Michelle Carter stood before the court earlier this month, thinner, with a short haircut and a face void of emotion — a far cry from the long-haired teenager with red eyes who appeared to be always on the verge of tears.
The Supreme Judicial Court upheld the decision of a Massachusetts judge who found Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the 2014 death of Conrad Roy III, who poisoned himself by inhaling carbon monoxide in his pickup truck.
Carter’s jailing sparked questions across the nation about mental health and how normalized violence, suicide, and death have become to children. Where is the line between what is legal and what is right?
Beth Williams-Breault, prevention and education coordinator for The Middlesex Partnership for Youth, Inc., said teenagers often have challenges with impulse control because part of the brain has not yet developed. It’s possible that teens might not fully understand the impact of committing suicide, she said.
“The adolescent brain isn’t fully developed until age 25,” said Williams-Breault. “The prefrontal cortex is the last portion of the brain to develop. When students are going through challenges throughout their lives, it’s important to make a distinction between adults and children.”
The Partnership for Youth is a Wakefield-based non-profit organization that provides crime prevention and intervention resources for school professionals, public safety entities, students, parents, and organizations that serve and protect youth.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, according to Centers for Disease Control, but more young people survive attempts than those who die.
According to the high court’s decision, a frequent subject of Roy and Carter’s communications “was the victim’s fragile mental health, including his suicidal thoughts.”
Between October 2012 and July 2014, Roy attempted suicide several times by various means, including drowning, overdosing on over-the-counter medication, water poisoning, and suffocation. He abandoned each attempt, often seeking help from others.
Carter didn’t provide that help. On July 12, 2014, she encouraged him to kill himself.
As Roy researched methods, Carter downplayed his fears about how suicide would affect his family, repeatedly chastised him for his indecision, and made him promise her that he would end his life, according to the decision.
Phone records showed that Carter was on the phone with Roy twice while he sat in a truck filling with toxic fumes, for about 40 minutes each time. She later told a friend in a text message that she “could have stopped him.”
“I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I (expletive) told him to get back in,” Carter wrote to a friend.
The court’s decision found that verbal conduct in appropriate circumstances could “overcome a person’s willpower to live, and therefore … be the cause of a suicide.”
The judge found that when the defendant realized he had gotten out of the truck, she instructed him to get back in, knowing that it had become a toxic environment and knowing the victim’s fears, doubts, and fragile mental state.
The federal government defines bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance, according to StopBullying.gov, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Bullying has changed dramatically from the days that it used to happen in the school yard,” said Margie Daniels, executive director of The Partnership for Youth. “It ended when school ended. Now, the majority of bullying that takes place is cyber bullying and it can happen 24/7.”
Children and teens can fall victim to bullying through text messaging, on social media, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and on blogs, said Daniels, who has a background in developmental psychology and is a licensed independent social worker.
“In the old days, if a bully bothered you on the playground, a handful of kids might witness it,” she said. “Now, with technology, it’s like putting up a big sign on your house. It can really be devastating for kids and teens.”
Roy and Carter met in Florida in 2012 and had only seen each other in person a handful of times, according to a report by the Associated Press. Though they lived 35 miles apart, most of their relationship developed through text messages and phone calls. Both suffered from depression and Carter was treated for an eating disorder. Both had previously attempted suicide.
Roy had once suggested they be like Romeo and Juliet, but Carter said that she didn’t want them to die, defense attorney Joseph Cataldo said. Carter had her own mental health struggles and was taking medications that may have clouded her judgment, he said.
Bullying is linked to many negative outcomes, including impacts on mental health, substance use, and suicide. Children who are bullied are more likely to experience depression and anxiety and increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, according to information provided at StopBullying.gov. Still, Health and Human Services clarifies that though children who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention lists a number of warning signs for suicide, including:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, the AFSP recommends you take these steps:
- Do not leave the person alone.
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
- Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
- Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.