Family of teen who died by suicide hopes tragedy will inspire mental health reform

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Trigger warning: Content in this article contains information on suicide. If you or someone you know is suicidal, please visit The Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255.

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — A family in mourning seeks to transform their tragedy into action through mental health awareness and destigmatization.

Charley Tennen, a 17-year old from West El Paso, died by suicide on July 4 after her family sought repeated support from law enforcement to help take her to the hospital at which point she was to be transported to a residential treatment facility in San Antonio.

According to Charley’s therapist, a plan was in place for the RTC in San Antonio to facilitate her transport once she was admitted to a local hospital.

“It is so frustrating to think that the professionals are out there to help you, and then you go to them — you go to any one of them — and you can’t get help,” Michelle Tennen, Charley’s mom, tells KTSM 9 News. 

According to Michelle, Charley fell into a depression in April following the unexpected death of her father. The loss, compounded by pandemic-induced isolation, civil unrest following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and chronic illness drove Charley to a very dark place.

Michelle said she sought support from local hospitals, a psychologist, and a psychiatrist but that Charley’s intelligence enabled her to mask the extent of her mental illness to avoid being involuntarily committed for psychiatric support. 

“She would tell me she wanted to die, but if anyone asked her, she’d say ‘well, I felt like that before — I don’t feel like that now,” says Michelle.

A month before her death, Charley attempted to end her life and left a suicide note that was posted on Reddit, at which point her psychologist and mother implemented a safety plan that Charley agreed to.

Charley’s mental health continued to decline after June, and on the morning of July 3 Michelle says she took Charley to Rio Vista Behavioral Health Hospital after she expressed continued suicidal ideation. 

Charley refused to get out of the car. 

Michelle says she was told by hospital staff they could not forcibly remove her teenager from the vehicle.

“They said they can’t help her inside because it violates her civil rights even though she’s a minor,” said Michelle. 

Charley’s psychologist, Allison Davis, made a call to the El Paso Police Department to report a patient in imminent danger and request that Charley be transported to a psychiatric facility, where she would then receive help from the RTC in San Antonio.

“We just needed to get her inside a hospital or to the Crisis Intervention Unit,” says Davis. 

According to EPPD Spokesperson Sergeant Enrique Carrillo, a specific protocol must be followed during a suicide call and Charley did not meet the criteria for emergency transport. 

“If a Crisis Intervention Unit (CIT) is available, they will respond,” Sergeant Carrillo tells KTSM 9 News, “if not, a patrol unit will be dispatched.”

Once a patrol unit is dispatched, Sergeant Carrillo says two criteria must be met that include method of suicide, obtaining any weapons that might be involved, and then a determination of the validity of suicidal ideations that have been made, as well as self-harm. 

“If elements for an emergency detention are met, then the person will be transported to the hospital for evaluations,” says Sergeant Carrillo.

“In the case of a minor, then parents can have a child committed for evaluation.” 

Michelle says the responding officers spoke to Charley briefly and determined she did not seem suicidal. 

“She had some medical issues so I asked if they could please go to her room with me and get the medications out of her control,” Michelle tells KTSM 9 News. 

The police said Michelle’s request was reasonable, much to Charley’s chagrin.

“Charley said ‘that’s ridiculous, I’m almost 18-years old and able to take my own medication,” says Michelle. 

“I said I wasn’t comfortable having the medications within her reach and that I would give them to her whenever she needs them,” she continues. 

“But they wouldn’t help with that either,” says Michelle.

“They felt she was responsible to take them appropriately.”

Michelle then requested a CIT unit to be dispatched and was told one was not available on that early Friday afternoon before the holiday. 

Davis says Charley confronted her via text after the police visit and was understandably upset. 

According to Davis, Charley and she made plans for a session the next week and Charley said that she was feeling better.

Charley died by suicide a few hours later.

Sergeant Carrillo tells KTSM 9 News that Charley did not meet the criteria for an emergency detention. 

“This child looked wonderful by all rights, but she was battling monsters in her head,” says Michelle. 

“And I just could not get help anywhere.”

The Tennen family does not believe the responding officers understood the extent to which Charley was in distress, and Davis says her call to EPPD as a mental health professional should have been enough.

“The police came here and they looked at her, and they looked at a young white girl who speaks well, and is smart,” says Lillie Tennen, one of Charley’s older siblings. 

“They said, ‘you look like a responsible young girl, so we’re going to leave. We don’t think you need our help, so enjoy your Friday afternoon’.” 

The Tennen family wonders what more could have been done to convey that Charley was in the nadir of her depression and needed emergency transport for psychiatric support. 

“When a professional calls and says, ‘I’m the psychologist, this is my patient — I’m telling you she’s suicidal and needs to go to a psychiatric hospital, then the police come in and say she looks responsible and smart, then leave — that should never be their call to make,” says Lillie.

Davis says she spoke with an EPPD sergeant following Charley’s death who said she took every step necessary as a mental health professional to request police assistance in transporting her patient. 

Michelle says her goal is not to malign Rio Bravo Behavioral Health or the EPPD, but rather is imploring the community to reassess its system of access to mental health support.

According to an article from the National Institute of Health on youth and adolescents with chronic illnesses, suicidality increases when mental health issues like depression and anxiety are present. 

Researchers worry that community resources lack the capacity to help children like Charley.

“We speculate that adolescents and young adults with comorbid chronic illness and psychiatric disorders may not be accessing appropriate psychiatric services, which in turn increase their odds of suicide,” write the study’s authors. 

The Tennens created a GoFundMe campaign to help cover Charley’s funeral and medical costs and is also setting up a non-profit in her memory to combat suicide among youth with chronic illness.

“We need to shine a light on the debilitating mental pain that goes along with physical pain,” reads the campaign in part.

“The risk of psychological problems like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts are significantly heightened in children and adolescents suffering from chronic illness.”

Charley’s life was marked by her deep commitment to helping people, and she had dreams of going into pediatric oncology. 

Her family says she was a fierce defender of social justice and advocated on behalf of her father when he was ill.

According to Lillie, Charley went head-to-head with a cardiologist regarding her father’s care. 

Her intelligence empowered her to know the biology underlying her father’s condition and she sought to defend those she loved with knowledge and action. 

Michelle says Charley was also very active in the Black Lives Matter movement and was a dedicated ally. 

“Charley grew up with lots of different people around her,” remembers Michelle, “everybody loved her — I’ve never heard a bad word about that kid.”

“And now we’ve lost her.”

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