Hours after Karen Brocklebank's son posted pictures online late last month of his forearm marred with a series of self-inflicted cuts and a threat to kill himself on his 13th birthday, she sat in an uncomfortable emergency room chair, sleepless and in despair.
The Columbia family had spent more than a year in therapy sessions for treatment of Noah's depression. They pleaded with his Howard County school and the parents of his bullies to intervene. But it wasn't until that night in the hospital that Brocklebank came up with an idea that seemed to work like nothing before.
Brocklebank went online and created a website, LettersforNoah.com, and a Facebook page to ask for help in showing her son that he matters and that life after middle school does get better. Soon, the envelopes and packages overwhelmed the tiny Simpsonville post office box that Brocklebank secured.
When his 13th birthday arrived Friday, Noah read a new batch of letters, screened by his parents, from his favorite teachers, cousins, friends and strangers from Baltimore and as far away as Alaska, Ireland, Japan and Australia — 2,000 in all.
Word spread swiftly online with thousands of hits to the website and nearly 12,000 likes on Facebook. And among the letters received in less than two weeks were gifts: manuscripts for a collection of children's books; an offer for flying lessons; a hat with the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Noah's favorite team; gift cards; and origami creations.
There was a letter from one of Noah's favorite elementary school teachers: "I remember you fondly — humorous, smart, creative, fun to be around. … Life gets real good! But you have to get past the hard parts to reach the best parts."
A brightly colored card was postmarked in California with photographs of caterpillars and a message: "I remember how it felt to be bullied and to have a good friend suddenly avoid me. It does get better. People grow up. … Your family loves you and people that have never met you care."
And an aloha from another Noah in Hawaii read, "Please keep your head up. You are obviously the love of your mother's life."
Mental health experts see both benefits and risks in Brocklebank's decision to reveal her son's struggles and identity. Brocklebank acknowledges that her choice to speak publicly is controversial, but it wasn't without deliberation.
Brocklebank said she wants to teach her son that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. And she wanted to harness the power of social media, rather than allow her son to be a victim of it. His bullying and exclusion began on XBox Live, an online feature that allows multiple players to compete and communicate online, and he posted his suicide message on Instagram, where his peers have already seen it.
Brocklebank said she and her husband, David, felt desperate and powerless, disappointed with the response of Noah's school and the parents of the bullies, and fearful that they had done too little too late. They said Noah was called names and purposely left out of games and that boys tried to convince other students not to be his friend.
Always on Noah's parents' minds were high-profile stories of teens who took their own lives, such as Grace McComas, the 15-year-old Glenelg High School sophomore who committed suicide last Easter after severe cyber-bullying.
"My heart has been in a vice," Brocklebank said. "You feel so helpless and angry, and it's just the loneliest place to be."
Christina Calamaro, professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, said a parent needs to evaluate the long-term consequences of documenting a child's most personal details online, especially a fragile child's.
"There is always a dark side of social media," she said.
Continuing professional mental health treatment is paramount, Calamaro said. She also said parents should empower children who are bullied and perhaps unplug them from online outlets.
Ashley Womble, online communications manager for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said Noah may be living in a world different from the one previous generations encountered as adolescents, but the barbs, whether posted online or written on a bathroom wall, are the same.
Womble also said social media can save lives, and Brocklebank has attempted to tap into that potential. Other online movements aimed at assuring teens that life can get better have drawn huge followings.
"Connectedness is one of the very prominent protective factors for suicide prevention," Womble said. "If you have a community of people who love you and give you encouragement, feeling connected and having a sense of community can really help."
Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University, also sees significant value in soliciting outside support and embracing social media. Hinduja said that receiving messages from other youths is one of the most powerful outcomes of Brocklebank's project, which he called innovative.