By: RONELLE GRIER – CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Ethan Bean was funny, quirky, bright and inquisitive. He enjoyed spending time with his family, traveling around the country or taking local excursions to Greenfield Village and Downtown Detroit to explore restaurants and art venues. He relished jazz concerts with his family, and his annual outing to the Grand Prix with his father, Erik, was the highlight of his year.
His musical taste reflected a soul older than his 17 years; he liked Perry Como, the Beatles, the Who and the Doors. He loved his job at the outdoor gear/sporting goods store REI, where his co-workers appreciated his unique personality and original sense of humor. His boundless curiosity and quest for knowledge led him to become a self-taught expert on cars, trains and every category of airplanes, including makes and manufacturers. He loved Lego and was adept at assembling complicated models to create his own mini Lego city.
But inside this intelligent and imaginative young man was a profound sadness and sense of isolation he could no longer bear. In the early morning hours of Friday, Aug. 24, Ethan ended his life, leaving a series of notes that described the desolation of living in a world that did not understand his unconventionality or his anguish.
“To put things in basic terms, I was a struggling human being on the highest level possible. I don’t deserve to live because of how much mental pain I’m in. I realize how much help there is in the world and that there’s always someone there for you. Yes, that’s true, but I’m misunderstood. I’m a fish out of water no matter where I go. End of discussion,” he wrote in one of the notes.
During extensive treatment over the years, Ethan was diagnosed with many conditions: ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), anxiety, depression and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).
His parents acknowledge the various diagnoses but felt the best description by professionals was simply “atypical.” He was a smart, sensitive and temperamental boy who was terribly misunderstood by his teachers and his peers.
“I have been to multiple mental health specialists and been prescribed multiple medications and been to facilities. That only makes you more depressed. There is no one that could have helped me or saved me,” he wrote.
“I realize how much help there is in the world and that there’s always someone there for you. Yes, that’s true,
but I’m misunderstood. I’m a fish out of water
no matter where I go. End of discussion.”
— EXCERPT FROM ONE OF ETHAN BEAN’S SUICIDE NOTES
His experience at North Farmington High School was disappointing. He had trouble making friends and felt isolated and excluded. When he created a “promposal” for a girl he liked, she rejected him.
“He was often misunderstood. He was impulsive … he asked a lot of questions,” Erik said. He tried joining some groups and evenearned a marching band letter, but he never felt as though he fit in.
When his mother, Stacey, asked the high school to assign a peer mentor to Ethan, a buddy to eat lunch with or sit with in class, she was told that kind of support was not available because Ethan was not receiving special education services. When another student jumped on Ethan and beat him up, the student was suspended, but Ethan’s loneliness and isolation remained unaddressed. The Beans said other students and teachers blamed Ethan for being annoying.
“There was so much bullying,” Stacey said. “The school misunderstood him. They only called us when Ethan did something wrong.”
When the Beans sent an email informing North Farmington High School administrators that Ethan would not be returning for the 2017-2018 school year, no one from the school responded.
While privacy laws prohibit a school from disclosing information about its students, Farmington Public Schools’ Superintendent Dr. George C. Heitsch expressed sympathy over Ethan’s death.
“Our hearts go out to the family during this very difficult time,” he wrote in an email.
Last year, Ethan got caught up in the juvenile criminal justice system after an incident involving issues with mood regulation. He was sent to Children’s Village, an Oakland County juvenile detention and residential treatment center in Pontiac, where he spent most of the summer in juvenile jail before entering a six-month program.
“He was treated like a criminal … and said some of the staff made fun of him,” Stacey said. “He was allowed one phone call each week, and when a staff member misdialed our number, he was told he had used up his call and would have to wait until the following week.”
Ethan complained his cell was freezing cold, and he was disturbed when he witnessed sataff members making fun of another incarcerated teen who had Tourette’s syndrome.
“They were not equipped to deal with kids who have mental health issues,” Stacey said. “His soul and his self-esteem were stripped away.”
While unable to comment specifically on Ethan, Joanna Overall, manager of Oakland County Children’s Village, said that when such concerns are expressed by a client or parent, the facility reports them to its state of Michigan licensing agent, who would then investigate the situation and file a report.
She said Children’s Village has youth specialists and licensed psychologists trained to work with troubled young people, including those with mental health issues.
In late January, Ethan began attending Oakland Opportunity Academy, an alternative high school program through Oakland Schools. He was doing well academically and had even made a new friend, Angel. Ethan was part of the student council and wore his new school swag with pride.
“He loved it there,” Stacey said.
Summer Of His Life
As part of their ongoing mission to fill Ethan’s life with happiness and meaningful experiences, the Beans spent the summer traveling to places they knew their son would enjoy. They drove to the Upper Peninsula to see the Pictured Rocks, explored the Porcupine Mountains and visited Copper Harbor. They flew to Arizona and toured Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, a school Ethan had talked about for years. They planned to visit the aviation flight program at Eastern Michigan University.
“Ethan wanted to be a pilot, and we wanted him to have hope,” said Erik, describing how Ethan had learned in depth about every kind of airplane, memorizing flight patterns until he was able to see a plane passing overhead and pinpoint its exact destination.
Ethan had recently discovered a talent for photography, and he documented their travels to various summer destinations. The photos reflect a handsome young man with a big smile, enjoying nonstop adventures with his mom and dad.
“He had the best summer of his life,” his parents said.
During the funeral service, officiated by Rabbis Daniel Schwartz and Michael Moskowitz of Temple Shir Shalom, the rabbis praised Erik and Stacey for their unstinting efforts to help their son find his way out of the darkness that often pervaded his mind and his spirit.
“Ethan couldn’t have asked for better parents,” Schwartz said. “They were there for him every step of the way, constantly looking out for him and making sure he had the best resources. He knew they were his greatest advocates.”
Slipping Through Cracks
Ethan had been looking forward to the weekend ahead; the plans included a dinner with friends and a Gladys Knight concert at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. That Monday, Aug. 27, Ethan was planning to start a dual-enrollment program at Schoolcraft College, close to the job he had found on his own and enjoyed immensely. But Ethan had made his own plans, unbeknownst to his parents or anyone else.
Ethan’s sister, Blair, 20, says she understood her brother because she, too, was bullied and treated like an outsider when she attended North Farmington High School.
“My brother was put here to make a difference. He was such a unique thinker that nobody understood him,” said Blair, a rising junior at Michigan State University. “He was a funny, smart, quirky kid and we all loved him.”
Blair, now a successful student and confident young woman who is on the Dean’s List and serves as a national representative for MSU Hillel, attributes her earlier academic and social difficulties to the lack of support she received from the various schools she attended.
“Adults who are supposed to be leaders and guide children are not doing that, and it’s not OK,” she said. “They let me slip through the cracks, and they let him slip through the cracks. My brother didn’t kill himself. Society killed him.”
To honor Ethan’s memory and help other teens who are going through similar struggles, the Beans established the Ethan Bean Mental Health Fund at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield. The Beans credit Rabbis Moskowitz and Schwartz and the temple community with providing unflagging support and understanding to their troubled son.
“I got to know a young man who would question everything,” Schwartz said in his eulogy. “It wasn’t that he was trying to be defiant. Ethan was brilliant, and he would ask questions to make sense of things, to make sense of the world around him. That desire of knowledge remained a core part of who Ethan was.”
Contributions may be directed to the Ethan Bean Mental Health Fund at Temple Shir Shalom, 3999 Walnut Lake Road, West Bloomfield, MI 48323, (248) 737-8700, www.shirshalom.org.
While not every story ends in tragedy, there are many teens and young adults who, like Ethan, feel lonely and misunderstood.
Higher functioning “atypical teens” often struggle socially because they are usually more aware that their communication and social skills are different than those of their peers, according to Vincent J. Acciaioli, a licensed master social worker (LMSW) practicing in the Bloomfield Hills area. These teens may have one or more mental health disorders, such as Social Anxiety Disorder, Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder or mild Autism Spectrum Disorder (previously referred to as Asperger’s Disorder). Because they are high functioning, they are more likely to go unnoticed or “fall through the cracks” instead of getting the help they need.
“Adolescence is a time when self-identity, acceptance, fitting in and self-esteem are very connected to having positive meaningful peer relationships,” Acciaioli said. “Additionally, it can’t be over-emphasized that the rapidly changing and increasingly complex social world teens and young adults have to navigate, because of the availability of social media and social networking sites, increases both the pressure to fit in and the desire to connect. This can increase their risk of exposure to rejection, cyberbullying and other forms of marginalization from their peers.”
Parents Can Help
Acciaioli encourages parents to curb the negative thinking common in families who have a child with special needs.
“Their child’s differences do not make their child defective, inadequate or incapable of living a successful, productive life,” he said. “Most importantly, it is not a result of defective parenting.”
Becoming a pro-active advocate for the teen is important. Acciaioli recommends learning about resources, such as social skills groups and parenting support groups, and seeking help from mental health professionals who have experience working with atypical teens and young adults.
If an older teen is having problems at school, talking with the teen first about how to involve school personnel can be helpful. If possible, a “go-to” staff person at the school or college can provide significant support.
“Teens with communication impairments, social anxiety and difficulty connecting socially frequently experience self-esteem and self-confidence issues,” Acciaioli said. “Allowing them to have a role of importance in matters that involve them communicates both a parent’s confidence in them and a sense of autonomy.”
To help teens who are victimized by unkind remarks or exclusion from their peers, Acciaioli uses a mindfulness approach that helps diminish self-doubt by encouraging self-kindness and challenging negative self-talk.
“I want to emphasize that all of the teens and young adults I have worked with who struggle with difficulty in establishing positive social peer interactions have been truly wonderful individuals with many gifts and talents,” Acciaioli said. “They just need the right support and place to connect.”
Teen Suicide Epidemic
September is national Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It is important to know that teen suicides have increased more than 70 percent over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for children, teens and young adults ages 10-24. Ethan was the second teen in the local Jewish community to die by suicide this summer; at least two others made attempts to end their lives, according to a local professional.
Experts cite a variety of reasons, such as intensified academic pressure, an increase in social media that fosters cyberbullying and a greater dependence on electronic devices that decreases face-to-face interactions.
It is a common misconception that talking about suicide might drive someone to end his or her life. This is not true. If a child or friend shows signs they may be contemplating suicide, ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training), a nationally recognized “suicide first aid” program, recommends asking the person directly if he is considering suicide. If a person is not suicidal, saying the word will not push him or her in that direction. If an individual is at risk, talking about it an open and caring way could help save a life.
If there are concerns about a child or friend, asking questions and listening in a compassionate and nonjudgmental way could encourage them to open up. However, ASIST trainers emphasize that not every person exhibits the same warning signs; some people do not show any outward signs of wanting to end their life. While depression and despondency may be an indication that someone is at risk, other teens may be masking their inner pain with a smile.
BY RONELLE GRIER CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Stacey and Erik Bean are willing to speak about their experience to help others. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• National Suicide Prevention 24-hour Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK (8255)
• Common Ground Resource and Crisis Center: commongroundhelps.org,
24/7 hotline, (800) 231-1127
Resources For Autism Spectrum, Anxiety
And Social Issues
• Autism Society of Michigan, autism-mi.org, (517) 882-2800
• OUCARES (Oakland University Center for Autism Outreach Services): Activities and social skills groups for individuals on the autism spectrum; parent support groups, oakland.edu/oucares, (248) 370-2424
• UMatter: A teen-to-teen program sponsored by Friendship Circle of Michigan and the Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety, friendshipcircle.org/umatter, (248) 788-7878 ext. 208, email@example.com
• AnxietyBC: anxietybc.com
• Child Mind Institute: childmind.org
• Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety: akfsa.org, firstname.lastname@example.org
• Wolverine Support Network/University of Michigan: umichwsn.org
• Spartan Support Network/Michigan State University: spartansupportnetwork.org
Student support networks and mental health services are available at most schools. Contact the student health services department or counseling center.