The parents of a Lewiston Middle School student who died by suicide this week say their daughter’s story reveals a complete breakdown in Maine’s mental health system. Anie Graham’s parents say there should be distinct protocols to help kids at risk of suicide, and properly trained providers who are available to help.
Thirteen-year-old Anie Graham was smart but playful, her parents say. She was in advanced math. She liked art and writing — especially, says her dad, Matt, poetry.
“Many of the poems were written just for her mother. Mostly just to say how special Mom was. She was very caring. She wouldn’t let us buy her gifts for birthdays. She’d make us buy stuff for the pet shelter,” he says.
But about a year and a half ago, Anie started to struggle with depression, says her mom, Rosie. She was cutting herself.
“She was saying that she couldn’t sleep, and that all of these thoughts keep coming to her head. And that she was really, really sad. And I let her know that that wasn’t typical, that wasn’t normal. She should be able to sleep and she shouldn’t have this severe sadness. I said, ‘You need to see a counselor. We need to get you some help,’” she says.
But the Grahams say that proved harder than they expected, and that many counselors didn’t accept children or the family’s health insurance. But after a few weeks and many phone calls, they found a counselor, and Rosie says Anie had weekly visits.
“She saw her for about 18 months, and then about two months ago, Anie told me that the thoughts were getting worse and she was really scared,” she says.
The Grahams took her to the Behavioral Emergency Department at St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston, and doctors recommended that she be admitted. But Anie told her parents she didn’t want to stay in the hospital, and as a compromise, she agreed to start taking medication.
As they prepared to leave the hospital, Rosie says doctors told her that Anie needed a certain kind of therapy, called cognitive behavioral therapy. That wasn’t what the current counselor was doing.
“That’s where I got really upset, because I’m thinking, ‘Why am I hearing this for the first time?’” she says.
Rosie and Matt scrambled to find this kind of counseling for Anie. Matt says he went to Lewiston Middle School, where Anie was a student.
“And I said, ‘We’re desperate, we need help. We cannot do this any longer by ourselves. You have to know what’s going on,’” he says.
The school guidance counselor recommended a local mental health provider, and Matt called to make an appointment.
“They basically said, after kind of hemming and hawing, that there really isn’t anything. We could try to find a cognitive behavioral health therapist, but they only had two people on staff trained to do that, and their caseloads were beyond taking in any new patients,” he says.
The Grahams also went to Anie’s pediatrician’s office to see if they would prescribe medication. One of the doctors did, but the Grahams say he did not offer therapy services, just medication.
“And so it went back to, it’s someone else’s problem. And when you keep pointing us to counselors who aren’t equipped or want to do this, or want to take our insurance, we were just stuck, we were just stuck, we were just stuck,” he says.
The Grahams continued to search for a cognitive behavioral therapist. About three weeks ago, they finally found one, and Anie had two appointments. But on Monday, she wrote on a school assignment that she didn’t want to live anymore.
The school called Anie’s parents to come pick her up, and Matt says Rosie brought Anie to the pediatrician, who said the appointment went well.
“He said, ‘It looks like we turned a corner. She seems happy, I’m going to send her home. You know, she’s fine,’” he says.
The rest of the day was good, Matt says.
“Ani actually was socializing with us a little bit more. She cleaned her room, which makes no sense whatsoever, and we thought, ‘Wow, we’re having a good night,’” he says.
They went to bed. When Matt woke up at 6:30 a.m., he knocked on Anie’s door. She didn’t answer. That’s when he discovered his daughter had killed herself.
Since her death, classmates have also said that Anie was bullied. The Grahams say Anie’s depression made her especially vulnerable, and that the school should do more to address bullying. But where they see the biggest failure is with the mental health system.
“All the ‘professionals’ that were dealing with us during this crisis were not professionals in suicide prevention, intervention, prevention, any of that,” Matt says.
Even though Matt and Rosie were very worried about Anie, they say they ultimately put their trust in the people they sought help from.
“When all the professionals told us, ‘Don’t worry, she’s going to grow out of this.’ Or, ‘Take her home, give her the day off,’ or, ‘Just put her on this med, and we’ll see if this works.’ As a parent, you have an inclination to say, ‘Well the professionals don’t think it’s a big deal, the professionals don’t think she’s going to hurt herself,’” Matt says.
Rosie says she wishes she had slept in her daughter’s room Monday night. The Grahams also wish that schools had clear systems in place to help when someone is at risk of killing themselves.
“If this was a bomb threat, they have protocols and steps and procedures in place to make sure people are safe before they send them back home or to the school, or whatever that may be. This was a threat on her life, and there was nothing,” Matt says.
Parents, they say, are left to navigate crises and the mental health system on their own. A system, they say, that’s not equipped to help some of those who need it most.
To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.