Editor’s Note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. The organization’s website is SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.
Straight-A student. Class president. Homecoming queen. Standout athlete with a college scholarship.
Lexi Webb not only had a resume full of achievement, but she also had a life full of love — giving and receiving it — among family and friends. In fact, her mother, Andrea Mills heard several friends of Lexi say they didn’t attempt suicide because she helped them feel they mattered.
But on Feb. 6, 2019, Lexi’s successful past and promising future couldn’t overcome the moment when the 18-year-old Smiths Station High School senior took her own life.
No note or any other evident explanation was left behind.
As a registered nurse with a degree in psychology, Mills had a view of what suicidal tendencies look like.
“She did not fit the description, the definition, the image of suicide whatsoever,” Mills told the Ledger-Enquirer. “She didn’t have any of the signs they teach you to be looking for.
“… She was a wonderful, beautiful person. She loved God. She served. She did all of the things that would make you think your child is doing very well and is successful.”
That anomaly sparked questions.
“What was she needing that I missed,” Mills recalled as tears welled in her eyes. “What could I have given her?”
After 23 months of searching for answers, the result is the Love Like Lexi Project, a suicide-prevention curriculum Mills hopes schools will implement.
Mills investigated Lexi’s life by going through her phone and interviewing her friends. That information and insight led to this theory: Lexi let forces beyond her control define her identity and purpose.
“There was a threat of those things being taken away,” her mother said. “… They make a split decision based off a moment of shame, a moment of fear, of hopelessness, because they think they’re losing something they can’t live without.”
Mills declined to be specific until she presents her story and curriculum 11 a.m. Saturday at the Smiths Station Government Center, where people are invited to gather on the two-year anniversary of Lexi’s death.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in September calls youth suicides (ages 10-24) “an increasingly prominent public health issue.”
The national three-year average suicide death rate among ages 10-24 increased by 47.1% from 2007-09 to 2016-18, according to the report. Alabama’s rate increased by 43% while Georgia’s increased by 76.3, the third highest in the United States.
From 2016-18, the number of deaths by suicide per 100,000 persons ages 10-24 ranged from 10.1 to 11.4 in Alabama and Georgia while the national rate was 10.3. Although the most recent data doesn’t extend to the COVID-19 pandemic, a September 2020 article in Psychology Today cites several studies that prompted the headline “America is Facing a Teen Suicide Pandemic.”
Smiths Station residents told the L-E five teens connected to the town have died by suicide in the past five years. The estimated population is 5,345.
Just ask Taylor Verbowski, Lexi’s best friend, about the impact.
“It’s insane to see,” she told the L-E. “… Everybody knew somebody who committed suicide, one of these kids.”
Verbowski, a business and leadership student at Chattahoochee Valley Community College and the event coordinator for Smiths Station, said she didn’t have any indication Lexi was having suicidal thoughts.
“Nobody would have guessed that at all,” she said. “… She was somebody who had everything going for them.”
Mills said, “It took this happening to somebody like her for people to say, wait a minute.”
Verbowski sees social media inflaming the problem.
“It’s a snapshot of someone’s life,” she said. “You don’t know what others are going through. You idolize people, and you look up to them, and you want to be that, and you want to have that. And then you have no idea their life is falling apart behind the screen.”
The unrealistic standards of popular culture skew what’s important, Mills said.
“Unless we change that,” she said, “this is going to continue. … A 1-800 number in a bathroom, with my daughter, was never going to help. We have to reach them before they’re in that bathroom, before their hand is on that trigger.”
Educating and equipping teens to be resilient is the key, Mills said. After meeting with moms, teens and educators, she developed the Love Like Lexi curriculum for grades 6-12.
It would start with a school-wide assembly, where awareness about the problem would be raised and Lexi’s story would be told. Then students would attend classes teaching these six lessons:
- You matter: You are not a mistake. Your life has profound meaning. Everything you do and don’t do matters.
- Hope: Where do you put your hope? Social media awareness, relationships, movies, music and TV?
- Identity: A foundation on which to stand. Who you are isn’t what you do. Platforms, success and failure.
- Purpose: Even your mistakes have a purpose. Pain, problems and tragedies. You have a life to live. Gifts, talents and passions.
- Belonging: Leaving a legacy. Power of community. Your mark. Called to lead.
- Love Project: Give back what you receive. Significance and serving. Voice of life for others. Chain reaction.
The students in each class would work together to develop and implement a Love Project that would benefit the community.
Bubba Copeland, the mayor of Smiths Station, helped students in 2019 put signs of affirmation around town to prevent suicide. Now, he is among the community leaders who have heard Mills present her program. He fully supports it.
“What better person to do this than her, somebody with heart, somebody that knows how it feels,” he said, “and I think this is her way of healing as well.”
Michele Graham, whose daughter is a sophomore at SSHS, is part of a group of mothers that started meeting last fall to help prevent teen suicide. Mills taught the group what she had learned.
“I cannot wait to get my daughter into this program,” Graham said. “I believe that this is a new and fresh approach and a real approach. It’s looking at the problem and identifying what it really is, taking the stereotype of suicide and throwing that away and saying there is no stereotype but there is this problem that’s causing this issue.”
The message she expects teens to receive from the curriculum, Graham said, is to share their talents with something bigger than themselves.
“We need to help them find their light,” she said, “that they matter and there’s so much more to their story.”
That’s why Verbowski is confident the program can be effective.
“I definitely think kids will buy into it because they crave that,” she said. “They need something to fill them with positive things. … Every teenager can benefit from it. … I wish I had this in school.”
SSHS principal Brad Cook sees the need for such a program and praises Mills for her approach.
“I’m totally on board with what she’s saying,” he said.
Cook described Lexi as “a beautiful young lady inside and out, had a heart bigger than anybody. … When those kids have a much higher expectation of them than others and all of a sudden they fall off that image, that hurts them, and they don’t know really how to deal with those emotions because they’re not used to having those kinds of setbacks.”
But public schools must teach what the state curriculum requires, Cook said, so it would be up to the Alabama State Department of Education to approve the Love Like Lexi program for it to be a credit-bearing course. An alternative could be including the content in a school club, he said.
The Jason Flatt Act mandates Alabama public school personnel be trained in suicide prevention. The act is named after a Tennessee teen who died by suicide in 1997. Ten years later, Tennessee was the first state to pass the legislation. Now, a version of the act is law in 20 states, including Alabama and Georgia, but they don’t require students to be taught suicide prevention.
The training doesn’t cover students like Lexi, who don’t show the typical alarming signs of being “disheveled all of a sudden or not keeping up with their hair or wearing baggy clothes,” Cook said.
“The kids with social media, everything is right here and right now, instantaneous, and I think that pushes a lot of kids to make instantaneous errors in what they do,” he said. “They’re just every impulsive, and I can’t put my finger on one thing that causes that. There are so many different variables.”
Understanding the bureaucratic hurdles of getting a new curriculum approved for public schools, Mills acknowledged it could be easier to start the pilot program in a private school.
“It’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s just who’s going to be first.”
IF YOU GO
What: Love Like Lexi curriculum presentation
When: 11 a.m. Feb. 6
Where: Smiths Station Government Center
Info: Call 334-569-9798, email [email protected] or visit the website lovelikelexiproject.com, where donations to cover the nonprofit organization’s expenses can be made. The project also has a page on Facebook and Instagram.