‘Her whole life is ripped away from her’: Teen mental health issues spiked during COVID-19

Ashley Nonnenman, center, with children Chanel Nonnenman and AJ Hess

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Ashley Nonnenman, center, with children Chanel Nonnenman and AJ Hess

One family wonders: Did quarantine contribute to a child’s suicide?

Every photograph of Chanel Nonnenman captures a vibrant young woman perpetually in motion:

Chanel celebrating a game-winning serve on the volleyball court.

Chanel clowning with friends at a Dayton Dragons game.

Chanel blowing out the candles on her 12th birthday, surrounded by a circle of friends.

But on March 17, 2020, schools in Ohio shut down and that whirlwind abruptly halted. No more sleepovers with friends, no more practices with her nationally-ranked volleyball team.

Fewer than five weeks later, on April 19, Chanel took her life. She was just shy of her 13th birthday.

“The lockdown was so sudden and so heavy on so many people,” said Reese Hornick, Chanel’s classmate at St. Charles Borromeo School in Kettering. “It’s hard to find happiness without doing the things that make you happy.”

Added her mother, Ashley Nonnenman of Centerville, “She was a shining star. She was a people person. And all of a sudden her whole life is ripped away from her.”

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Chanel Nonnenman, right, and her mother Ashley Nonnenman

Chanel Nonnenman, right, and her mother Ashley Nonnenman

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Chanel Nonnenman, right, and her mother Ashley Nonnenman

Youth suicide attempts on the rise

The tragedy mirrors trends all over the country since the pandemic began, with reported rises in depression and suicide attempts among teens and young adults.

During 2020, mental health-related emergency department visits among adolescents aged 12 to 17 increased 31% over 2019, according to a study released June 11 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From Feb. 21 to March 20 of this year, emergency visits for suspected suicide attempts were 50% higher among girls in that age group than during the same period in 2019.

In Dayton alone, suicides and attempts spiked 67% in 2020, with the Dayton Police Department receiving 372 calls for suicide attempts and suicides, compared with the three-year average of 223.

Chanel was the youngest person to die by suicide in Montgomery County last year; a 13-year-old boy died by suicide in 2019. While the youth suicide rate did not rise in the county during the pandemic, Montgomery County Prosecuting Attorney Mathias Heck Jr. cautions that juveniles and adults alike have been at greater risk: “The pandemic has been hard on everyone, especially children. We are all too isolated. So we need to be even more vigilant about what our kids are doing. Parents need to know and monitor the sites that their children have access to, and they need to know who their children are communicating with.”

And the danger may only intensify as teens go back to school and resume their normal lives. “The return to school may cause increases in mental health problems and suicide risk in our community,” said John Ackerman, a child clinical psychologist and the suicide prevention coordinator for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus. “The social adjustment has been difficult for some young people after the pandemic. We may have underestimated the need for a thoughtful adjustment to being back to school and normal activities.”

“It can happen to anyone”

As with any suicide, a complex variety of factors may have contributed to Chanel’s death. But family and friends feel certain the pandemic played an oversized role. They say they are speaking out and sharing Chanel’s story in the hope of preventing further tragedies.

“What is causing these wonderful children to feel they aren’t worthy of this life?” Ashley asked. “I want other parents to read Chanel’s story. I don’t want anyone to sit where I am sitting and feel what I am feeling. If it can happen to my perfect daughter, it can happen to anyone.”

Chanel was a high achiever who had a close-knit family and plenty of friends. A star athlete, she was a key player on the nationally ranked Elevation Volleyball Club, which finished with a 12-1 record in 2019.

“She was very kind and fun and everyone just loved to be around her,” said Chanel’s brother, AJ Hess, a junior at Mohawk High School.

Added her mother, “She had it all – brains, beauty, talent and that personality. But what people said they will remember most is her kindness. She was so empathetic. If there were a new student at her school, she would offer them a place at the lunch table.”

Her family and friends wish they had known Chanel was struggling. “Playing sports was her life, and as a travel volleyball player, not being able to play hit her really hard,” said her former coach and longtime family friend Shelley Sharp of Kettering.

No warning signs during Chanel’s last day

Chanel and her mother were virtually inseparable before the COVID lockdowns – “two peas in a pod,” Ashley said – and quarantine only intensified their bond as they cooked crock-pot dinners, worked puzzles and played games.

AJ usually split his time between his parents’ homes, but spent the last three weeks of Chanel’s life living with his sister and their mother in lockdown. “Living in different homes just brought us closer, because we were always so excited to see each other, wondering what kind of trouble we could get in,” he recalled.

Neither AJ nor Ashley saw any warning signs that Chanel might harm herself. “She was sassy and so smart and funny,” Ashley said. “There was never a dull moment with her.”

Chanel was bouncing excitedly when her father picked her up that Saturday afternoon, April 18, 2020. “I love you,” she told her mom.

AJ worked on homework with his sister while his stepfather cooked walking tacos. After dinner they snuggled with the cats on the couch and watched “Avatar.” AJ jumped on PlayStation, but Chanel remained in her room, listening to music and painting.

“Usually we watch a movie together, but that night I decided to stay on PlayStation,” AJ said. “I will always regret that.”

At 2:15 a.m., Chanel came out of her room and told her brother, “Good night. See you tomorrow.”

Confronting the unthinkable

The next morning, Steve and AJ went for a run and made breakfast. Chanel’s door remained shut, but that was hardly unusual for a weekend.

Around noon, AJ and Steve decided to check on her. Upon entering her bedroom, they encountered the unthinkable: Chanel lying dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“I knew what was going on, yet I didn’t know what was going on,” AJ said. “I couldn’t breathe. It was as if I had a form of sleep paralysis.”

“This isn’t real,” Steve told himself.

AJ locked the family cats in the garage and, “within the blink of an eye, the EMTs were there.”

Miami Twp. detectives found a Glock 22 on top of the bedsheets and an unlocked gun safe in the laundry room. Steve Nonnenman, who worked as a Homeland Security officer at the time, told detectives he had locked the service weapon in the gun safe the night before. There was no suicide note.

Ashley rushed to the scene, doubled over in disbelief as she screamed, “She was my whole world!”

AJ gently placed an arm around his mother’s shoulders. “I can be your whole world,” he said.

Heartbroken friends honor Chanel’s memory

More than 3,500 people attended Chanel’s socially-distanced visitation, with lines circling Tobias Funeral Home in Centerville on May 1, 2020 — her 13th birthday.

For many, it was the first time they had experienced the death of a friend.

When her mother, Lisa, broke the news of Chanel’s death, Reese replied, “Was it COVID?” Even after learning the truth, she told herself, “It had to be an accident. She couldn’t have intended to do it.”

Chanel is one of the last people she would have worried about. “She was very social, very funny and goofy, and she got a kick out of a lot of things,” she said.

AJ fears something might have happened while she was talking to acquaintances on social media that night. “There was just no sign,” he said. “She was eating fine; she was laughing. A switch flipped, without a doubt. It seems like it was more impulsive than planned out.”

Concurred longtime friend Tori Sharp of Kettering, “I didn’t see it coming, and her other friends didn’t see it coming. We were making plans to go to volleyball camp and we were going to be roommates. I think something happened that night, and that night it felt like it wasn’t going to get better.”

Family friend April Rosenberg of Kettering had a similar reaction. “She was not one to hang on to things,” she said. “Typically she and my daughter Molly would say, ‘We are better than this; we can shake this off.’”

Chanel was the first person who befriended Molly when she moved to Ohio from Washington State in third grade. “In fourth grade we hated each other — God only knows why,” Molly said. “We joked about it a lot later.”

Although fearless and highly competitive as an athlete, Chanel was also encouraging, Molly said, “the first one to say, ‘Hey, good job.’”

Many of Chanel’s grieving classmates are honoring her memory by trying to prevent future tragedies. Tori has designed a T-shirt featuring Chanel’s name and a suicide prevention ribbon. Reese and several friends have converted an Instagram bracelet-making business into a fundraiser for a Dayton Foundation memorial fund in Chanel’s name. “I felt like I had to take the initiative to make sure nothing like this happens to my other classmates,” Reese said. “I feel like this is a way to keep her memory alive.”

She wants to send a message to other struggling teens: “You are so loved and so appreciated by so many people.”

Lisa Hornick sees a heavy price for this newfound perspective. “They had to grow up very fast,” she said. “Suddenly everyone seemed older. As a parent you feel they shouldn’t have to experience this when they are 12 years old.”

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Reese Hornick holding a candle outside a memorial Mass at St. Charles Borromeo in November 2020 (the Mass they have every year to honor those who were lost in the past year). Contributed photo

Reese Hornick holding a candle outside a memorial Mass at St. Charles Borromeo in November 2020 (the Mass they have every year to honor those who were lost in the past year).  Contributed photo

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Reese Hornick holding a candle outside a memorial Mass at St. Charles Borromeo in November 2020 (the Mass they have every year to honor those who were lost in the past year). Contributed photo

Struggling to rebuild lives

Fourteen months after Chanel’s death, family members and friends are still struggling to rebuild their lives. Ashley initially thought about temporarily dropping out of nursing school, but soldiered on and graduated in December. “That’s what Chanel would have wanted me to do,” she said. “We talked about being nurses together,” she said.

The survivors are haunted by “what ifs.”

“I would give anything to talk to her and find out what was bothering her,” AJ said. “As her big brother, I wish she had known I was always only a phone call away.”

Steve advises other parents to limit — and monitor — their children’s social media activity and even their phone conversations if they detect behavior changes: “After she died, you feel like you failed as a parent. It’s your job to get them to adulthood and to make sure they are safe, and that didn’t happen. That’s hard to deal with.”

Steve’s older daughter Kailey stayed with him for the first month after Chanel’s death. He has since become engaged to the mother of one of Chanel’s volleyball teammates. “That was the last gift that Chanel gave me,” he said.

Steve resigned from his post with Homeland Security in October. “Since losing Chanel, I’m not willing to put myself or my family at risk,” he said. Instead, he is pursuing a master’s degree in applied behavioral science and criminal justice, hoping eventually to teach at a police academy.

Heck said his investigators in the prosecutor’s office found no evidence of wrongdoing in Chanel’s death. “They found it was the father’s practice to lock his gun in a safe place and to keep it secure, and that somehow his daughter obtained that combination,” Heck said.

Lost potential, lasting legacy

Chanel’s loved ones are mourning her potential as an athlete and a leader.

Suzy Lippert, Chanel’s elite volleyball coach for her Elevation team in Mason, said she was “very noticeable” — and not just for her 6-foot stature and killer serves. “She was very gritty, and she had such a great attitude,” Lippert said. “And the way she treated her teammates was incredible. She was very complimentary of other people.”

Her potential as a player was virtually unlimited, Lippert said: “It’s an unreal loss. She could have played varsity for her high school, and probably would have been recruited for college.”

“I was looking forward to watching her play in the Olympics,” said Shelley Sharp. “She had such natural talent.”

But the most profound losses may lie in the smaller, more intimate moments.

Steve misses feeling Chanel’s head on his shoulder, and hearing her silly puns and rapid-fire one-liners. “She was my buddy,” he said. “There are a thousand things I wish I had told her. I think she knew I was proud of her, but I wish I had told her more often.”

Tori will miss sharing Oreos and ice cream bars. Several times a day she finds herself thinking about something she needs to tell Chanel. “Seriously, Tori,” her friend would always say.

Molly misses their nightly rant sessions. “You could spend nine months with that girl and still want to spend another year,” she said.

Ashley will miss the way Chanel took delight in the holidays and the seasons, planting peonies in the spring and jumping off the school bus and yelling, “Let’s build a snowman!”

She will miss her daughter’s infectious laugh and the way she always smelled like lavender patchouli.

She will miss the thoughtful notes Chanel used to leave in her lunch bag: “I hope you love this lunch as much as I love you.”

“There has never been a mother who loved her daughter more than I loved Chanel,” Ashley said. “I loved her with every fiber in my being. I just miss her. I can’t believe it has been more than a year since I have seen that face.”

On the anniversary of Chanel’s death, Ashley live-streamed the planting of a magnolia tree, her favorite, and encouraged others to plant a tree in her memory. “She was such an environmentalist, so that seemed like the right way to honor her,” she said.

Ashley works as an aesthetic nurse for plastic surgeon James Apesos, who is planting a magnificent magnolia on his office property on Far Hills Avenue. “I love it that thousands of people will drive by every day and see Chanel’s tree,” Ashley said.

Ashley served as Tori’s sponsor at the Sacrament of Confirmation at St. Charles, and she cried at the announcement that the Confirmation Mass was dedicated to Chanel.

But perhaps the most enduring memorial to Chanel is in the way her loved ones are choosing to live their lives going forward.

“I try to cherish the people in my life even more now,” Molly said.

In his mental conversations with Chanel, AJ asks, “Are you proud of me?”

“She was such a good person, she makes me ask myself, ‘What can I do better as a person?’” he said. “And she was such a competitor; she makes me want to give it my all on the basketball court and in cross country.”

AJ has drawn closer to his mother throughout the painful past year. He drew strong support, too, from his girlfriend, Bailey Sheets, and his close friend Julia Kingseed, who died later last year in a golf cart accident. “I have many friends helping me,” AJ said, “but she is missed every day. If someone is thinking about suicide, I want to tell them you are loved and you are needed. They should try to think of what their family would be missing.”

Ashley hopes to bring her newly-minted nursing degree to the mental health field, in addition to continuing to work with Apesos. “Chanel was a helper, so she will want me to be a helper, too,” she said.

Ashley sometimes holds the urn with Chanel’s ashes and sobs so violently she can barely breathe. “Why would someone so good go away?” she laments.

And yet she believes her daughter will continue to change many lives. “She is not going to be a doctor or a nurse or do missions work, or any of the things she talked about,” Ashley said. “But she is still here; she will do big things. It’s just that now she will be doing big things from above. Every day I hear her say to me, ‘I am with you; I just need you to do the work.’”

How to get help:

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text ‘4HOPE’ to 741-741.