Amber Patton describes her 15-year-old daughter, Asya, as an outgoing teenager, who loved playing basketball, shopping and connecting with her friends via social media. While Patton knew her daughter had experienced bullying from girls at school, she never realized the extent until it was too late.
When Asya took her own life one day after school last November, Patton said she was in a state of disbelief, and even denial at first.
Since Asya’s death, Patton said she has received an outpouring of emotion from parents and teens, all sharing similar stories. She said she knew she had to do something to try to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening to another family.
Patton has teamed up with Shauntae Swinton to form the Asya Patton Project dedicated to raising awareness about cyberbullying, teen depression and suicide.
Swinton did not know the Patton family, until she heard about Asya’s death from her 14-year-old son, Braylon, who knew Asya Patton casually. She said the story compelled her to take action and so she reached out to Amber Patton.
Understanding social media’s impact
What led to Asya’s suicide is still unclear, but her mom believes it all began last April. Asya, then a student at Sylvan Hills High School in Sherwood, got into a fight with some girls at school over a boy, Patton said. The girls began threatening Asya at school and bullying her on Twitter and Facebook.
Asya’s grades began slipping and she seemed withdrawn. Patton tried talking to Asya about her problems and said she would only open up briefly, and then “brush everything off.”
“Then she would get in a slump,” Patton said. “But I felt like everyone needs some personal time. I didn’t know it was to the point that she felt that alone.”
Earlier in this school year, Asya moved in with her grandparents in Warren and transferred to high school there to get a “fresh start,” Patton said. “She started doing good at Warren. The move was the best thing for her.”
When she died, Asya’s Twitter account contained more than 40,000 messages, Patton said. She said Asya’s last few tweets just before her death show her state of mind: “I love you mommy,” “K my eyes burnin. Bye yall” and “Said our goodbyes, it just got real.”
Many teenagers need help “managing their feelings” and do not know how to “utilize their voice” when they have a problem, Swinton said. So, they turn to social media as their outlet and often their sole means of communication, she said.
Both Swinton and Patton say teens sometimes don’t understand the impact that posting something on a social media site can have. Certain posts can be embarrassing and contribute to depression, because many teens’ problem-solving skills are not fully developed, Swinton said.
Through working with the foundation, Swinton said she has been surprised how casually teens discuss suicide. In fact, after her death, a few of Asya’s friends said she had previously attempted suicide by taking pills, but, Patton said, no one told her or anyone else who might have been able to help.
“I’m not sure if they really process that death is a permanent fix for a temporary problem,” Swinton said. “Do they think it’s a game?”
Pay attention to the signs
Patton said teens often “feel like they can’t talk to anyone,” and that’s why they turn to social media. She urges parents to pay more attention to, and even limit, their teens’ social media use. This is something she said she regrets not doing with Asya.
Swinton said many parents do not pay close enough attention to what their teens are doing online. She suggests parents keep the lines of communication open, and not “shut kids down or misuse their trust.”
Now, after understanding more about the role social media can play with teen depression through the Asya Patton Project, Swinton said, “I follow my son on everything.”
The ultimate goal of the project is to provide the tools needed to identify and assist teens who may be victims of cyberbullying or suffering from depression, Swinton said.
The project is holding monthly Teen Summit meetings for teens to discuss these issues with an expert to help and answer questions, Swinton said. She said she hopes to soon bring the discussion into local schools and churches.
“Parents are not seeing the signs,” said Patton, who also urges parents to take notice if their teen seems distant at times.
“We want teens to know that there is someone out there but they have to reach out. I want them to know that someone cares.”
Patton said the past few months have been an “emotional roller coaster,” with good days and bad days. For now, she’s hoping her story will help save others.
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