Teen suicide: A survivor's story – 'There are solutions'

Teen suicide is more often the stuff of headlines than are the stories of lives saved. Troy Bush is one such story – his suicide attempt has informed his own efforts as an adult to help in prevention.

By , Staff writer

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    Teen suicide – America's high rates and growing prevention efforts – is the topic of this week's cover story project. Troy Bush, a teen-suicide attempt survivor (left), has used his experience to help others, teaching Sunday school and working with a minister on a suicide-prevention lesson for junior high school students.
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"I just wanted out. I wanted to fall asleep and not wake up."

At 15, Troy Bush wasn't really thinking about the finality of dying when he took a whole bottle of sleeping pills and crawled into bed. "If you had asked me, 'Are you suicidal?' I would have said 'no,' " says the now 43-year-old.

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But he was tired. Tired of carrying the secret of being gay. Tired of the messages from church and society that he was bad. "I felt like I was going to let my family down."

He had been bullied, not just by students, but also by an elementary school teacher who called him a "girly boy." He was struggling in school, family finances were "lean," and his two older siblings had moved out – one had gotten married, one was attending college – leaving him lonely.

His mother discovered him listless later that day. She knew which pills he had taken, and after consulting with the pharmacist's office where she worked, she decided he could sleep off the effects, she told him later. (If you believe someone has overdosed, experts advise that you call 911.)

The next day, she fixed him lunch and asked him why he had done it. "Of course I couldn't tell her," he says, "and then she said we were not going to talk about it again, that nobody had to know."

That was probably her best sense of how to protect him, Mr. Bush says. It was the mid-1980s – when the suicide rate for boys ages 15 to 19 was about 16 per 100,000, not quite its peak – and people were even less comfortable talking about mental illness and suicide than they are now.

Hearing his mother's reaction, Bush realized that suicide "was really a final thing. I think it scared me as much as it scared her."

Now married and managing research for a public-health charity in Houston, he's never made another suicide attempt. But as a young adult, he turned to "a less permanent escape" – alcohol and drugs.

At 26, he told his parents he was gay, and three years later he was able to get sober.

During his first five years of sobriety, four people died by suicide within the tightknit community of gay people in 12-step substance-abuse recovery programs in the Houston area. But the suicides were only "whispered about," he says, and the stigma surrounding the issue drove him to volunteer in local and Texas-wide suicide prevention.

For youths today, it's harder to escape bullying, because of social media. But bullying is never the sole cause of suicide, Bush and various experts say, and if society draws too much of a "straight line between being bullied and suicide, that gives children the impression that, if I'm being bullied ... maybe that's something I should do."

On the flip side, the Internet offers resources for gay youths from groups such as The Trevor Project and the It Gets Better Project. Even as an older teen, Bush used his experience to help others – teaching Sunday school and working with a minister on a suicide-prevention lesson for junior high school students.

"I knew enough to believe that I woke up the next day for a reason," he says. "There are still days that suicide pops into my head, but ... I've been given tools and I have support, and I know that there are solutions to whatever it is that is going on."

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