How reporter Matt Richtel spoke to teens and parents for this series
In mid-April, I spoke with the mother of a suicidal teenager whose experience I have followed closely. I asked how her daughter was.
Not very well, the mother replied: “If we don’t find something drastic to help this child, she won’t be here long.” She began to cry. “She is out of our hands, she is out of our control,” she assured. “We’re trying everything.”
He added: “It’s like waiting for the end.”
Over nearly 18 months of reporting, I met scores of teens and their families and interviewed dozens of doctors, therapists, and experts in the science of adolescence. I heard heartbreaking stories of pain and uncertainty. From the beginning, my editors and I discussed how best to deal with the identities of people in crisis.
The Times takes a very high level of responsibility in granting sources anonymity; our style guide calls it a “last resort” for situations where important information cannot otherwise be published. Sources can often face a threat to their career or even their safety, whether from a vengeful boss or a hostile government.
In this case, the need for anonymity had a different imperative: to protect the privacy of young and vulnerable adolescents who have self-harmed and attempted suicide; some of them have threatened to try again. In telling their stories, we had to be aware that our first duty was their safety.
If the Times published the names of these teenagers, they could easily be identified years later. Would that hurt your job opportunities? Would a teenager — a legal minor — later regret exposing her identity during a period of pain and difficulty? Would seeing the story published worsen the crises they are experiencing?
Consequently, some adolescents are identified only by the first initial; some of his parents are identified by name or initial. Over the months, I got to know M, J, and C, and in Kentucky, I got to meet troubled teens whom I identified only by their ages, 12, 13, and 15 years old. In some articles, we do not publish precisely where the families lived.
All the people I interviewed gave consent, and parents were often present at interviews with their adolescent children. On some occasions, a parent offered to leave the room, or a teen asked for privacy and the parent agreed.
During the development of these articles, I heard pain, confusion and a desperate search for answers. The voices of teens and their parents, while protected by anonymity, deepen understanding of this mental health crisis.