By all accounts, 15-year-old Don Nelson seemed a typical teenager. Thus, no one knows for sure why, on April 14, 1985, he shot himself with his father’s gun. There are only clues, guesses.
None of the social factors suicide experts point to—family breakdown, mobility, drug or alcohol abuse—applied to the Nelsons, a close-knit family living in a quiet neighborhood outside Iowa City. Married for 25 years, Jack and Beth Nelson lived in the same house all of Don’s brief life, a roomy ranch house Jack built when there was nothing around but cornfields.
“Don had plenty of friends. Neighborhood kids were always here,” his family says. Just hours before he took his life, he helped a neighbor till his garden. His death seemed so sudden.
Don Nelson’s tragic death is yet one more statistic to be added to the nearly 6,000 teen suicides reported yearly in the United States. As many as two million people between the ages of 13 and 19 will attempt suicide each year, according to Dr. Seymour Perlin, board chairman of the National Youth Suicide Center in Washington, D.C.
“The actual suicide rate is much higher than 6,000 per year,” claims Mitch Anthony, executive director of the National Suicide Help Center in Rochester, Minnesota. “I would estimate it at more like 20,000. This is because many accidents—currently the leading cause of death among teenagers—are really suicides that are reported as accidents. I know of a woman whose son hung himself. Even as he hung by the rope, the police officer asked her if she wanted him to report it as an accident. I have interviewed funeral directors who have confirmed that many so-called accidents were really suicides.”
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