CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Photos of 13-year-old Sophia Studer fill her parents, Shane and Michelle’s, Chesterfield County home.
"She was usually the tallest in the room with the biggest smile and would do anything for anyone," Michelle explained.
The five-foot-nine Matoaca Middle Schooler was an athlete, honors student and loved music.
“She was teaching herself some piano, and we got her guitar," Shane said. "She wanted an electric guitar with an amp and all that kind of stuff to begin with."
But the beautiful, talented girl the world saw on the outside wasn’t the reality Sophia felt inside.
"She started self-harming," Michelle tearfully explained. "And it was the school counselor who brought us into that. She ended up going to a trusted teacher. She struggled with mental illness, and it looked like depression and anxiety. We had seen a couple of different pediatricians, and she was on two wait lists for counselors."
The demand nationwide for counselors has skyrocketed during the pandemic. While waiting for a counselor, the Studers took Sophia to a psychiatrist.
"She was given some antidepressants," said Michelle. "But I'm sure everybody's aware that there's a formula to it, that you've just got to figure out over time."
On January 8, 2021, the Studers ran out of time.
"She couldn't see past a moment of hopelessness, and she took her life and she died by suicide," said her mom.
Sophia isn’t alone. In fact, in the first three quarters of 2021, the Children's Hospital Association reports the number of suicide and self-injury cases was 182% higher among nine to 12-year-olds than they were for the same period in 2016.
When children turn 13, experts say the suicide rate increased dramatically.
"We're actually paying a little more attention and giving it more attention," said Shirley Ramsey, board member of the Virginia chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and a retired school counselor.
Ramsey now offers a course for Henrico and Chesterfield parents called “More Than Sad,” educating them on the warning signs and risk factors of mental illness.
“You know, what are the things that you see that are in place? Is there a history in the family? Is there a history of behaviors that show that someone is struggling?," Ramsey explained.
If you notice concerning behavior in your child and struggle to find help because there is such high demand for counselors, Ramsey said persistence is often key.
“I believe to keep going, keep looking through, get in touch with your community resource board, your mental health centers," she noted. "You can even call the lifeline 1-800-273-8255, and they can direct you to resources in your community."
The Studers have made it their mission to ensure families have access to lifesaving information.
"There are resources out there that I wasn't even aware of," said Michelle. “I wish I could have done more, and that's something that I have to live with for the rest of our lives. And I don't ever want another parent to feel that way, that they didn't know.”
While their precious daughter is no longer here, the Studers find joy in knowing Sophia’s story is saving lives.
"The #DoItForSophia has gone around, and I am telling you it's been this ripple effect that so many people have come out of the woodwork and come out of those dark corners in their homes to say me too, I struggle with this too. Or my kid struggles with this too," Michelle explained.
More than a year since her death, Sophia’s room is just how she left it, makeup on the counter and photos slowly starting to fall from the beige walls. But this space gives Michelle and Shane comfort.
They want their story to serve as a reminder that suicide is real, and no one is in the fight alone.
"My daughter is whole," said Michelle. "She's unbroken. And she's with Jesus. And there is hope. There is hope."
The Studers will hold the second annual Walk in the Light 5K in honor of Sophia’s 15th birthday at the Highlands Country Club starting at 4 p.m. (The event was originally planned for Saturday, but was rescheduled to Sunday because of the weather.)
There will be booths with resources for suicide prevention, and the family is hoping to raise money to start the "Walk in the Light” foundation in Sophia's memory.