“I didn’t believe I had to protect her from herself.” Family of Thornton girl speaks out against suicide, cyberbullying

“I didn’t believe I had to protect her from herself.” Family of Thornton girl speaks out against suicide, cyberbullying


In the weeks before she died, Isabella Martinez, a green-eyed 13-year-old with a beautiful singing voice and a passion for making homemade facial masks and lip glosses, was called ugly and fake. A girl at her middle school threatened to beat her up and rip out her hair.

“Makeup ain’t doing nothing for you,” said one message, sent anonymously through an app on her smartphone. “Everyone says you’re pathetic.”

Bella’s mom and three older sisters didn’t know the extent of the bullying, nor the depth of the eighth-grader’s sadness, until Bella took her own life Sept. 10. In a house filled with dying funeral flowers and photo collages of Bella and her sisters, all with long, dark hair and wide smiles, the Thornton girl’s family talked through tears, hoping to save someone else.

Though their emotions are raw, and their mother can barely get out of bed where she cuddles with Bella’s blanket, they’ve vowed to speak out against suicide to anyone who will listen.

“You see so many parents and families who try to hide it because they are embarrassed and ashamed,” said Bella’s mom, Melissa Martinez. “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed. I’m sad. My heart will never be the same. My life will never be the same.”

To say cyberbullying caused Bella’s death is oversimplifying the complex reasons for suicide. The Martinez family blames the bullying, but just as much, themselves, for not asking more questions, not monitoring her social media accounts, not knowing how much Bella was hurting.

They look back on one of her posts — “My mind wasn’t wired for this world” — and ask themselves why they didn’t see it as a warning. Bella was moody, could switch to the other extreme in an instant, but that was her personality, they thought. She had to have the last word, and her family hoped she would put that to good use as a lawyer.

Each morning her mother would tell Bella, “Don’t let the small stuff get to you. You’re bigger than that.” Like most middle school girls, Bella “didn’t like not to be liked,” Melissa said.

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Melissa Martinez, surrounded by her daughters, from left, Katie, Olivia and Erika holds a picture frame with photos of her daughters including larger photos of Isabella, upper right and lower left of the picture frame, at the Martinez home Oct. 12, 2017. Melissa’s daughter Isabella Martinez, 13, took her own life Sept. 10, 2017. The Martinez family says that cyber-bullying was a contributing factor.

Bella’s family knew she was struggling with a few girls at school, and about three weeks before she died, showed them a video a friend made covertly with her cellphone of another girl talking about her plans to beat up Bella. Her mom offered to talk to the school about the bullying, but Bella insisted she was fine, that she wasn’t letting it bring her down. She brushed it off, citing jealousy.

“Bella only showed her strong,” her mother said.

Her mom and sisters, though, were unaware Bella had downloaded an app called Sarahah, which advertises itself as a way to improve friendships by “letting your friends be honest with you” through anonymous messages. The app promises never to reveal the author of a message. It’s similar to one called ASKfm, which allows anonymous feedback when the user poses a question, such as “Who is the prettiest girl in school?” or “Who is the ugliest?”

Bella’s suicide stunned her family, which besides her mom and sisters includes multiple aunts, uncles and cousins, all in the Thornton area. They are the kind of family that regularly gathers for pizza and movie nights, shows up 50 strong at youth league football games and easily offers up an extra bedroom when someone needs a place to stay. On the Sunday that Bella hanged herself in her bedroom, they were gathered downstairs celebrating her sister’s fiance’s birthday with fajitas.

Her aunt had checked on Bella less than an hour earlier, tickled her toes while the teen was watching “Law & Order” on her phone and asked her to come downstairs to the party. All day they had been trying to cheer up Bella after her mood had abruptly changed from happy to sullen when her mom commented that morning that the guacamole Bella made was too spicy.

“We were all here,” said her sister Olivia, 19. “We all blame ourselves. We could have done more.”

They are in shock. A day before Bella died, they were at Sam’s Club, where they picked out a case of Cup Noodles for Bella and a giant bag of her beloved orange “hot chips.” Bella and her sister Katie Martinez, 27 and the oldest, held hands and swung their arms. Olivia bought Bella a meme game at Walgreens the day she died, hoping something fun would bring her out of her bad mood.

Melissa wants answers, even though she knows none of them will satisfy her. The sheriff’s deputies, who responded after Bella was rushed to a hospital with only a faint pulse, found a note in her room, but they have not yet given it to her family.

The principal at her school, Silver Hills Middle, called a few days after her death to ask if her mother wanted one of Bella’s final writing assignments, collected from her English teacher. “Don’t read it alone,” Melissa recalled her saying.

Melissa, Katie and Olivia read the two-page paper, a poem called “Where I’m From,” in their car in the school parking lot, sobbing. “I’m from the best family that I could ever have,” it said. But also, “I’m from drama and arguments about things that never really mattered, to friendships getting torn apart that I thought would last forever.”

“I’m from friendships that taught me how to be careful of what I tell people.”

In the days after her death, messages about Bella sent on the anonymous app continued, words so cruel they are shocking. School officials believe some of the messages were sent to students by Internet trolls, “people without a conscience or a heart,” Melissa said.

Strangers were able to message students because some had attached their Sarahah contact information to their Instagram or Snapchat profiles, meaning that if their social media accounts were public, anyone on the web who saw a post could send them an anonymous message. Well-meaning friends of Bella took screenshots of the messages they received and shared them with her sisters. She “deserved it,” the messages said. “One less dumbass.” And she “wanted the attention.”

Bella’s sister Erika tried to contact the Sarahah app through its website, asking if the company could track the messages to find out who was tormenting them.

“My sister took her own life yesterday and while looking through her phone it seems she was cyberbullied on your anonymous message app,” she began. Erika hasn’t received an answer. Sarahah, created in Saudi Arabia as a way for coworkers to give each other “honest feedback,” did not respond to an interview request from The Denver Post.

“No one is to blame when someone commits suicide. But I think the consequences should be faced,” said Erika, 24.

Melissa used to worry someone would steal one of her daughters, was always warning Bella to stay wary when she dropped her off at the skating rink with friends on Friday nights. She worried, too, that the students sending the bullying messages would hurt her. “I was so worried about protecting her from harm, I didn’t believe I had to protect her from herself,” she said. “That hurts deep to the core. I didn’t know.

“I’m angry at them. I’m angry at God. I’m angry at my Bella because she thought she had nobody but she had so many people.”

The sisters used to tease that Bella “got all the talent in the family.” She could do dance moves the rest of them couldn’t copy, and she had a talent for creating homemade beauty products with kitchen ingredients. They all envied her voice. As Bella’s family talked about her death, Erika pushed play on a video of Bella belting out a song while standing on a playground, arms swaying at her sides in her black sweatshirt. Melissa began to cry and Olivia reached over to hold her mother’s hand, as Bella sang the words of Adele, “Hello from the other side.”

School officials notified parents of the social media assault after Bella’s death, and talked to each of the girls involved in the drama as well as their parents, said Sarah Hunter, suicide-prevention and crisis-recovery specialist for Adams 12 schools. Hunter noted that many factors contribute to a suicide, including depression and anxiety, ability to cope and ability to ask for help.

Middle- and high-schoolers in the district are taught as part of the core curriculum to use the state’s Safe2Tell app to report bullying or the “bully button” on the district website, which connects to a Google form to anonymously report bullying. “In this day and age, you can’t talk about bullying without cyberbullying,” said Hunter, who tries to stay ahead of the newest apps in part by studying a website called cyberbullying.org. “The truth is, it’s probably going to go faster than we can keep up.”

Dr. Jenna Glover, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado who treats teenagers with depression and anxiety, called the anonymous messaging apps “incredibly dangerous.”

“When we have anonymity, we are more likely to be reckless,” she said, noting a study that found victims of cyberbullying are five times more likely to try to kill themselves. The apps are “bad for all kids,” no matter whether they are the bully or the victim, she said. Girls in particular bully each other through “relational aggression,” harming each other through social status and friendships, Glover said.

Social media apps have intensified bullying by making the audience that witnesses it much wider — getting pushed into a locker is embarrassing, but having seemingly everyone in school see a negative comment online is harder to handle, Glover said.

Still, the reason people take their own lives is complex, and teens with a history of mental illness are at higher risk, Glover said. “It isn’t just one thing. It’s many, many things,” she said. “There are a lot of kids who will complete suicide and there is nothing anyone could have done.”

One contributing factor is lack of sleep, which is why Glover recommends teens do not keep their phones in their bedrooms at night. For kids who are anxious or depressed, and stay up in the night looking at social media profiles to see what they are missing, the poor decision-making brought on by sleep deprivation is dangerous, she said.

She also suggests a limit of one social media app, such as Instagram or Snapchat. “The more social media accounts they have, the more likely they are to have depression,” she said.

Parents should ask questions as direct as “Have you ever felt like hurting yourself?” Glover advised. It’s easier for teens to respond to a question than find the words themselves.

Sahar Paz, a suicide and bullying prevention expert based in Houston, suggests parents talk to teenagers about social media, bullying and depression as they are driving or walking side by side, instead of while making direct eye contact. And she recommends this regardless of whether the teen seems anxious or depressed.

“The reality is we are all citizens of a digital society,” said Paz, who attempted suicide as a teenager and at age 25. “You can have a million triggers online or in person. It comes down to coping. You are trying to understand how they are processing it.”

Check in regularly, she said, asking questions about what friends are posting on their social media feeds and what teens think about the posts.

Like Glover, Paz despises apps that allow anonymous messages or polls, recalling a teenage girl’s suicide in Idaho following school-wide social media polls that asked students to name the ugliest girl or other offensive questions. The girl who killed herself was often one of the targets.

Bella’s family printed up purple T-shirts with her photo and went to a suicide prevention walk barely two weeks after they lost her. Erika already has a “Stop Suicide” sticker on her car. “I’ll talk to anybody at this point who wants to talk,” she said. “It’s real. It’s happening. I will never put Bella down for what happened, but I never want anybody to go through this.”



Source :denverpost.com

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