LOWELL, Mass. - It's a tragedy she never saw coming. A Lowell mother is now on a mission after her teenage daughter died by suicide as a result of bullying.
"She taught me how to be a mom. She taught me how to be a mother, and for that I'm forever grateful," said Itea Aslanian.
Her daughter, Anna, took her own life in October 2018, just days after her 16th birthday. Aslanian said she had no idea her daughter had been suffering from bullying.
"There were never any red flags for any of us, and that extends to friends even," Aslanian said from her Lowell home.
Anna was a sophomore at Lowell High School when she died. She left a note in her bedroom saying she had been bullied about the way she looked.
"YOU NEED TO BE KIND"
"I want her word at the end of her letter to be spread and be shared, but more so, to be heard that you need to be kind," Aslanian said.
Aslanian is now on a mission to make sure other children and their families never experience the nightmare she and her family are living. And the threat is real.
According to a 2017 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the nearly one million Massachusetts students in grades kindergarten through 12th, 15% reported being bullied in school. In addition, 12% said they have seriously considered attempting suicide. Those numbers dwarf the number of students actually being disciplined for bullying.
Statewide data shows 915 students were disciplined for bullying during the 2017-2018 school year; that’s .09% of students enrolled. They include 19 students in Lowell.
The state's largest school system, Boston Public Schools, which has nearly four times as many students as Lowell, reported 29 students disciplined for bullying during the same period.
The huge gap in those numbers, according to Milton parent and coach Beth Greenawalt, is likely because students don't want to report or talk about bullying.
"If you are bullied and you feel shame about it, you keep it to yourself," said Greenawalt.
She said one of the best things a parent can do if they suspect their child may be bullied is to put everything down and just be there for when your child wants to speak with you.
"Your heart can be racing. Your throat can be closing up. You can feel rage or hurt. Just listen and then once you’re a little calmer, you can think of ways you may want to approach this. Discuss it with them and move forward with it. But being available when they want to speak with you is the best thing you can do," Greenawalt said.
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Greenawalt also said parents shouldn't be afraid to reach out to other parents, since oftentimes teenagers may have an easier time opening up with another adult.
"It has nothing to do with you or the quality of your parenting, it could just totally be your child not wanting to disappoint you because your expectation was you can handle this and all of a sudden they couldn't," said Greenawalt.
Itea Aslanian said her daughter's written words were so powerful about mental health. She knows it will take the rest of her life to process the tragedy, but she feels she's picking up where Anna left off.
"It's not just myself that’s lost out, it's the world. I truly believe that she had so many beautiful qualities and so many things to offer," Aslanian said.
Aslanian hopes to set-up a scholarship fund in Anna's name. According to Massachusetts law, schools must develop, adhere to and update, at least twice a year, a plan to address bullying prevention and intervention. The law was put in place after the suicide of another teen: Phoebe Prince.
If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately at 1-800-273-8255.
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