In 1995, our 14-year-old son, Jake, died by suicide. In the aftermath of grieving, we desperately wanted to save other parents from the nightmare and profound heartache of losing a child to depression and suicide. We offered both Cotter and Winona Senior High the opportunity to host a speaker on mental illness and suicide, and offered to pay the cost of the speaker.
Cotter, where Jake was a freshman, accepted, and there was a very lightly attended event. Winona High declined, saying that they didn’t want to take the risk of “copy cat” suicides. Both of our daughters are WSHS graduates.
Seventeen years later, in 2012, two Winona Senior High School students have died by suicide. The grief, the fear, and the questions have not changed since 1995. But this time, the reaction of the school has changed. On Monday night, there was a Mental Health Fair that offered the opportunity to learn about signs of mental illness and resources available, after which Ryan McKelley of UW-La Crosse spoke in the WSHS auditorium about suicide.
There were a little over 50 people in the auditorium.
After the presentation, an audience member asked if the speaker was surprised that so few were in attendance, given recent events. McKelley said perhaps the low turnout was because the issue was hard to talk about, and to which there is still much stigma attached.
McKelley’s presentation was factual, and he took the audience through statistics on trends, lists of risk factors, signs of depression, and hope for treatment and prevention of mental illness and suicide.
He told the audience that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the broad population, but it is the third leading cause of death among young people aged 15-24. Accidents, mostly car crashes, are the leading cause of death, followed by homicides. The hopeful news is that the rate of suicide is dropping.
There is treatment available, he stressed.
After his talk, McKelley entertained questions from the audience. It was clear that there were many there who already had experience with depression and suicide, and had been looking not for statistics or a Powerpoint presentation, but help in understanding why their children, spouses, family members, and friends suffer from depression or have died by suicide.
Several people said they were grateful for the school’s attention to suicide, but wanted more. They wanted more acknowledgement of the boys who had died, more chance to talk about what could have been done and what needs to be done to prevent further deaths.
Others referred, as the speaker had done, to the stigma attached to mental illness and suicide. They wondered what could be done to help mental illness gain the attention (and accompanying funding of research by government and private entities), plus the widespread popular activism associated with, say, breast cancer. It has to start with us, said McKelley.
People wanted to know how to tell if a person is simply grieving or moody, or needs immediate help. They wanted to know in practical terms how to approach a loved one about suicidal thoughts, and what questions to ask that wouldn’t drive the person away.
They wanted to know what to do with their grief. Is it going to go away? What about guilt? What can we do?
One woman asked if kids were taught anything about mental illness and suicide in school. She said she often received notes telling her when children would be hearing about sexually transmitted diseases and other sensitive subjects, but never had been notified that the subject was mental illness or suicide. If she had been, she said, it would have been an opportunity to talk to her kids about it. School personnel responded that there was a mental health unit in tenth grade health classes.
I can’t say that the event was completely satisfying. In fact, people left with more questions than answers. But it was a good start, and high school personnel should be given thanks for seeing the need for something to happen.
I hope that one of the things that happens is that teachers and counselors there, and at other schools in this and other districts, are listening. I hope they all get training in mental health and suicide issues. I hope they hear that parents want to be involved in talking about mental health and suicide—that parents are scared out of their wits and need collaboration with the schools. I hope they hear that they have an opportunity to bring mental health and suicide out of tenth grade health class into the general education conversation, where it can perhaps bring the issues out of the dark ages and into the light of day.
Nothing will bring our sons back. But we don’t want others to go through what we have. It is a loss from which you never recover. Like losing a limb, we live, but never the same way. The phantom pain is with us always; there is no cure. Let’s find a cure for mental illness and bring the suicide statistics down to zero and keep it there.
To see the Powerpoint presentation in PDF form, go to http://tinyurl.com/10-8wshspp.
For more information on mental illness, including depression, suicide, suicidal thoughts and their treatment:
• Crisis Connection http://www.crisis.org/
• Mental Health Consumer/Survivor Network of Minnesota http://www.mhcsn.org/
• Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health http://www.macmh.org/
• Minnesota Suicide Prevention Resource Center http://www.sprc.org/states/minnesota
• Crisis Services offered through Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center, call 507-454-4341 or 1-800-657-6777 to speak with a counselor
OR IF AN EMERGENCY, CALL 911