Sydney Sanders was a teenager living in Richmond Hill, GA. On February 14, 2011, Valentine’s Day, she made her first attempt to take her own life, and the response throughout her community is thought to have led her to make her second attempt only two months later. She succeeded in taking her own life when she was just 14 years old. Two years after Sydney committed suicide, her mother, Laura Lane Maia, filed a lawsuit against Mayor Harold Fowler, the City Council, the Richmond Hill Police Department, and a specific officer, Cpl. Doug Sahlberg, for reckless behavior that led to Sydney’s wrongful death. Here is the story.
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The Sydney Sanders Story
Laura Lane’s case claimed that Cpl. Sahlberg showed his daughter semi-nude pictures of Sydney’s self harm, taken by the police as part of the investigation of her first suicide attempt, and then went on to willfully and maliciously distribute the photos among Sydney’s classmates. The officer claims he just meant to show his daughter the consequences of harming yourself, but whether he had evil intentions or not, it’s inarguable how in bad taste his action was.
Sydney was just returning to school after psychological treatment for her first suicide attempt when she likely discovered the pictures were circulating. This alone could have triggered Sydney’s desire to make a second attempt.
According to a user on CNN iReports, the bullying was not limited to the sharing of photos of Sydney. The user claims that a 911 call was made, sending officers to Sydney’s house to investigate an unknown person entering the house. When Sydney explained that the person was just her boyfriend, the officers still entered the house without an adult’s permission, searching it and verbally harassing Sydney and her boyfriend. This invasion of privacy and harassment may have been what led Sydney to take her life several hours later.
How Sydney Sanders Death Could Have Been Prevented
All communities should learn from the example in Richmond Hill. The most important lesson to learn is that suicidal thoughts and feelings are very real and very dangerous, and all suicide threats and attempts should be taken very seriously.
Always Seek Help After a Suicide Attempt
Sydney’s mother took a very important first step by sending Sydney to a treatment facility after her first suicide attempt. Sufferers of severe depression will often refuse treatment, but in a serious situation with a risk of suicide, a minor can be enrolled by a parent in a treatment facility.
Know Your Resources
Suicide prevention is never something one person should try to accomplish alone. Besides reaching out to a network of loving family and friends, there are other resources you can tap into. Definitely contact a physician or mental health professional if someone you know has had a suicide attempt. If you suspect someone is at risk of suicide, you can call a suicide help line.
The following suicide help lines have 24 hour service: 1-800.999.9999, 1.800.273.8255 and 1.800.273.HELP.
You can also seek help online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. This website features a bounty of information and resources about suicide prevention, including how to deal with bullying and resources specifically for young adults.
Keep Constant Supervision
Especially right after a person is released from treatment, it is very important for someone else to be with them almost constantly, making sure the treatment took hold. As a precaution, remove or secure devices that could easily be used for suicide attempts such as guns, sharp objects, and lengths of rope.
In Sydney’s case, being in the company of her boyfriend was not enough. Without adult supervision, a minor can be bullied by peers or other adults without a viable witness. Even a police officer can be a bully. It’s a parent’s responsibility to be a witness when a minor is giving evidence to a police officer. Especially in the circumstance that the officer requires the minor to expose his or her body for evidence photos.
Say No to Nude Photos
Never participate in sharing or condone the sharing of nude or private photos, especially of people you know personally. Parents, remind your children that unless the source of the photo has been determined and the subject’s consent confirmed, any photo can be shared against the subject’s will. Your child could be the first to report the sharing of the photo and save that person from continued abuse.
This distribution of private photos as bullying has become more of a problem in recent years, since the popularity of sexting and sharing nude photos online makes the images easier to distribute among people in the bully’s social network. Often, this form of cyberbullying is called “Revenge Porn” because ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends use it to shame their former lovers. Even A-list celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence have been affected. She recently had the misfortune of having her phone hacked and her nude photos leaked online.
The only way to protect yourself from this type of abuse is to never have a nude photo where someone else can access it. Once you send a nude photo to someone, they have it forever and can do with it what they please. Because the problem of revenge porn is so new, there is a good chance the law will not be able to protect you from this kind of abuse.
Remember, Victims Are Easily Re-Traumatized
If you’ve recently heard about someone struggling with suicidal tendencies, you may have an instinct to talk to them about it. Trying to figure out the source of their pain is one thing, but drawing attention to a severely depressed person’s problems will only exacerbate things. The same rule goes for any topics that the suicidal person may associate with their previous suicide attempt(s). Veer away from the subjects that are difficult to discuss, and try to focus on what they enjoy. Above all, remind them that they are loved.
Respect the Victim’s Privacy
This is especially important among teenagers. When talking with friends about what happened, always stick to the facts rather than spread or make up rumors. Suicide is a very delicate topic that should only be discussed with great care and in the appropriate context. Craig Schaffer, a child psychiatrist speaking on behalf of a local news outlet, warns that “as you tell a teenager something, they are going to tell somebody, and they will tell somebody and it will go viral in a matter of a few hours. It definitely is bullying.”
Depression Can Affect Anyone
Sydney was a well-respected member of her community. She had many friends, was a talented athlete, and was even homecoming queen. In an interview, her mother said, “She did not have any symptoms of anything. She was not clinically depressed. No medications. No drugs. She was a typical teenager.” Never let someone’s supposedly normal or happy status deter you from seeking help if they show any signs of suicidal tendencies.
Beware of Copycat Suicide Attempts
According to this news article about Sydney’s suicide, there is a high likelihood of other teens in the same community following Sydney’s example and trying to commit suicide. As word spreads in the community about a tragic suicide, some will step forward to seek help for their own depression, while others will see the suicide as a successful example of their own personal desires.
If you hear someone talking about suicide in a positive light, as if it’s something they might want to do, always take it seriously and never confirm their beliefs. This is especially important for teenagers, who are still developing emotionally and are easily influenced by the choices of their peers.
Sydney’s mother founded the charity organization Forever 4 Change Inc., The Sydney L. Sanders Foundation in January 2012. The group is most active on Facebook, occasionally announcing an event or making an inspirational post. They have been very active this September because it’s Suicide Prevention Month.
In her letter of introduction to the organization, Laura Lane writes about the importance of education on the subject of suicide. She warns that if we aren’t able to recognize the warning signs of suicide, “we don’t stand a chance of helping the ‘at risk’ youth.”
In April 2014, after almost three years in legal purgatory, Sydney’s mother dismissed her lawsuit against the city and asked local news outlets to refrain from publishing details of Sydney’s case.
If you’re the parent of a young adult, it might be time to talk to him or her about the consequences of suicide. Remind your child to respect the privacy of others, and not contribute to them being re-traumatized by reminding them of their mistakes or rubbing their shortcoming in their faces. Make sure they understand that bullying comes in many forms and has serious consequences for those affected.
You can use Sydney Sanders’ story as an example of how bullying and depression can affect the people you would least expect. Together, you can both become educated about suicide prevention, because you never know when the knowledge you’ll gain will be helpful to someone in need.
Even if your child has never been at risk for suicide, knowing the warning signs of suicide and ways to help will ultimately benefit everyone around them, and maybe even help to save someone’s life one day.
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