On Instagram and Snapchat, sadness melded with rumor and fear. Students reeled first from the suicide of a 16-year-old girl at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland. Six days later, social media lit up again.
Another student was dead in the same suburb outside Washington.
For a second time, teenagers shared the loss by posting an emoji heart set against a stark black background on Snapchat. The first suicide drew a red heart. The second was green. Then, amid a wave of disbelief, some teens posted a heart in blue, suggesting a third death.
“It was pretty shocking,” said Anna Kessler, 14, a ninth-grader at Northwest High School in Germantown, Maryland, who recalled wondering how many colors of hearts would accumulate. “I thought, how long is this going to go on?”
In a fast-moving phenomenon that provides fresh evidence of the power of social media, news of teen suicides traveled in a cascade of hearts that flashed on phone screens in recent weeks to teens around the Washington region.
Many parents learned about the deaths from their children, instead of the other way around. And some worried that, for a time, middle- and high-schoolers were left to mourn and manage difficult emotions and questions about self-harm with little adult intervention.
“The community is just aching for these kids,” said Jenna Nober, a parent of two teenagers in the Bethesda area.
The losses – at high-performing schools fewer than four miles apart – started Nov. 27 with the death of Jordana “Jojo” Greenberg, a cheerleader at Whitman who played volleyball and was passionate about animal rights.
Then, on Dec. 3, Thomas “Tommy” Silva, a 16-year-old 11th-grader and Boy Scout who had just joined the wrestling team at Walter Johnson High School, also died by suicide.
Federal data show that teen suicide is on the rise. Rates doubled among 15- to 19-year-old girls and jumped more than 30 percent among boys from 2007 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase followed a period of declining rates.
A 2014 report, based on youth survey data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, showed that nearly 16 percent of high school students in Montgomery County seriously considered attempting suicide during the previous year, and almost 12 percent made a plan – roughly reflecting state averages.
After the Bethesda deaths, social media buzzed with messages: “RIP” and “Rest Easy,” photos and videos on Instagram, longer takes that included a suicide hotline number or offers of support to other students in need.
The flow of hearts on Snapchat began after Greenberg’s death. And as word spread about Silva’s death the night of Dec. 3, students posted hearts again, this time in green, one of the Walter Johnson school’s colors.
But as many absorbed the news of a second suicide, they were jolted by the sight of blue hearts and later, for some, purple hearts. Teens messaged friends for details. Many believed it meant a total of three or four suicides that week.
Most public and Catholic school systems in the Washington area contacted by The Washington Post in December said they have had no suicides this school year. Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools reported one suicide, but spokesman John Torre declined to provide details, citing family privacy. A few school systems said they do not release such data or don’t track it.
At least one private school, Holton-Arms, posted a letter dated Dec. 4 on its website saying it had not had a suicide.
Susanna Jones, head of the school, said the blue heart was apparently linked by some to Holton-Arms, which has colors of blue and white, and then the mistake was passed on and on. “There were a lot of girls who were very upset,” she said. The school urged students to disconnect from social media if they see disturbing news that is unverified.
Natasha Greenstein, 15, said it was frightening to consider the specter of multiple suicides in the region. The recent losses underscored the severity of mental health issues, she said, and the idea that “this could happen to someone I know.”
She said she would welcome more exploration of the topic at school. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days,” she said.
Britt Rathbone, a clinical social worker in Bethesda who treats adolescents, said the barrage of hearts – which he learned about from patients – reflects the social nature of grieving death. The concern is that while the posts may show respect and remembrance, the added layer of attention may increase interest in suicide among a subgroup of at-risk teens.
“The tragedy of all of this [suicide] is [that] depression is treatable,” he said. “We always say suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Montgomery County has had student suicides before, but the Bethesda deaths gained especially wide attention. The two families have been open about the nature of the deaths.
Greenberg’s family recalled the teenager’s infectious enthusiasm, wacky humor, love of painting and happiness while rappelling down a mountain in Costa Rica. Her favorite class was Arabic. She imagined the possibility of joining the Air Force.
They were equally open in a published death notice that although she had a sunny disposition and many friends, she “fought a hard battle” against depression and was enthusiastic about the communal healing of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. They asked that others help raise awareness about teen depression.
“She was a force of joy,” her father, Jonathan Greenberg, said in an interview. “She touched so many lives.”
Silva’s mother, Patti Silva, recalled her son with similar affection. She was a single mother. He was her only child. He belonged to a gaming club at school, liked environmental science class and recently became a wrestler. But he was most active in Scouting - and was one rank away from Eagle Scout.
He was quiet and bright, his mother said – although not always comfortable with the structure and stress of school. “It’s not a puzzle we can solve,” she reflected in an interview a few days after losing her son.
The two teens who died had not been identified by their schools as students in peril. Police say there is no indication that the deaths are linked, and the families have not identified bullying or harassment as factors.
After the first suicide, Whitman High sent a letter home to families. After the second, Walter Johnson did the same – and other schools soon followed.
“In the wake of recent deaths of young people in the community, it is important to me that students never feel alone,” Donna Redmond Jones, principal of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, wrote the day after the second death.
Lyric Winik, PTA president at Westland Middle School, said she learned about both suicides from her two children, who found out through social media.
She argues that students in a wide swath of the county are so connected that more parents should have been informed after the first suicide – and offered guidance and resources – to help students safely process the frightening and confusing losses.
“This is uncharted territory for many parents,” she said.
At Westland, Winik grew more worried as a makeshift memorial for Greenberg arose near Westland’s entrance, not far from a bridge over a street where the teen took her life. Students encountered it every day: flowers, notes, banners, photos, clothes, even a Christmas tree.
She wrote her own letter to alert families. Later, she and 13 other PTA leaders at Westland wrote Superintendent Jack Smith and the county school board, saying the district had not allowed principals to inform parents “on the day when it mattered most” and had displayed “a deafening silence.”
They pointed out that teens were already having suicide conversations on Snapchat and Instagram “in the silence and alone-ness of their phone screens, in most cases without an adult to see or overhear, unless they voluntarily share.”
Westland’s principal sent a letter to families Dec. 5, two days after the Walter Johnson death and eight days after the suicide of the Whitman student.
School system spokesman Derek Turner said the focus is first on schools directly affected by tragedy. The district does not want to stir undue anxiety in other schools – and it does not want to inadvertently glamorize death or spur copycats, he said. Resources are posted on its website, he noted.
“As a school system, we have a powerful voice, and we need to be responsible when we speak,” he said.
Turner also said that the district can’t respond to everything that happens on social media and that the larger issue is inside schools. Principals, teachers and other staff have undergone training this year on recognizing signs that students could be at risk of suicide.
The school system is working to bring suicide prevention programs to all its middle and high schools next school year. Now, they exist in some schools but not others.
At the schools most affected – Whitman and Walter Johnson – counselors and crisis staff members stepped in.
At Whitman, students signed posters remembering Greenberg, or played with dogs brought to the school, said Principal Alan Goodwin. A combination vigil and suicide prevention event drew 1,000 people.
At Walter Johnson, Principal Jennifer Baker encouraged students to join in suicide prevention activities as a way to remember Silva. Students created videos about coping and ordered bracelets saying “You Matter.” Puppies were on hand in a counseling area.
Suicides happen for complex reasons that include internal vulnerabilities and external triggers, said Stephen Brock, a professor of school psychology at California State University in Sacramento. The most common internal factor is a mental illness such as depression, he said. “One important suicide prevention strategy is mental health treatment,” he said.
Denise DeRosa, a Bethesda parent and cyber-safety consultant, compared the use of social media in recent weeks to what previous generations did through word of mouth in times of tragedy. She said misinformation and rumors are not new.
The difference, she said, is that “now it is spreading so fast and we almost accept things as fact because they’re shared so many times.” Still, she said, while parents may want to shield children from troubling news - or be the ones to inform them - kids want to share what they know and support one another through social media they use every day. “You want to mentor them to use it wisely . . . but we also have to allow them that outlet,” she said.
In Montgomery County, the two teen deaths followed two other suicides earlier in 2017 of people under age 18. Three of the four involved 16-year-olds and one a 12-year-old, said Mary Anderson, spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. That compares to three teen suicides in 2016 and three in 2015.
At a recent Boy Scout meeting of Troop 1449, Todd Misura, one of the adult leaders, said that three to four times as many parents showed up than usual. There were two social workers to help Scouts and parents grapple with the loss and with how to talk to children about suicide.
The previous meeting had ended with a dodgeball game. Tommy was laughing and smiling that day, Misura said. “He was just being a regular kid,” he said.
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.