Teens suicide has far reach
By Amanda Thames and Michaela Sumner
Feb. 3, 2015, seemed like a normal day for Victoria Casillas.
The 16-year-old pageant queen went to school. She wrote down her homework assignments. She returned home that afternoon.
And then she killed herself.
When many people think of suicide, they think of depression. They think someone who ends their life is unhappy, that maybe they come from a broken home or were involved with drugs or had a horrible event happen that spiraled them down this path.
But Victoria was a round peg in that square hole: She was a beautiful girl with many friends and admirers. She had even been named “Junior Miss N.C. Spot Festival Queen.” And she wasn’t depressed.
Suicide in Onslow County
The reasons behind the almost 300 confirmed suicides between 2002 and 2014 in Onslow County are unclear, according to officials, and every person’s story is different.
Sometimes, like with Victoria, there are no signs. She didn’t, for example, hand out special mementos to her loved ones for them to remember her. There weren’t threats to take her own life.
Crissy Miller said her daughter’s death was a complete shock — Victoria was a popular girl who faced a hidden struggle.
“Most people didn’t even realize that she dealt with the anxiety,” Crissy Miller said.
Victoria was on medication for her anxiety but hadn’t taken her pills for a few days prior to her death, Crissy Miller said.
“We think she … had a severe panic attack,” her mother said.
Onslow County had 289 confirmed suicides from 2002 to 2014, according to the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics. Since 2002, suicide has been a leading cause of death in Onslow County, increasing to more than 30 every year since 2012.
The number of confirmed suicides in 2016 rose this month when a body was found in the woods in Richlands on April 14. The Onslow County Sheriff’s Office ruled it a suicide that afternoon.
In 2013 and 2014, the number of suicides per 100,000 people in Onslow County was higher than Carteret, Cumberland and Pitt counties.
It is possible that those numbers are higher, though. Onslow County Sheriff Hans Miller said there are some cases where the medical examiner doesn’t believe a death should be ruled a suicide, but through a psychological autopsy, officers may think otherwise.
A psychological autopsy is usually completed in the cases of unnatural deaths.
“When we have an unnatural death, we always investigate as a possible homicide,” Sheriff Miller said.
Officers speak with the deceased’s doctors, family and friends to see if there’s anything in their background that says they may have been dealing with emotional or mental battles, he said.
Most of the time when there is evidence of suicide attempts or gestures that the sheriff said are calls for help.
Miller previously spoke with The Daily News about suicide and said it needs to be talked about.
“If we’re open about it hopefully we will encourage those in psychological pain to reach out and get some treatment,” he said.
John Shalhoub said every case of mental health is different. Shalhoub, of Shalhoub Family Counseling Service, is a retired psychology professor who now works as a clinical counselor.
Shalhoub urged anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts to seek professional help and make an appointment with a mental health provider in Onslow County.
For a patient who needs immediate help, Shalhoub said to have a loved one drive them to the nearest facility or dial 911.
“911 is the best way to get them the help they need,” Shalhoub said, adding that an ambulance can bring a patient to a mental health professional, clinic or hospital for immediate help.
There is no way to determine an ultimate plan for everyone, though, Shalhoub said. As a counselor, he said he can’t evaluate without knowing the whole situation.
“There’s a difference between ideation and . . . committing,” Shalhoub said.
What could have been
Crissy Miller said her daughter battled internal demons. And like others who have lost the battle, Victoria’s life and death touched and affected a large number of people.
From friends and family members to empathetic strangers, the branches of suicide are long-reaching.
Victoria had plans to be an artist and she was extremely talented, according to Crissy Miller. The proud mom scrolled through photos on her phone, showcasing a mural of a swimming shark that Victoria had painted on her bedroom wall.
The night before she died, Victoria was looking toward the future, telling her mother she wanted to go to school for art, Crissy Miller said.
That’s approximately 32 possible students in a freshman-year class Victoria won’t befriend. That’s dozens of teachers who won’t see her name on the enrolled list for their courses. The number of people who might have met Victoria as an adult is incalculable.
However, there are others who will now recognize her name.
Visitors to the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores can know her by the dedication on the otter statue that was erected in her honor from donations after her death.Victoria’s 8-year-old sister Maddie created a video last March to “burn out the stigma of suicide” on YouTube. The video had been watched almost 1,500 times in a month.
Victoria’s family wants to continue raising awareness and telling her story, Crissy Miller said. Victoria was a good student, an accomplished pageant queen, whose life ended too soon.
“It was a double-edged sword,” Crissy Miller said of her daughter’s intelligence. “Once she set her mind to something, she did it.”
And that one irreversible action, changed the family forever.
“We’re not super open people,” Crissy Miller said. “(But) we decided to give (Victoria) a voice.
Remembering a pageant queen
Maddie, who says she wanted to “be just like sissy,” is following in her big sister’s footsteps and competing at the N.C. Spot Festival Pageant.
Competitors choose a platform to raise money in the community — Maddie chose to raise awareness about her sister’s story.
Through a Yankee Candle fundraiser, Maddie said she wants to “burn out the stigma” associated with mental illness and suicide. All proceeds from the fundraiser will go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. For information about Maddie’s fundraiser, visit the “Maddie Miller-2015 Tiny Miss N.C. Spot Festival Queen” Facebook page.
But Victoria was the first and last Junior Miss N.C. Spot Festival Queen. The pageant coordinators changed the title after she died.
The title reminded the other contestants and families of the girl who once stood on that stage, according to pageant Co-Director Shannon Rinko.
In 2015, a new title was created: Mermaid Miss N.C. Spot Festival Queen.
“Our mermaid title was kind of in memory of (Victoria),” Rinko said.
From Victoria’s love of the ocean, another unique way to honor her memory was born. The family began making mermaid dolls out of Victoria’s clothes.
“I can’t quite get rid of (the clothes) otherwise,” Crissy Miller said.
Initially, her mother said she planned on only giving them to family, but now they’re giving a doll to anyone who wants one.
Luke, Victoria’s 9-year-old brother, wrapped his arms around his mother as she talked about Victoria’s anxiety.
It was Luke, an 8-year-old at the time, who found his sister in the bathroom.
“I didn’t see her alive that day,” he simply said.
Maddie, for her part, urged her mother not to talk about the “horror story.”
The story that started with how Victoria sometimes wanted to curl up with her family on the couch but other times, she wanted to be left alone — like she did on Feb. 3, 2015.
Crissy Miller, who said she had recently read an article about not pushing your teenager to talk, took that advice.
Looking back, she says not pushing her daughter to talk is her biggest regret — and her biggest motivation to encourage parents to have that conversation with their kids.
“It sounds terrible to say we didn’t realize how serious (anxiety) is, but that’s kind of how it is,” Crissy Miller said.
The family did everything doctors told them to do, she added.
“It was a shock not only to us, it was a shock to the community . . . (Victoria) fit none of the stereotypes,” Crissy Miller said. “(Suicide) happens to people of every race and walk of life.”