Why Are People Talking About the Michelle Carter Verdict and What Can We Learn From This Tragedy?

Michelle Carter Verdict

Words matter. Texts matter. And, according to Judge Moniz, words can kill.

What can we, as parents of teenagers, take away from this tragic situation that could help the troubled teenagers we may know? How can we talk to our kids in a way that might possibly prevent another tragedy?

Michelle Carter is a 20-year-old young woman who was convicted on June 16 of involuntary manslaughter in the suicide death of her boyfriend Conrad Roy III, which took place the night of July 12, 2014. A well-publicized series of disturbing texts where she advises Conrad to kill himself leads up to the basis of the conviction– a phone call where she tells Conrad to get back in the truck full of carbon monoxide.

I don’t know Michelle Carter, and I could not presume to diagnose her on the basis of texts and news reports. We know that in June of 2014, she was struggling with some serious mental health issues. She was admitted to an inpatient program at a psychiatric facility. Expert witness and psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin testified that she didn’t know she was doing anything wrong. The prosecutor painted a picture of her as a manipulative young woman who convinced her boyfriend to commit suicide in order to play the grieving girlfriend and gain sympathy and friendship.

What can we learn from this case?

We can learn how to recognize and help teenagers like Conrad Roy.

Here are 4 things that parents of teenagers can do that might make a difference for someone like Conrad:

1. Parents of teenagers need to be aware of the “relationships” their teenagers have on-line.

Texting an on-line girlfriend

However much we think Michelle Carter’s behavior is aberrant and mentally unstable, there are aspects of her relationship with Conrad Roy III that are more typical than we would like to imagine. Teenagers today think it is “normal” to have a relationship with someone they have never met in person or haven’t seen in a year. Even teenagers at the same school often conduct most of their relationship via text or social media.

Many parents are afraid of this kind of a relationship because of internet predators. In fact, a much more common danger is that the teenager will isolate and forgo actual real-life relationships with their peers in favor of an idealized on-line relationship. If parents categorically demonize on-line relationships, their teen will simply hide the fact of any on-line relationships from them.

2. Parents need to encourage their teenagers to engage in activities that will lead to close relationships in real life.

 Maintaining real- life relationships is especially important when a teenager has a significant on-line relationship. These relationships can take place in the context of sports or clubs, and are especially valuable if they include teens from various schools, or of various age groups. Church groups or community service groups are good places for teens to connect with other teens. Volunteering at an animal shelter is also a popular option.

Teenagers with on-line relationships will often race home after school to log in and connect with their boyfriend or girlfriend on line. They will spend literally hours and hours with the connection open, while they (try to) do homework, watch a show, or surf the internet. They will stay connected and fall asleep with the computer open or the phone on. Parents need to be especially aware of this isolating behavior, which often goes hand-in-hand with teenage depression. Getting your teenager out of the house and engaging in activities with other teens in real life can make a significant difference in their mood and outlook.

3. Parents need to make sure that teenagers feel free to come to them and the other adults in their lives for the help they can’t get from their friends.

 Teenagers in general believe that the other teenagers they know are so much more confident and capable than they are. They can’t imagine how completely ill-equipped another teenager is to help them. They don’t understand that another teenager is probably the last person who is able to teach them how to live a happy and meaningful life. They only see the idealized lives of their friends on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat.

When another teenager is unable to help them relieve their pain, they can easily conclude that it must be impossible– surely an adult would have no idea what they are going through.

Teens are very reluctant to confide in their parents for a number of reasons. Besides assuming that their parents can’t possibly understand the current demands of “teen world”, which is probably at least somewhat true, they assume that their parents would judge and criticize them.

Parents need to talk to their teens frankly and calmly about depression and suicide. Parents need to be matter-of-fact. They need to explain that depression can hit anyone without prior warning, that there is effective help available, and that there is no shame in reaching out for it.

They need to explain that even if their teen is lucky enough never to experience depression or suicidal ideation themselves, they will undoubtedly have at least one friend who does, and they can always come to them, the parents, to figure out where to go next for help.

4. Parents need to be open, matter-of-fact, confident, and informed.

They need to have numbers for teen hotlines and suicide hotlines. They need to tell their teens that they can call the hotlines themselves if their friends are reluctant to do so. They need to make sure their teens put the hotline numbers in their phones.

24/7 Suicide Hotline:  Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text “START” to 741741

Helping teens who are suicidal

We are not helpless to stem the rise of teen suicide, but it will take a community to do so. We need to talk to our teenagers about suicide, and we need to give teenagers resources to help each other. Only by removing the stigma of suicide and talking openly about it can we hope to change the attitude of sensationalism to one of deep empathy and support.

Click here to read “Talking Points About Suicide for Parents of Teens”

Do you have more questions about how to talk to your teen about suicide?

Talking about something as emotionally-charged as suicide can bring up many unpleasant thoughts and feelings in a parent. Working through these thoughts and feelings before you talk to your teen is important for both you and your child.

Call me at 323-999-1537, or email me at amy@thrivetherapyla.com if you would like a free 20-minute phone consultation to discuss how therapy might be able to help you process your own feelings and be better able to discuss this difficult subject with your teenager, or if you would like help for a teenager you know who is struggling with depression or other teenage issues.

I am also happy to help you find someone in your area who might be a good fit for you or your teen. I want you to be able to have this important conversation calmly and openly. I want any teen in pain to be able to get the help they need.

If it takes a village, let it start right here.