12 and 13-year-old popular kids in her grade and to do well in school.
And initially, she did just that.
“Before all of this started happening I was a really good student,” Destiny said. “I was happy, I was outgoing, I had a lot of friends and I was in the popular group at school.”
The problem was that the popularity came with a cost. Destiny felt certain obligations and pressures were placed on her in order to remain within her circle of friends. One of those pressures was bullying her peers.
“This group got me into some stuff that wasn’t particularly good — into bullying and stuff like that. I was a part of the bad crowd for a little while,” Destiny said. “It wasn’t fun. I didn’t really enjoy it, but I didn’t want to get kicked out of the popular group so I did it anyway. I sort of wish I didn’t do that because now I am paying the consequences.”
Destiny’s mother, Dominique Patterson, noticed a dramatic change in her daughter’s behavior during this period. Destiny’s grades began to drop as did her enjoyment of extracurricular activities like swimming and acrobatics.
“I saw a very downward spiral and I saw her going places in life that she didn’t want to be,” Patterson said. “I saw a very angry child and I was afraid of her for a little while. I was afraid to say the wrong thing that she would just blow up. I was afraid that she was going to end up in jail.”
Patterson said the Destiny she knew was fast becoming unrecognizable.
At this point, her mother tried to intervene and separate Destiny from the negative impact of her friends. That only seemed to make things worse.
Once Destiny had separated herself from her friends, she said she became a target for them.
“One girl told her, ‘If you’re not my friend, you’re going to be sorry,’” Patterson said. “It started off with notes in her locker saying, ‘You should just go kill yourself and we’ll bring the things for you to kill yourself.’ Just telling her that she’s completely worthless, that she should just go kill herself.
“They told her to go drink bleach, they’d told another girl to go drown herself in the river. It’s not just my daughter that’s being attacked either. They’re using a lot of the same tactics.”
The encouragement to complete suicide caused Destiny to spiral even faster.
She started saying things like, ‘What’s the point? Life sucks. I’d rather just die,’ Patterson recalls.
Destiny also started cutting herself around the same time.
During it all, Destiny didn’t tell many people about how she was feeling.
“I didn’t do really anything besides act all big and bad like I could handle it,” Destiny said.
But she couldn’t handle it, and one day in April, Destiny decided the pressure of her situation was just too unbearable.
“I figured it would be less stress on my mom, because my mom wouldn’t have to deal with the bullies and I figured it’d be less stress on everybody at school, because they wouldn’t have to bully,” Destiny said. “I told myself that morning that I didn’t want to deal with it.”
She overdosed on multiple varieties of pills and then went to school, hoping the effects of the drugs would take her life.
“I was thinking maybe I would just end up passing out in the hallway during transition minutes. I didn’t think that anybody would really care to stop me,” Destiny said.
But someone did. A classmate saw Destiny acting strange and reported it to school administrators.
“I got a call from the counselor saying, ‘Hey this kid noticed your daughter walking around the halls acting funny and so he came to the office concerned and we brought her down.’ The next thing I know my daughter’s just screaming crying,” Patterson said.
On the phone, Destiny admitted to attempting to overdose. Her mother came to pick her up and she was admitted to the Behavioral Health Center for treatment.
What the experts say about peer pressure and suicide
For some — like Destiny — peer pressure and bullying can play a big role in teenage suicide attempts.
In a highly publicized national case from earlier this year, 20-year-old Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the 2014 death of her boyfriend after she convinced him to complete suicide. Conrad Roy’s body was found after he died in his truck of carbon monoxide poisoning. He had completed suicide through the use of a gasoline-powered water pump placed inside of his truck.
During her June trial, prosecutors said Carter berated her vulnerable boyfriend when he had second thoughts about killing himself. She listened by phone as he died and used his suicide to get attention from friends that she desperately craved. She received a sentence of 15-months in jail.
Local experts say these types of peer pressure or bullying situations are rarely the only reason people attempt suicide.
Jeni Griffin, the Executive Director of the Suicide Prevention Action Network Idaho, says suicide is not a common response to bullying, although it can be a contributing factor.
Griffin said suicide is such a daunting task that there are always other components that come into play, making it much more complex. Contributing factors in completing suicide could be mental illness, trauma, substance or alcohol abuse, even a history of previous suicide attempts.
“There’s not just one cause for a completed suicide,” Griffin said.
ocal psychiatrist Dr. Matt Larsen agrees that bullying is only one factor in leading someone to be stressed enough to complete suicide. He said getting to that dark place of suicidality is an extensive task for some.
“It’s usually a long process and something they didn’t expect. That’s why you can’t judge because someone is poor or rich – you can’t go by demographic. People at any level can (complete) suicide because compared to what they thought they had or what they expected, they have something else. They wanted life to be one way and it’s not,” Larsen said.
Larsen has worked with many teenagers at the Behavioral Health Center who’ve considered suicide as their only defense against bullying.
“I see many teenagers who state that bullying is one thing that’s happening that is making school miserable. The hard part is that social media doesn’t stay at school. It follows them home and they get messages all night long. Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and SnapChat don’t sleep,” Larsen said.
Suicide by the numbers
The various factors that drive a person to complete suicide are debatable. What isn’t debatable is that death by suicide is more prevalent than ever.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports suicide as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In Idaho, it’s the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 34.
Each year over 44,000 individuals in the U.S. die by suicide. In 2015, Idaho had the fifth largest suicide rate in the nation, 57 percent higher than the national average.
Nationally, firearms are the most common method of death by suicide, accounting for a little less than half (49.8%) of all suicide deaths. The next most common method is suffocation (including hangings) at 26.8 percent and poisoning at 15.4 percent, according to 2015 data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. About 60 percent of Idaho suicides involve a firearm.
“If we have access to lethal means here, and if we have somebody who’s at risk for suicide completion, locking up our guns and locking up prescription medications can help save lives because when that person’s in that moment of crisis and they can’t find that means, then that buys us time to get them the help that they deserve,” Griffin said.
Help for those contemplating suicide
When it comes to peer pressure, Larsen said changing schools isn’t the answer. He encourages youth to face their bullying issues head-on. He said the first thing he tries to identify in teens is what they’re being bullied about, and why it’s so important to them.
“It’s figuring out what kids care about, what they value, and then how do you make that a strength instead of a weakness?” Larsen said.
Griffin said in order to help teens we should be focusing less on their depression and more on their strengths.
“I think we need to quit telling teens that they’re depressed. We need to be telling teens that they’re resilient and they’re strong, and they have strengths so that when those rough patches come along, those kids know what to fall back on,” Griffin said. “If they are bullied, they can reflect on conversations that they’ve had with those that they trust.”
Griffin said people should be more open in conversation about mental health like they are about their physical health.
“We need to be talking about it as our whole health. The stigma about depression and mental illness and suicidality is scary for a lot of people. They don’t want to accept the fact that it is around us and that we need to be addressing that,” Griffin said.
What’s next for Destiny
After leaving the Behavioral Health Center, Destiny said she has a fresh set of eyes. She has even received apologies from some of the girls who were bullying her. Looking back on her experience only a few months ago, she feels bad for trying to take her own life and not giving those around her a chance to help.
“I look back at it and I’m like, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’ But it’s still there and now I can learn from that. When I’m mentally stable enough I can help others learn from my mistakes,” Destiny said.
For Patterson, it’s still rough for her to think about Destiny’s dark time.
“It’s so hard because as her mom I love her more than anything in the world. I’d do anything for this child and for her to just feel so low about herself, so unwanted, it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through in my life,” Patterson said.
Since April, Patterson has started a Stop the Bullying campaign on Facebook to unite parents and provide resources to those who are being bullied. Patterson said if a child is being bullied, the first thing to do is document the name of the person bullying, the time and place and then notify school administrators.
As for Destiny, she says she now understands there were always people on her side. Those individuals are encouraging her to look for the best in life and teaching her how to choose a positive path.
“Some of the things I learned was that sometimes you just have to accept your situation as it is, not necessarily like it, but accept and take the procedures you need to take to fix it,” Destiny said. “There’s a lot of people there to support you. There are a lot more people out there for you than you think there are.”