After Wanting to Die, Learning to Live

  • COLab is an independent, nonprofit, statewide journalism coalition, media resource hub, and ideas lab. We serve all Coloradans by strengthening high-quality local journalism, supporting civic engagement, and ensuring public accountability.

  • Susan Greene is a reporter, editor and coach for the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab). She was editor and executive director of The Colorado Independent before it merged with COLab and a longtime reporter and metro columnist at The Denver Post. She was selected as a 2020-2021 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, and is the inaugural recipient of the Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grant for Mental Health Investigative Journalism.

  • Marc Piscotty is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Denver. Marc has covered everything from Super Bowls and the Winter Olympics to Columbine, the Aurora theatre shooting and the Democratic National Convention. He was also a part of the staff at the Rocky Mountain News that won two Pulitzer Prizes in breaking news photography and spent an entire year covering post-Columbine life in high school with reporter Tina Griego.

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Navee Essien has grown up keenly aware of her gifts. 

More times than she can count, people have reminded the senior at Aurora’s Rangeview High how fortunate she is to have a close family and strong support system, academic and athletic talent, ease making friends, and the kind of smarts, beauty and confidence that make people say damn, no way that girl is 17.

By those measures, she knows she is approaching adulthood with advantages lots of kids don’t have. She also knows those advantages could not prevent a string of traumas from interrupting her coming of age, and they were not enough to protect her from a despair so deep in November that she tried to end her life.

“I was tired of feeling miserable and being told I shouldn’t, tired of crying and stressing everyone out, and I didn’t have ways of handling it,” she says. “I felt like I didn’t belong on this earth anymore and that it would be really easier just to die.”

There are lots of reasons not to write about a teenage suicide attempt, especially one as recent as two months ago. Doing so, some adults may argue, could shame Navee now or haunt her later. At a time when teen suicide and suicide attempts have shaken communities from the Eastern Plains to the mountain valleys, some fear that news coverage may inspire copycats. 

Navee isn’t buying it. She is speaking out – with support from her mother and therapist – partly because she grew up fighting for the mentally ill, and partly because she thinks her story might help.

“Maybe I can save someone from what I went through, from what my mom went through,” she says. “And if I can do that, I think it would help me.”

“I am choosing not to see myself as sick,” says Navee Essien, 17, of Aurora, Co. “I see myself as someone who is trying.” (Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2021)

This isn’t the first time Navee has been interviewed for a news story. That was in 2015 after deputies at the Denver City Jail killed her uncle Michael Marshall, 50, 0verreacting to a nonviolent crisis triggered by his paranoid schizophrenia. Navee, who was 12 at the time, her family, and a determined band of friends and activists took to the streets, marching for justice. The family kept advocating for the rights of those living with mental illness even after accepting a $4.65 million city settlement that prompted sweeping policy changes to protect mentally vulnerable inmates.

Another of Navee’s uncles and two of her aunts died around the time of Michael Marshall’s death, then one of her closest friends was killed in a gang shooting. Afraid and in mourning, her mom, nurse Natalia Marshall, moved from Denver to a safer neighborhood in Aurora, transferring her two girls to schools where they didn’t know anyone. Then, in a span of one month in 2019, Navee was diagnosed with a kidney disease that runs in her family, her great-grandmother died, and her father, Eno Essien, was fatally shot while being robbed in Denver.

“That was the beginning of my big decline mental-health-wise,” she says.

Navee started flashing back to the blood stains on her father’s kitchen floor and to video images of deputies suffocating her uncle. She started skipping school, and as her grades fell, her mom took away her cell phone and pulled her out of the pom team, the one activity that still motivated her. She lost friends because of it and stopped speaking to people who saw her breakdown as a “way to get attention” and urged her to simply “get over it.” She wasn’t sleeping, showering, brushing her teeth or cleaning her room. And she lost interest in eating, in spending time with her family.

The one therapist with whom she made some progress retired, making Navee reluctant to open up to another. A doctor prescribed an antidepressant that increased her risk of suicidal thoughts. Then 2020 rolled in, and with it COVID, social isolation, political upheaval with racist undertones, and mass uprisings against the kind of excessive force that led to her uncle Michael’s homicide. Navee says she was too deep in her own struggles to pay much attention, but knows her mom and extended family were stressed out by those events and by her downward spiral.

“My family was saying, ‘You have a big support system’ and thought they were supporting me. But they have been through a lot and they were stressed in their own ways and didn’t know how to deal with me.”

On Nov. 13, Navee closed her bedroom door and slashed her wrists. Her mom found her. A trip to the ER led to a transfer to Highlands Behavioral Health, a psychiatric hospital for youth that, in five days, diagnosed her with bipolar, anxiety and major depressive disorders. 

If you’re struggling, help is available on Colorado’s crisis hotline. Call 1-844-493-TALK(8255)

She’s on four medications now and, while they stabilize her moods, they also seem to muffle them, making her feel emotionless. “You’re so used to overreacting that you wonder if that’s normal.”

Still, Navee found meaningful help at Highlands.

“They didn’t belittle me. They talked to me like I was a real person. They made my opinions relevant and made me understand that what was happening was about brain chemistry and trauma, not something I did wrong or deserved.”

If people learn anything from her story, she hopes it’s that “things like being pretty or smart or well-spoken are not mental health attributes,” nor are they some sort of karmic insurance against trauma and its consequences.

“They don’t stop a chemical imbalance in your brain. They didn’t stop my father from passing away, didn’t stop my aunts from passing away, didn’t stop my friends from dropping me, aren’t going to fix any broken relations with my family members,” she says. “It’s a lot deeper than that.”

She is back in school now, working a part-time job, seeing a therapist every week and living with a friend. Her mom, Natalia, says letting her go right now is “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” and also one of the most necessary.

Navee knows she will need to manage her mental health for the rest of her life and that some days she will be more successful than others. 

“I am choosing not to see myself as sick,” she says. “I see myself as someone who is trying.” 

This story is part of a statewide reporting project from the Colorado News Collaborative called On Edge. This project is supported in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Reporting and a grant honoring the memory of the late Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal. Our intent is to foster conversation about mental health in a state where stigma runs high.