Just before dawn, as the Albuquerque sky filled the house with thin, pale blue light, 16-year-old Aurra Gardner took a small handgun out from behind the headboard in her mother’s bedroom.
Kerianne Gardner sat in the living room, typing an email, vaguely aware of her younger daughters as they tied their shoes and packed their lunches. She heard a loud thud and, at first, thought it was a door slamming. Or maybe Aurra’s cello case had fallen over. She walked down the hall and tried the door of Aurra’s bedroom. It was locked. No one in the Gardner house ever locked a door. When there was no response to her knock, Kerianne started to panic. She ran to find a pin, something to unlock the handle, but her hands were trembling. She asked Brian, her partner, to do it.
The lock clicked. He went in the room and emerged seconds later, pale and shaking.
“Do I need to call 911?” Kerianne said from the hallway.
“Yes,” he said.
Aurra Gardner was one of 16 teenagers who ended their lives with a firearm in New Mexico in 2017. The state has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the country — it’s almost always in the top four, and double the national average. The suicide rate among those younger than 20 rose steeply in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, and far outpaced national trends.
Nearly half of all suicides in the United States are by firearm, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outsized role guns play in New Mexico suicides should come as little surprise: New Mexico has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the county. Half of households report owning a gun, compared to only 30 percent nationally, and high ownership rates have been consistently linked to high suicide rates. But reducing the number of young people dying by firearm suicide is confounding. The act can be particularly impulsive in this age group, whose suicidal members often experience a steep, fast decline in their mental health. And when a firearm is employed, a suicide attempt is almost always successful.
In the case of Aurra, a shy but fiercely creative young woman, the advocacy of a caring mother proved insufficient to counteract a quick and troubling slide toward her last decision. And while there’s a tendency to assign singular blame — to a parent, a school, a moment of crisis, or mental illness — Aurra’s death resists such interpretation.
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New Mexico’s most recent Youth Risk and Resilience Survey, administered in 2017 to 17,000 high school students by the state Department of Health, found that one in 10 students — roughly 13,000 teenagers — had both contemplated suicide and were aware of the presence of a gun in the house. A review of coroner and police reports by The Trace and Searchlight New Mexico found that very few cases included previous mental health diagnoses or histories of self-harm. But in a majority of the youth suicides by firearm since 2010, the guns were owned by family or members of the household, suggesting that easy access to guns is a significant factor.
New Mexico health professionals, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies have tried to address suicide, but efforts remain fragmented and uncoordinated. In early 2018, the New Mexico Department of Health appointed a prevention coordinator and is now in the early stages of implementing an official suicide prevention strategy. To date, there is no statewide program to reduce a suicidal person’s access to firearms, often called “means reduction.” This makes New Mexico the lone outlier among the 10 states with the highest gun ownership and suicide rates in the country, according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Alabama and Utah, which follow close behind, have state-sponsored programs that train behavioral health providers and gun shop owners on means intervention, purchase and distribute gun locks, and conduct awareness campaigns. Meanwhile, teachers in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city and home to its largest school district, are pushing for more effective training on suicide prevention.
In 2016, during the first semester of Aurra’s sophomore year at Eldorado High School, she worked to maintain high marks. She was in Honors English and took Advanced Placement courses in psychology and world history.
A reserved rule-follower, according to those who knew her, Aurra played cello in the Eldorado and Albuquerque youth orchestras. She loved to draw, write poetry, and study birds, especially chickadees. Sometimes she would climb the pine trees in her backyard and sit there all day, identifying the species of every bird that visited.
Aurra’s standards for herself were always high, and as she excelled, they got higher. She scored in the 99th percentile on her 10th grade PSAT. At parent-teacher conferences, instructors told Kerianne what a joy it was to have Aurra in class. “She had this inner light,” said Ruth Striegel, Aurra’s orchestra teacher.
Early in February 2017, Kerianne noticed Aurra’s stress rising. She was panicking about organizing her AP world history notes and sleeping less than usual. She asked her mom if she could be homeschooled, in order to slow down her pace of study. Kerianne, who worked as a hairstylist during the week, emailed and called the counseling offices at Eldorado more than five times to discuss her daughter’s anxiety, but the school was slow to respond.
On the morning of February 21, Aurra hid in her closet. She told her mother that her teachers hated her and worried aloud that she might fail her upcoming midterms. Kerianne, who still had not received a response from the school, walked Aurra into a counselor’s office. “I had to just show up to get their attention,” Kerianne said.
As Kerianne recalls, the counselor asked Aurra if she really believed her teachers hated her. Aurra responded in muted tones. Kerianne asked the counselor to talk to Aurra on a weekly basis, and the counselor said she would. But Kerianne says that Aurra wasn’t called in again. (The counselor was unavailable to talk fo this article, and Albuquerque Public Schools declined to comment.)
During the first week of midterm exams, Aurra had a panic attack. Kerianne later told her: “Just go to the nurse and call me if you feel sick and anxious. You can make up the test later.”
Aurra hid in the school bathroom and the empty orchestra room to avoid class, which prompted the automated attendance system to call Kerianne.
At home that afternoon, Aurra’s breath was quick and shallow when Kerianne asked her why she’d ditched class. Then Keriane sought out a therapist at High Desert Community Psychological Center. During the appointment, Aurra mentioned she’d had thoughts of stabbing herself, but did not describe any concrete plans for self-harm. The therapist didn’t share details of the session with Kerianne because she felt there was no immediate risk.
Kerianne tried to remain upbeat: When Aurra wouldn’t speak, she sent her light-hearted and supportive texts, something that’s proven effective in clinical trials. She also took Aurra and her sisters to an archery range, to a pizza restaurant, and to a family friend’s home to try to improve her mood.
The next Monday, Aurra skipped her classes again. It was afternoon when the automated system called Kerianne. Later, Aurra told her she had spent the morning roaming the trails of the nearby Bear Canyon Arroyo, a light brown expanse dotted with yuccas and cacti in early bloom.
That night, parked in their driveway, Kerianne felt something dreadful, like a curtain slowly falling between her and Aurra.
“Aurra, do you want to kill yourself?” Kerianne asked. Aurra shrugged and shook her head no.
After Aurra went to sleep, Kerianne, frustrated by the lack of responses from Eldorado, typed a letter addressed to the school: “Aurra Gardner, 10th grade, experienced a panic attack or possibly some form of a nervous breakdown,” she wrote. “Aurra was in a nearly catatonic state and refused to speak to me… We request an accountability and wellness check-in daily from her assigned counselor.”
Kerianne walked Aurra to her first class the next morning, watched her sit down, and then delivered copies of the letter to several teachers as well as the principal’s and counselor’s offices.
That afternoon, the assistant principal, Rodney Suazo, called Kerianne to schedule a meeting for the next day. But the following morning, just after 7 a.m., Kerianne and Aurra’s siblings heard the sound they mistook for the fall of a cello case.
At Eldorado, “people talked or joked about killing themselves at least weekly,” said Rachel Rhykerd, a student who graduated this past May. According to interviews with more than a dozen students, jokes like “KMS” (kill myself) and “I wanna die lol” routinely surfaced as memes.
Narratives of suicide were also embedded in the curriculum. In Aurra’s ninth-grade Gifted English class, she read the novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which depicts the suicide of a 17-year-old girl. Several former Eldorado students expressed frustration and anger over teachers having assigned the book — it was the most challenged and banned book in American schools in 2017, according to the American Library Association. (The book was popularized by the eponymous Netflix series, released two weeks after Aurra died. One study found the show was associated with a significant increase in monthly suicide rates among youth, while another found that students who watched the entire show reported declines in suicidal ideation and self-harm compared to those who did not watch.)
But suicide wasn’t an abstract concept at the school, which consistently lost more students to suicide than other schools in the district.
“We’ve lost a student to suicide every year for the past four years,” said Tanya Kuhnee, an Eldorado English teacher. Records and interviews confirmed this figure. In the fall of 2018, Kuhnee says, six of her students attempted suicide. “Every suicide has resurfaced the emotions from previous suicides. It’s really affected our kids deeply,” she said.
Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) serves roughly 84,000 students, and in the last three academic years, suicide referrals — in which a counselor notifies the district of a student who is at risk, who is then connected with services — have risen more than 30 percent. Between 2010 and 2016, an average of 1,024 referrals were made per year. In the 2017-2018 school year, there were 1,511.
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“We’re not concerned about the numbers because these are the number of times we got to intervene… This means our prevention methods are working,” said Vicki Price, senior director of counseling services at APS. Currently, the Southwest Family Guidance Center has a contract to provide immediate intervention services for APS students. “Our goal is always to have interventions numbers increase.”
Counselors and social workers at APS say that suicide is top of mind in their training and dialogue. “Right now, counselors talk about suicide a lot because we are inundated with responses to suicide,” said Pat Halama, a veteran APS counselor.
“It used to be the story of a kid getting bullied,” said Sean Thomas, who has taught social studies at Eldorado for 14 years. “Now it’s also star athletes and star students, the whole gamut.” By inspecting medical investigator records, obituaries, and social media posts, The Trace and Searchlight New Mexico verified that Eldorado has lost strong athletes and high-achieving students to suicide. Two of the four recent deaths involved a firearm. In both cases, the guns were accessible at home — one tucked away in a bedroom, the other in a hall closet.
“What’s sad is that Eldorado is trying really hard,” Thomas said. Indeed, Eldorado has introduced more anti-suicide programming than other public schools in Albuquerque. The Police and the Fire Departments were brought in to evaluate protocols last year; students advocated for Break the Silence (a small group discussion guide to combat stigma and cope with lives lost), and in the fall of 2018, the counseling department conducted schoolwide Question, Persuade, and Refer (QPR) training, an awareness and prevention seminar used by schools nationwide.
Then, this past March, another student died by suicide, and many students turned to their teachers, frustrated. “They said, ‘We’ve been working on this. How can this still be happening?’” said Kuhnee.
Faced with a cycle of anguish, Kuhnee, Thomas, and other Albuquerque teachers have been pushing for more extensive mental health support before and after tragic events. They’ve asked for more innovative training that doesn’t just repeat talking points they’ve heard before. “Every year the district says, ‘We don’t have the resources for that,’” Kuhnee said. “There really aren’t changes happening or resources available to help support teens with mental health issues, and the stigma is still great.”
APS says another series of QPR training is scheduled for Eldorado this fall. But Jonathan Singer, associate professor at Loyola University Chicago and president of the American Association of Suicidology, says this may be a misstep. “QPR is a great program… but it doesn’t work well as an annual training because people know the information and it doesn’t go into as much depth as longer trainings. Such education and awareness is great, but it hasn’t been shown to reduce suicide risk in youth. One solution is universal screening,” Singer said. By identifying sets of kids, like a grade, and conducting risk assessments, surveying, and referring students to services, school-based universal screening programs like Signs of Suicide have been shown to reduce attempts and ideation among middle- and high-school students. However, such screenings are labor- and cost-intensive, and often occur only once or twice a year.
APS counselors are consistently evaluating their responsive services, said Price. (The principal at Eldorado was not available for comment following five requests to the district.)
Current and retired teachers and several counselors say that counseling departments need more dedicated resources, citing chronic understaffing — Eldorado typically assigns around 300 students to each counselor. “They manage too high a population,” said Thomas. “They’re overworked, buried in administrative paper, and there is really no one on campus who focuses strictly on mental health.” Halama said roughly 60 to 70 percent of an APS counselor’s time is dedicated to crisis work, including familial and interpersonal relationship troubles and substance abuse.
Halama added that counselors, when they get a chance to intervene, do try to ask parents about guns in homes. But no statewide protocol exists.
Aurra knew how to safely operate firearms. She participated in riflery at summer camp and completed a gun safety course in 2014.
The family kept about 10 guns locked in a safe in the home. Kerianne’s partner worked as a welder at a shooting range for law enforcement, so guns were a regular part of their lives. But after a man was seen jumping their back fence and a burglary took place nearby in early 2017, the family “stepped up our efforts to be safe,” said Kerianne. They hid a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol behind the headboard in the master bedroom and told Aurra to find it there in case of an intruder.
Nearly two thirds of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides. Though guns are involved in only a small portion of attempts, they are fatal roughly 85 percent of the time, and thus comprise about half of all annual suicides. In contrast, drug or poison overdoses account for a greater portion of suicide attempts, but are fatal less than five percent of the time.
“If we locked up all firearms appropriately in our state, we would immediately cut our suicide rate in half,” said Victoria Waugh-Reed, a former crisis resource counselor with Albuquerque Public Schools and now the suicide prevention coordinator for the state Office of School and Adolescent Health.
A 2006 study of youth access to firearms by Harvard researcher used data from a 22-year period and determined that a 10 percent drop in the percentage of gun-owning homes was linked with an 8 percent drop in youth suicide rates. And a team of researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health recently examined the relationship between youth suicide and gun ownership on a state-by-state basis, publishing their results in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Author Dr. Michael Siegel said, “Household gun ownership was the single biggest predictor of youth suicide rate in a state.”
Dr. Michael Anestis, the director of the Suicide and Emotion Dysregulation lab at the University of Southern Mississippi and author of Guns and Suicide, argues that states should have suicide prevention programs geared explicitly toward firearms. “We don’t have data to say which states’ suicide prevention plan works and which doesn’t, but we have research showing that efforts focused specifically on firearms are effective in reducing deaths,” he said.
Gun suicide is most common in rural states with lax gun laws — Montana currently has the highest rate. In New Mexico’s most rural counties, however, sheriffs and behavioral health coordinators say they have had some success focusing explicitly on guns, and convincing residents to use gun safes and locks, mechanisms that force extra time and reconsideration. An analysis of medical investigator reports confirmed that the majority of youth suicides by gun took place in metropolitan centers.
Jacalyn Dougherty, the suicide awareness and prevention coordinator at the New Mexico Department of Health, said that means prevention is one aspect of their approach. “We’re following CDC policies and strategies, focusing on evidence-based practices, gatekeeper practices, means access, promoting resilience… the strategy goes across many different components to holistically address the issue.”
Meanwhile, New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonpartisan statewide organization, has been working to pass House Bill 130, a measure meant to encourage the secure storage of firearms, which has been proven to lower overall adolescent suicide rates. If passed, the law would require guns to be stored unloaded and under lock. “Suicide rates among our kids are consistently going up, and guns are a constant,” said Miranda Viscoli, the group’s co-president. “The two can’t be unlinked.”
It’s been two years since Aurra’s death, and Kerianne tries to avoid asking herself reprimanding questions. Although the police and a court-appointed guardian both found that Aurra’s death was a tragedy without fault, Kerianne sometimes slips into wondering if others think she was negligent.
She doesn’t blame the school or a counselor or seize on details like Aurra’s time reading any particular book. She also doesn’t wholly blame the gun, but adds that she won’t live with guns in her home again. She is often cheerful and at ease, speaking plainly about the despair of losing a child to suicide and the futility of trying to explain her daughter’s decision. Aurra’s sisters, Zia and Sami, say their family is still “a little darker.” Zia added, “I’m a little more indecisive, and more distrustful, and even more shy now.”
The abject sadness that once imbued their lives is more muted, although it sometimes makes them feel as though they’re under water. They often gather at a local grief center, and they’re reminded of the ripple effects a single suicide lets loose. According to a 2018 study, some 135 people are affected by every suicide.
Kerianne still receives a message anytime another APS student dies by suicide. It no longer makes her wince, the thoughts of a cycle unraveling for another family. It’s a reminder, she says. Aurra’s memory, in its many shades, belongs not just to her, but to a generation of young people affected by suicide.