It goes by many names like pass out, blackout, or the choking game. But to bereaved Huntsville mom Charlene Sandel, it's no game.
"I can tell you that it's changed our lives, the entire family," Sandel said. "And it's changed this community forever."
On March 7, 2007, Sandel's son Blake, 15, died playing the choking game. Since 1995, the game has claimed more than 80 young lives.
Most were good kids, like Blake. "He was an officer in 4-H, he was an officer in FFA, he was a member of the Key Club," recalls Sandel. "He volunteered. He helped with the food drive for Good Shepard Mission."
The choking game isn't new. If fact it has been around for decades in one form or another. But it's seeing a resurgence, due in large part to the internet. "Click on YouTube or Google and there are 'how to' videos," said Sandel. "And they're all laughing and having a good time and getting back up and doing it again."
But experts say the videos are misleading. "Kids are often seeing online demonstrations of what they think is the effective way or the most safe way to do this choking game," said Dennis Macha, Texas Education Agency Special Programs Coordinator. "And really when they're falling over on camera and going into convulsions, their brain is slowly dying."
So why would kids want to try this in the first place? Sandel believes peer pressure plays a part. "They began doing this in groups and they like the sensation. They enjoy this euphoric feeling."
Macha said kids also believe the activity is a safer alternative to drugs and alcohol. "They think that it's a safe way to experiment and feel that high without actually doing the substances. In reality, it can actually be just as risky as any of the substances they can use because you can really hurt yourself."
For a local student who has played the choking game, it wasn't about getting high. In fact he didn't know anything about it at all. "We were all just hanging out, listening to music, watching TV and stuff like that and one of my friends was like, 'Hey, pass me out' for no reason whatsoever. And I saw it being done and then we all just kind of took turns doing it."
And the dangerous activity isn't being played only in private. According to another high school student who wishes to remain anonymous, sometimes it's going on right under our noses. "Actually I was in the middle of school in a study hall. Two of my friends knew about it and the rest of us didn't and they were like 'Oh yeah you can choke yourself and you'll pass out for a while and it's really cool'."
Neither of these students play the choking game anymore, thanks to increased awareness. Sandel and Macha are both involved in spreading the word through a group known as GASP: Games Adolescents Shouldn't Play.
For more information about the choking game visit GASP (Games Adolescent
Shouldn't Play) website here.
Macha's main target is schools where the response is often emotional. "Many students were in tears because they knew of someone who was doing this and they were scared for their own loved ones and their friends. So it's good information to have out there about the choking game and it's something that's very deadly and people don't quite know what they're getting into."
For Sandel, it's different. Her motivation is borne out of grief over Blake, and a determination to keep this same tragedy from happening to someone else. "What we're doing, I recognize, is not going to bring our son back. But I know it's going to save a lot of lives."
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