“I just felt like I didn’t belong.  I didn’t fit in.  I didn’t want to deal with all the pressure and stress anymore.”

Those are the words of 15-year-old Denai’ Wise.  

The Augusta teen knows what not being accepted feels like.  She told NewsChannel 6 she felt that way at 11-years-old when she attempted suicide. 

Wise said, “I tried to grab a knife and cut off my wrists. It didn’t get far.”

Thankfully, Denai’ survived.  But what she was struggling with prevailed.

Many other teens deal with similar thoughts.  As Pride Weekend approaches in Augusta, disturbing new numbers show LGBTQ teenagers face rising suicide rates. Statistics show more of these teens have thoughts of or have attempted suicide compared to other kids.  

In just 6th grade, Denai’ began to research people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer.

“I heard about the community.  I looked more into it an realized I was bisexual and then I turned into a lesbian,” she said.

As she unpacked her authentic self, Denai’ opened up to her mother and friends who now all accept her life.

That support is what Jennifer Rahner said is missing from other kids and leading to the increase in suicides among the LGBTQ group.

“I think the biggest thing here is lack of resources and lack of support,” said Rahner, Shepard Project Co-Founder.  “We do live in a more conservative area of the country and when kids don’t feel like they’re supported on their journey to finding themselves, it can make them feel very alone.”

The Centers for Disease Control reports suicide rates rose across the U.S. between 1999 and 2016.  Those rates increased in Georgia by 16 percent and South Carolina by close to 40 percent.  U.S. leaders point to statistics from the Trevor Project.  LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at three times the rate of their heterosexual youth counterparts.  And those same youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to their peers who are heterosexual.  

“When kids do find us and open up it’s amazing to see the change in them,” said Rahner, who created Shepard Project with her husband as a hangout and safespace for youth ages 14-20 who are LGBTQ in Augusta.  Rahner and her husband meet weekly with the group at Augusta University Summerville from 6-8p to provide support.  

According to data from the 2015 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), of surveyed LGBTQ students:

  • 10% were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property

  • 34% were bullied on school property

  • 28% were bullied electronically

  • 23% of LGBTQ students who had dated or went out with someone during the 12 months before the survey had experienced sexual dating violence in the prior year

  • 18% of LGBTQ students had experienced physical dating violence

  • 18% of LGBTQ students had been forced to have sexual intercourse at some point in their lives

  • According to the 2015 YRBS, LGBTQ students were (12%) more likely to not go to school at least one day during the 30 days prior to the survey because of safety concerns, compared with heterosexual students (5%) = absenteeism = low graduation rates = life-altering consequences

  • Nearly one-third (29%) of LGBTQ youth had attempted suicide at least once in the prior year compared to 6% of heterosexual youth

  • Queer = 40% considered suicide and 35% = planned a suicide attempt in the previous year

  • 15% = straight teens had considered suicide and 12% = planned an attempt

Rahner added that local schools who allow students to start Gay Straight Alliances can be catalyst for change and survival. 

“It actually not only reduces the rates of suicide among the LGBT students, but it reduces the rate of suicide for every student in that school when a GSA is present because it makes the school more accepting of differences,” she explained adding that Shepard Project helps student leaders start GSA clubs at their schools.  

Denai’, who is healing through therapy, wants to start her own GSA at her school in Richmond County. 

“I want to start a club to bring us together more. And there are more gay people in the school.  Now we have middle school in there.  It starts at a younger age,” she said. 

And until that club starts, she has this message for those who have considered suicide.

“Don’t do it.  Don’t.”

We spoke with the President of Augusta Pride.  He told us the organization is taking these suicide rates seriously too.  Shepard Project is just one of the resources Pride shares with its members. Here is a list of all resources.

Shepard Project will hold an open house at AU Summerville in CETC on June 27 following Pride Weekend.  The group works on AU’s schedule and will resume in mid August.

Photojournalist: Gary Hipps

Contributing Intern: Corbin Chube