Suzie Bartel


Despite losing her teenage son Ryan to suicide, Suzie Bartel remains hopeful. After Ryan’s death in 2014, Suzie met with dozens of high-school students and realized that young people want to talk about subjects like depression, suicide, bullying, and mental health, but they don’t want to talk to adults. They want to talk to their peers.

This revelation gave Suzie the idea for the Ryan Bartel Foundation (ryanbartelfoundation.org), which focuses on teaching acceptance and resilience to teens via peer-led social networks. The program, We’re All Human, has already been implemented in three area high schools, and Suzie says the atmosphere in those schools has improved dramatically as a result.

We asked Suzie to share Ryan’s story and more information about her inspiring foundation with us.

CHRIS CROLL: I UNDERSTAND THAT RYAN WAS GIFTED BUT ALSO EXPERIENCED LEARNING CHALLENGES. WHAT WAS SCHOOL LIKE FOR HIM?

Suzie Bartel: Ryan was a different kind of kid. He was very bright and had a photographic memory, but he was also a visual learner, not an auditory one, and our schools are not really set up for children like that. From a young age, Ryan could tell that he was different from other kids. He didn’t play sports well; he didn’t have a lot of friends; he struggled in school… things just didn’t come easy for him. As a result of these differences, he developed low selfesteem. He was also teased as a young child and later he was bullied.
This all took a toll on him.

CC: WERE YOU AWARE OF THE BULLYING AT THE TIME?

SB: I remember in ninth grade Ryan told me that kids in the cafeteria were throwing food at him during lunch. My instinct was to march down to the school to address the issue. Ryan didn’t want me to get involved. I remember him saying, “I’ll take care of it myself.” He was very independent.

Tenth and eleventh grade were okay. He developed new friends at school and also made many friends online while playing networked video games. But during the summer before twelfth grade, there was a series of incidents that made Ryan feel like he was socially inadequate and would just never fit in. High school is the time when kids are trying to find themselves, and there’s this incredible societal pressure to have a high GPA, choose the right college, and develop a self-identity. Ryan struggled with all of that, and he became depressed.


CC: WERE THERE SIGNS THAT RYAN WAS CONTEMPLATING SUICIDE?

SB: Ryan asked me to let him complete his senior year at home. He didn’t want to go back to school—he wanted to finish up with online courses. I said no. I had been advised years earlier to make sure Ryan stayed plugged in socially since he had a tendency toward solitude. He was seeing a therapist to help him with the depression. Ironically, Ryan had a reputation for being the one to make his friends feel better when they were down. He did this because his own experiences taught him not to judge others and to accept that everyone has value and deserves respect. He used to say, “In the end, we’re all human.”

CC: WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY KNOWING WHAT YOU NOW KNOW?

SB: Parents need to make their children feel valued. We need to cherish what they each bring to the table. When you have an atypical child, you can’t force them into this mold that society dictates. We pressure our kids to get good grades, play a sport, have lots of friends… we try to be this perfect little family. Well, if our kids don’t fit that mold, they feel like they don’t fit in anywhere. Ryan didn’t think he was ever going to be able to fit in. He truly believed the world would be better off without him.

“If your child is different, celebrate those differences.”

CC: SO, YOUR MESSAGE TO PARENTS IS TO BACK OFF?

SB: Absolutely. We need to redefine success. Isn’t success about being happy? Ask your child,“What makes you happy?” The pressure-cooker formula of getting good grades and going to college isn’t right for every child. If your child is different, celebrate those differences. The other thing is that parents are often the last to know how their child is really feeling. Teens don’t confide in adults, they talk to their peers. That’s why we promote a peer-to-peer suicide prevention model rather than an adult-led program.

CC: THE CDC REPORTS THAT 17 PERCENT OF KIDS IN GRADES 9-12 HAVE SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED SUICIDE IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS. WE LOST FIVE CHILDREN TO SUICIDE IN OUR COUNTY LAST YEAR ALONE. WHY DO YOU THINK THIS IS?

SB: Talking about mental health makes people uncomfortable. I speak at information nights all the time, and often only a handful of parents attend. We have no problem missing work to attend our child’s soccer game or band concert, but we don’t take an hour out of our schedules to get educated about our children’s mental wellbeing and safety? Maybe parents don’t think this will ever happen to them. The sad truth is that all children are at risk. There is no “profile” for who dies by suicide.

CC: HENCE THE NAME “WE’RE ALL HUMAN.”

SB: Right—the focus of our program is acceptance. When students are accepted for who they are, they feel more comfortable talking about their problems because they know they won’t be judged. We also provide training on how to develop coping skills and allow the kids to share those skills and messages of hope to their friends. They become change agents. It’s very inspiring to watch.

CC: THANK YOU FOR ALL THAT YOU’RE DOING FOR OUR CHILDREN.

SB: I channel my grief into action. We know we are not 100 percent the solution to teen suicide, but we are making a difference. Our goal is to reach as many kids in this area as we can.
I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to have a positive impact.

BY CHRIS CROLL
PHOTOS BY TRACI BROOKS