How Matt Richtel spoke to teens and their parents for this series
In mid-April, I was speaking with the mother of a suicidal teenager whose struggles I have been closely following. I asked how her daughter was.
Not very well, the mother said: “If we can’t find something drastic to help this child, this child will not be here for the long term.” She started crying. “He is out of our hands, he is out of our control,” she said. “We’re trying everything.”
She added, “It’s like waiting for the end.”
During nearly 18 months of reporting, I met scores of teens and their families and interviewed dozens of doctors, therapists, and experts in the science of adolescence. I heard heartbreaking stories of pain and uncertainty. From the beginning, my editors and I discussed how best to handle the identities of people in crisis.
The Times sets a very high bar to ensure the anonymity of sources; our style guide calls it “a last resort” for situations where important information cannot be published otherwise. Sources can often face a threat to their career or even their safety, whether from a vengeful boss or a hostile government.
In this case, the need for anonymity had a different imperative: to protect the privacy of vulnerable young adolescents. They have self-harmed and attempted suicide, and some have threatened to try again. In telling their stories, we had to be aware that our first duty was their safety.
If The Times published the names of these teenagers, they could easily be identified years later. Would that hurt your job opportunities? Would a teenager, a legal minor, later regret exposing her identity during a period of pain and struggle? Would seeing the story published amplify the ongoing crises?
As a result, some teens are identified only by their first initial; some of his parents are identified by name or initial. For months I met M, J, and C, and in Kentucky I met struggling teens that I identified only by their ages, 12, 13, and 15. In some stories, we didn’t publish precisely where the families lived.
Everyone I interviewed gave their own consent, and parents were usually present at interviews with their teens. On some occasions, a parent offered to leave the room or a teen asked for privacy and the parent agreed.
In these articles I heard pain, confusion, and a desperate search for answers. The voices of adolescents and their parents, while protected by anonymity, deepen understanding of this mental health crisis.