- Matthew Gilson
- A portrait of Carli Blanco (upper left) hangs on the wall in the home of Dave and Sheila Blanco.
Dave Blanco called for his daughter Carli, but she wasn't there.
The 14-year-old had stayed home from school that day with a stomachache, but she was in good spirits, even laughing and joking with her father—a retired Chicago police lieutenant—as they watched YouTube videos on that Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
The jovial nature of that morning was a welcome respite from the past few months, when Carli's battle with mental illness had reached crisis levels. But after she received an acceptance letter to the highly competitive Whitney Young High School—her dream school—and some treatment for her illness, Carli's family thought she might have turned the corner. That day in particular, Carli seemed more happy than usual.
Carli suggested she and her father get lunch at Zoup!, one of her favorite spots in Hegewisch, the southeast-side neighborhood where the family lives. Dave agreed and went to get ready, telling Carli to do the same.
But when he got back, Dave quickly began to panic. After 30 years on the force, he sensed something was wrong—but even he wasn't prepared for what he found.
After calling for her and getting no answer, Dave went outside through the open back door. He walked to the driveway, where he saw the grim scene: Carli had shot herself to death.
Shock, grief, and a feeling of incomprehensible loss washed over him. So did the desire to die.
"I wanted to go with her—immediately," he recalls.
He started screaming and panicking as he clutched his lifeless daughter. A neighbor, a police detective, heard the commotion, alerted 911, and ran over.
"I was holding her. There was nothing I could do," Blanco says. "I saw my gun laying there . . . I said something like, 'Wait for me, Carli. I'm coming with ya.' And I put the gun to my head and I pulled the trigger."
The gun went off, but another officer who had quickly arrived at the scene was able to pull it away from Dave's head at the last second. The bullet grazed his scalp, but he ended up largely uninjured.
Carli's mom, Sheila, rushed home from her job in the West Loop.
"I said, 'Who did I lose?,'" she said, recalling her conversation with a police officer when she arrived at the scene. "'Did I lose one or two?' I didn't even talk to anybody. I just knew. It was a nightmare you can't even explain to somebody."
- Matthew Gilson
- Carli's room at the family's Hegewisch home
The tragic end to Carli's life highlights a growing problem that's being exacerbated by social media, increasing academic pressures, and a dearth of mental health services, and the stigma behind suicide continues to hinder progress on bringing the issue out into the open.
In 1981, suicide was the sixth leading cause of death for kids aged ten to 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2016, it was the second leading cause of death for that group, and the third leading cause for those aged 15 to 24.
That year, 6,159 people aged ten to 24 lost their lives to suicide, a 16 percent jump over the total in 1981. The number of suicides in 2016 was 840 more than the number of murders of teens and young adults the same year.
On a per capita basis, the suicide rate for teen girls aged 15 to 19 was the highest in four decades in 2015.
Despite the stigma behind the subject, Carli's parents are working to help fix the growing problem. The couple is sharing their story in hopes of reaching parents, teachers, and counselors who might suspect a child is suffering from mental health issues, which can also play a role in school shootings and other gun violence. The couple is still dealing with their own grief and guilt. But vocalizing their struggle could teach parents that their hang-ups about the subject or worries over violating children's privacy aren't worth losing a child.
"It seems like you read every day somewhere some kid in the U.S. is taking their life," Dave said. "It's just unbelievable, the kids ten, 11, 12 years old. You think, what could be going on in their life to [make them] want to end it? We just feel like we want to do something."
Since 1993, the Blancos have lived in the last house on a cul-de-sac in Hegewisch, a working-class neighborhood with many cops and other city employees. Carli lived with her parents and older sister, Katie, who is now a student at Illinois State University.
Dave, 59, grew up in South Chicago with his first-generation Mexican-American parents. His dad was an artist who worked at the nearby steel mills to help pay the bills, and his mom worked in the city's senior citizens liaison office. Sheila, 53, grew up on a farm in northeast Iowa and eventually followed her two older sisters to Chicago, where the couple met in a bar. Sheila works for a food distribution company.
Dave and Carli were close, and they shared a lot in common. Dave passed down his love of classical music and old movies to his daughter. One of their favorite activities was going to bookstores, and Dave found it hard to leave without buying his daughter a book or two. But instead of the books many middle-schoolers are attracted to, Carli would ask to buy chemistry books and college-level course books.
Carli's talents were seemingly endless. She was a straight-A student who dreamed of studying at the University of Oxford and becoming an astrophysicist. She could sing, play the piano and violin, and she took up the study of German and biochemistry on her own. Carli's drawings in particular showed a voice and artistry rare in young teens, even if the subject of many of those drawings was her battle with depression.
She was also a perfectionist, and any slight deviation from perfection would cause her great anxiety, her parents said. At one talent show, she played the keyboard and sang her dad's favorite song, "Tiny Dancer." Although everyone loved the performance, a minor mistake caused an anxiety attack and her dad later found her crying in the school's basement.
Carli's activities also gave her solace from another problem: bullying.
Kids at her school, the now-shuttered Saint Florian in Hegewisch, made fun of her appearance and her tendency to speak in a British accent and go by the name Sherlock (one of her favorite characters). At one point, two classmates threw rocks at her as she played at a nearby park. In sixth grade, Dave and Sheila noticed that Carli seemed depressed and had become withdrawn. "She was so happy and then suddenly, things just started to change," Dave said.
Bullying is obviously not a new phenomenon, but these days the attacks are coming in different ways, experts say. In decades past, bullying might have been confined to more restricted hours, but cell phones and social media mean taunting messages can arrive at all hours of the day or night. And it's easier for students to gang up on a target in a virtual environment where they don't have to face their victims in person. What's more, the put-downs—and humiliation—are now easily viewed by anyone with access to a victim's Facebook page or Instagram or Snapchat feed. Because so much of her bullying happened online, Carli's parents didn't realize what was going on until it was too late, they said.
"Youths are not feeling that the world is a safe place, and social media is exacerbating that," said Alexa James, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "When it's online, it's constant harassment. Young people don't necessarily have the capacity to negotiate those really big feelings."
Carli began burying further into her studies, teaching herself about string theory and memorizing every element on the periodic table. She suffered from bulimia and began withdrawing from friends. "She used to sit here and cry, 'I don't know why I'm so sad. I don't know why I'm not happy,'" Dave said.
As Carli's problems grew, she transferred to Saint John the Baptist in Whiting, Indiana, for eighth grade and started seeing a school counselor. She also started meeting with a social worker every two weeks. Dave was able to spend more time with her too, having retired about a year before Carli's death. But it wasn't enough: Carli had told teachers she wished she could talk to her therapist more often. And when the social worker suggested she start seeing a psychiatrist, the family had trouble getting her an appointment with one.
In early March 2017, the school principal called Dave and Sheila to say that students had heard Carli say she wouldn't live to see her 14th birthday, which was only a couple weeks away. Dave and Sheila called a suicide prevention hotline, and were told to get Carli to a hospital.
She was admitted, diagnosed with depression, and prescribed antidepressant medication. The diagnosis seemed to offer Carli some relief: it eased the confusion surrounding her illness.
After the hospitalization, Dave and Sheila were optimistic about their daughter's prognosis. The acceptance letter from Whitney Young, which came at the end of her hospital stay, also helped. "We thought we were doing what we could to help her," Dave said. "Even that last day, she seemed so happy."
- Matthew Gilson
- Carli Blanco's room
Carli's bedroom looks just as it did before the tragedy. Virtually every space on the walls is covered in posters, much of it for British cultural exports like Doctor Who and Harry Potter. Bookshelves are stuffed with college textbooks and novels. Dozens of the popular cartoon bobblehead figures depicting Marvel and other movie characters remain in their boxes on top of Carli's dresser, and her pet hedgehog still lives in its cage on a second dresser.
On a recent weeknight, Dave and Sheila went through her belongings once again. Each item jogged a memory, like a trip to Comic-Con where Carli posed for photos with Star Trek actors Patrick Stewart and William Shatner. Other items, like condolence letters written from Carli's classmates, jogged much more painful memories.
They didn't find her journal until after her death. Much of the first half is filled with drawings and notes that are cheerful, including a cartoon rendering of her family that has been blown up, framed, and hung in the living room. But the back half of the notebook contained more disturbing images that left little ambiguity about what Carli was going through as she grew more depressed.
One drawing shows a side profile of a person's head with a thought bubble that repeats the phrase "I'm OK" over and over, while text inside the person's brain says, "I'm not OK."
They found a note written in German that spoke of Carli's true intentions.
"It was very hard, and everything we found that showed she needed help made us feel like we were failures, to be honest with you," Sheila said. "Every single thing, we'd have to walk away and say, 'Time out.' It was devastating."
Dave also had to contend with the fact that his gun was used in the death.
He kept ten guns in the house. Most of them were hunting rifles handed down from his father, and all of them except for one were locked in a safe. One gun was always on his waist, either his service weapon or his second pistol, which Dave described as a department-approved off-duty weapon.
On the day of the shooting, Dave said, he left his gun on top of a cabinet, but only momentarily, and even that was unlike him. "I think that morning, because she seemed fine, I had a careless moment where I walked out of the room for a brief moment," he said.
The guilt caused Dave to be suicidal, and he began attending depression support groups himself. It's something he still struggles with—and will for a long time, he said.
"I'll have to live with that the rest of my life, that I screwed up. And I believe I screwed up," he said. "And everyone keeps telling me if it wasn't that she would have found another way. Do you really think I'd feel better if I found her hanging? She just decided to use my gun."
Though research shows that access to firearms is associated with increased suicide rates—and suicide attempts by gun have an 85 percent success rate—Dave believes his daughter would have gone through with her plan no matter what. Of the ten- to 14-year-olds who committed suicide in 2015, more than 56 percent did so by suffocation, according to the CDC. Guns were used in 37 percent of the cases, followed by poison at 4 percent. For 15- to 24-year-olds firearms are the leading means of suicide, at 47 percent. Females are less likely to use guns.
For the couple, after the death, grief turned to anger, anger at themselves for not looking for all the clues, anger at Carli's peers for being so cruel, anger at the mental health profession for failing to fully educate the family and for failing to get through to Carli.
"These kids are slipping through the cracks," Dave said. "The mental health profession didn't even try to educate us or tell us things we needed to do or look for. And I think, if you're a parent, it's not that you don't want to help your child, it's just that maybe you don't know how to help your child."
What's more, Carli's trouble in getting additional help before her hospitalization is not unique; experts said adequate access to mental health care is a growing problem across the country.
In 2017, a study conducted by Harvard researchers showed just how hard it is for kids and teens to get treatment. The researchers posed as the parents of a 12-year-old with depression and found that, after two calls to each doctor's office, they could only secure an appointment with 40 percent of pediatricians and 17 percent of child psychiatrists.
Meanwhile, the number of social workers and school psychologists is way below recommended levels nationwide, and in Chicago Public Schools specifically. The School Social Work Association of America recommends one social worker for every 400 students, but the ratio in CPS is one for every 1,200 kids, a report by Educators for Excellence found last year. The National Association of School Psychologists says one psychologist is needed for every 500 to 700 students, but nationally there is just one for every 1,400 students—a rate similar to the situation in CPS.
Dr. John Walkup, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lurie Children's Hospital in Streeterville, said every provider of mental health care is straining to meet demand. He said about 20 percent of adolescents will have a mental health issue, but only 10 to 30 percent of those patients get treatment.
"It is legion," he said of the access issues. "Every program that I know has some kind of strategy to manage the demand. Everyone works at it as best they can. At some level it's going to require we do something fundamentally different in how we develop care systems."
Walkup said he is working on an effort to have primary care physicians, especially pediatricians, help provide mental health care to their patients. That could mean family doctors would provide early screenings for mental health problems or have informational sessions with parents.
"We think they can cut in to the large demand," he said. "Then there might be enough people to handle patients who have more substantive problems who might need to see a mental health professional."
Another issue, said a prominent Chicago pediatric psychologist who asked not to be named, is that more children at a younger age will voice suicidal thoughts, even if just casually. "They cancel the picnic and they say, 'I wanna die,'" he said. "Years ago I wasn't hearing anywhere near as much talk about suicide, even from kids six years old. . . . More kids are saying it when they don't mean it. But we still have to address it"—which ties up the system even more.
While their efforts to intervene, and the medical profession's attempts to help, didn't save Carli, the Blancos believe their tragedy can help save others. That wasn't their plan at first—the last thing on their mind was sharing their grief. But their path to advocacy involved an ill-timed mailing, more pain, and a conversation with a prominent Chicago Public Schools principal.
- Matthew Gilson
- A memorial to Carli marks the spot on the driveway where she died.
Carli had just received her acceptance letter to Whitney Young when she died, and the school continued sending mailings to the family after the death. The mailers were painful reminders of a promising future that will never be, and Dave contacted the near-west-side school to say Carli wouldn't be enrolling after all.
After learning of the tragedy, principal Joyce Kenner sat down with the family to offer her condolences and to apologize for the mailers. The conversation led to the school's efforts to raise awareness of mental health issues, and the Blancos agreed to help.
At first, Dave and Sheila met with school counselors on what to look for in depressed students. Then, the couple shared their story before a large roomful of teachers, parents, and students. That second session happened to take place on the morning after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead, and the issue of teen mental health was again in the forefront.
"It was powerful," Kenner said. "That began a great dialogue. We want to be able to identify any signs of mental health issues students are feeling. We want parents and teachers to know what to look for."
Kenner agrees the problem is growing.
"Absolutely" it's a bigger problem now, she said. "It's different than it was for me growing up. I applied to one college and was admitted. Now kids apply to colleges with ACT scores of 34, 35, 36 and are getting wait-listed. Kids feel a lot of pressure. There's added stress."
Representatives from NAMI were at the talk. The group has reached 7,500 CPS students in recent years as it seeks to spread awareness of mental health issues among kids. James said presentations typically include first-person accounts, but many of their speakers are parents of kids who attempted suicide and lived. With the Blancos willing to open up, the impact is that much more moving, she said.
"For parents in particular, it can become just far too painful for them [to talk about]," said James, the executive director for the local NAMI chapter. "Folks feel so much shame and guilt about the experience. So this was even more raw. And really more powerful for the parents in attendance." Other parents in attendance shared their difficulties in getting appointments for their kids with child psychiatrists or psychologists.
Sitting in the audience for the talk was Sophie Sanchez, a junior at Whitney Young who started a mental health awareness club at the school after her best friend killed herself. Like Carli, Sophie's friend had seemed to be on the road to recovery when she died, and the shock was hard to process for Sophie to process, as it has been for the Blancos. She was glad to learn she wasn't alone.
"It was eye-opening for some of the people who haven't experienced losing a friend or loved one to suicide," Sophie said. "It's very different when it becomes so real in someone's life. It really touched a lot of people in my club."
The talks at Whitney Young were the first time the Blancos told their story in a public setting.
"If we saved one kid, then we did something," Sheila said. "Especially because that's what Carli wanted."
- Matthew Gilson
- Dave and Sheila Blanco
After Carli died, the couple learned another thing about their daughter they didn't know: she had counseled younger kids who were also bullied. She spent time with a seventh-grade boy who was having a difficult time and ate lunch with younger kids who were seen as outcasts, school officials told the family.
After learning of Carli's efforts, Dave and Sheila said they knew it would be their mission to continue helping kids who are bullied or facing mental health issues.
"[Carli] was deeply wounded when she saw others mistreated or bullied, and often befriended those who struggled to fit in. As a result, she shouldered more pain than her 14-year-old soul could carry," reads her obituary. "While we may never be able to make sense of Carli's tragic death, it is her family's deepest desire that those who were touched by Carli's life talk openly about suicide, and learn more about this disease."
Speaking about Carli's tragedy was especially difficult at their daughter's prospective high school, Dave said. Doing so doesn't necessarily diminish their pain, but they know that it's the right thing to do.
"It was so hard to walk into a building, seeing all these kids, saying to yourself, 'Carli should be walking around this building,'" he said. "Because after I got to know Whitney Young, I really felt like if she just could have made it there, I think she would have been happy there. I'll never know now, but I think it would have made a difference in her life. She would have found kids just like herself, and it would have made a difference. v