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Catching the suicidal on social media

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HOUSTON (FOX 26) -

Most people post cute pictures or talk about marvelous meals, but a growing number are using social media to post suicidal thoughts.

"God is torturing me keeping me here.  If you know what it feels like to want to die every minute, second, hour, day, week, month, year then you feel me."

Those were just a few tweets from Ashley Duncan.  The bubbly, beautiful and bright 17-year-old had thousands of followers.  Loved ones said it was easy to know why she attracted so many people.

"She was a very happy, good-hearted child," Ashley's mom, Cheryl, said.

The high school senior was 5'11", did some modeling, was called daddy's girl, and loved volleyball.

"She played in middle school and she played in high school," Cheryl said.

Looking at Ashley's volleyball photos and her family portraits, you picture a smart, well-liked, gorgeous, well-loved girl, but her social media posts seemed to be the complete opposite, often ugly and dark.  She clearly cried out for help, saying things like "I'm ready for life to be over."

"I didn't know how deep this was," Cheryl said.  

Friends saw the posts.  Ashley's parents, a Houston Police veteran and a longtime registered nurse, did not see those posts until it was too late.

"We did a lot," Cheryl said, crying.  "If I had known about the Twitter and Tumblr posts, I would have admitted her into the hospital".

The morning of Jan. 30, Ashley posted a picture of a revolver and the words "I finally got a gun."  Just before that, Cheryl received the worst text message of her life.

"When I saw the text, I was in shock," Cheryl said.

"I took Dad's gun.  I'm tired.  I'm sorry Mom.  I can't do this anymore.  I love you.  Bye."

"I told her everything is going to be ok," Cheryl said.  "I'm coming home.  We'll talk, and she had told me before she wouldn't hurt herself so when I left work, I still thought she was alive.  I never thought she was dead until I came home and I saw the police."

Ashley took her dad's police-issued service weapon, walked down to the bayou by their southwest Houston home, and shot herself.  This came after posting the gun picture and other suicidal thoughts.

What used to be a private note on the dresser is now ending up very public messages on the Internet.

"Because they're afraid to talk with someone face to face.  It might be the only way they know to get this message out," said Psychiatrist Dr. Daryl Knox with Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.  

Knox said if you see someone crying out, immediately call for help just as you would any other medical emergency.  

"It's an emergency," he said.  "It's abnormal to have suicidal thoughts.  Even if someone is trying to get attention and they're not really suicidal, just the act of saying it means they really need to see someone and have an evaluation."

No one following Ashley's posts that day came to her rescue, but her mom believes her daughter's story is helping save others.  She's starting to see a number of positives.  In fact, remember that last text from her daughter that once seemed so terrible?  It isn't anymore.

"It gives me peace," Cheryl said through tears.  "I didn't get to talk to her, but she said I love you and she said I'm sorry."

So what should you do if you see someone crying out for help online?  Talk and tell.  That means keep them communicating with you as you call the person's relative, dial 911 or report it to a crisis hotline.  

September is Suicide Prevention Month.  Cheryl is participating in several events, including an upcoming walk to prevent suicide.  The "Out of Darkness Walk" is Nov. 3, 10 a.m., at Stude Park.  She's challenging you to do all you can to help erase statistics such as suicide being the third largest killer of teens.  

For more information on the walk and suicide prevention, contact the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

http://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.event&eventID=1715
You can reach out to a national crisis hotline or one here in Houston at 1-800-273-TALK or 713-HOTLINE.

Cheryl said her daughter started withdrawing when her brother went away to college.

"Sometimes, she would just stay in that room, shades closed and just be in the bed," Cheryl said.

The close-knit family of four was down to three and the teen wasn't taking it well.  Through counseling, the family learned Ashley was bipolar and suffering severe depression.

"Mental illness is something you don't really want to deal with," Cheryl said.  "If you have physical illness people understand that a lot more."

In fact, she said this was the second time mental illness drove a loved one to commit suicide.  Years earlier, her sister, much like Ashley, killed herself.  Cheryl said she's speaking out to let those who are suffering know help is available.

"Suicides can be prevented," Dr. Daryl Knox said.  "If you saw someone having a heart attack, would you ignore it?"

Someone having suicidal thoughts should be treated with that same urgency.

"Better safe than sorry.  It's better to overreact than to under-react," he said.

"If only someone had contacted me or Ashley's father after seeing (those online posts), we could have had the evidence we needed to get her the real help she needed," Cheryl said, crying.  "Until that point, I knew Ashley was withdrawn and different, but she would convince the doctors she didn't need to be there and that she was ok.  We know now she wasn't."

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