Josh Hoston’s friends thought he’d had a fun summer. They were about to be high school freshmen, and the group was buzzing with anticipation. Then, d
Josh Hoston’s friends thought he’d had a fun summer. They were about to be high school freshmen, and the group was buzzing with anticipation. Then, days before classes started, Hoston killed himself.
“His mom found him in the basement,” says 18-year-old Bella Price, one of his good friends and a classmate. “It was a big shock.”
Hoston was popular and smart, according to people in Spring Hill, a tiny town of about 5,000 in Johnson County. He played football and basketball and even set a middle school record running track. He had a loving family. His friends couldn’t make sense of what happened, says Price.
The next summer, another member of Price’s class at Spring Hill Highalso died by suicide. This second death shattered the community.
Over the last two decades, the suicide rate in America has risen 33 percent, according to statistics released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country’s life expectancy has declined over the last several years, and suicides are the biggest culprit, after drug overdoses. Among young people specifically, suicide is a leading cause of death.
Johnson County — a predominantly white, affluent set of suburbs near Kansas City — saw itself as one of the most desirable places to live in the sprawling metropolitan area. So suicide was not a topic people here were prepared to confront. Since 2017, at least 14 students have taken their own lives, compared with five student suicides in the previous two years. Each new death brought a fresh wave of helplessness and isolation.
In response, the community is coming together to pull back the curtain on the uncomfortable topic of teen suicide and address it directly.
Last spring, superintendents across the county’s six school districts formed a coalition to make suicide prevention a top priority in schools. Over the next few months, the group met with mental health professionals, law enforcement, hospitals and faith leaders to come up with a plan to train students, teachers and parents to identify a young person in need and how to get them help.
“We decided we need to come out and publicly talk about this,” said Todd White, superintendent of the Blue Valley School District, where five students died by suicide between the spring of 2017 and spring of 2018. “We need to stop making suicide a subject that’s taboo and let the kids help us figure out what to do.”
It was White who first convened the superintendents. Their effort has since expanded beyond school walls, touching many aspects of life in the county. Though it’s too soon to tell how effective it’s been, the CDC says many suicides can be prevented if more people understand the warning signs and ways to intervene.
Dr. John Ackerman, suicide prevention coordinator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, says communities need to talk openly about suicide. “We don’t want to be pulling drowning kids out of a river. We want to make sure they’re not jumping into the rapids in the first place,” he says.
Here are stories from some of those whose lives have been touched by teen suicide and who have engaged in the effort to prevent more deaths.