Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a three-part series: (1) Risks and warning factors of teen suicide, (2) Students, school staff and community share devastating impact of suicide, and (3) How to talk to youth about suicide ideation and getting treatment
BY DEBBIE PAGE
At the recent Suicide Prevention Town Hall, Iredell-Statesville Schools’ students and staff and community members shared stories of how suicide has impacted their lives in both live presentations and videos produced for a community outreach effort to combat these senseless deaths, especially among youth.
Three parents talked about their experiences with their child’s suicide or suicide attempt. Ginger Finley, whose son Houston took his life on February 12 of this year, said it was an ordinary day.
Before she left home for a few hours, Finley spoke to Houston, who was eagerly jumping on his virtual studies that morning. She told Houston she would see him at lunch. Instead, she came home to discover the “horror” of her child’s death.
“Something is going on with our kids, our young people, something very tragic and very sad that leaves them the thought of no other solution but to take their life.”
“I would have said no, this could never happen to our family,” said Finley. “It can. I hope it doesn’t. I pray it doesn’t. But I’ve also been told for every one child that completed this . . . there are 25 who have tried.
“I am just not one mother. I’m not just Ginger Finlay. It’s just not my son Houston Finley. He represents 25 other children who have felt backed into a corner with no other choice.”
“I wake up every day, and that’s the first thing I think of. I have to remind myself — Houston’s not here. I feel like I have a hole, a physical hole in my body, that will never grow back, that will never fill in. I miss him. I miss talking to him.”
Scotts Elementary Principal Susan Fail and her husband Matthew lost their son, Dillon, to suicide on June 8, 2020, in Richmond, a few days before he was to return home for his Mooresville High School graduation, earned after completing his course work in January.
“He had no typical warning signs. He wasn’t withdrawn. He called us — I just spoke to him the night before. I think it’s a deeper problem, and in that moment of desperation when he made that decision, that’s where I wish he would have been able to call someone.”
“As parents we didn’t talk to our kids about suicide because it was something that always happened to somebody else, so I just want to make sure that families are equipped to talk to their kids.”
Fail wonders why Dillon didn’t call them. “There was a simple note in his phone that just said ‘let my mom know,” she said.
Coping with Dillon’s death is a daily challenge. “We have good days, we have bad days. One of the first things I thought as a principal was . . . are parents going to want their children to come to my school because I couldn’t do the job for my own kid,” said Fail, weeping.
“Don’t assume like we did that it won’t happen to your kids,” Fail warned. “Talk to your kids about suicide prevention, where to go when you’re in crisis. Talk to them just about what they’re interested in. You know them best. Talk to them to get a sense of where they are mentally, where they are spiritually.”
“If you feel they need help, that’s okay. It’s okay to get counseling, it’s okay to talk to somebody, and as a parent it’s okay to say they are not really responding to me so maybe they should reach out and get some help for those kids,” added Fail.
Parent Susan Tolle’s daughter attempted suicide three times. As a parent, Tolle didn’t know what to do so she researched the issue and came across the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization for which she later became a field advocate.
Tolle sought information and training and fought for her daughter’s well-being. Thankfully, her daughter is now stable, but the road was not easy.
“It took all my strength to ask my daughter, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ You have to ask that question, and you have to be white-knuckled about waiting for that answer. And her answer was yes.”
“When I got that answer, chills went through me, but I had to be strong for her,” said Tolle, who didn’t know the warning signs or risk factors at that point. “I was totally uneducated.”
At first Tolle was angry with her daughter, thinking her selfish to consider suicide to end her pain without considering the consequences on her family. “Instead I should have been putting myself under her skin and realizing that she was doing what she thought was right for me so I wouldn’t have the pain” of dealing with her.
When Tolle did learn the 14 warning signs of suicide, she realized her daughter had all of them. Once she saw the signs, the family got her daughter the counseling and medication she needed to make progress, and the warning signs gradually disappeared.
“She was healing,” said Tolle.
Tolle said the best advice she can give parents of teenagers is to be a super sleuth, even if that means violating teens’ privacy. “Look at the search history on their laptops. Look at what they are looking at on their phones.”
“I read my daughter’s journal. If I had not done that, I might not have my daughter today.”
North Iredell High School student Lindsay Reeves shared that during a tough time in her life, including bullying by a classmate, she tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized for treatment.
The bully told her to kill herself, and Lindsay “was really thinking about it. I went to my mom for help, and I did get help. It just took a toll on my family too. My mom — she got hit really hard.”
Counseling was healing for Lindsay. “I figured out talking to someone and just explaining to them what’s going on does help. I had to learn that the hard way because I kept it to myself. It didn’t help to keep it bottled up.”
To prevent mental health crises, Lindsay advises “just being nice to people. It’s not that hard. Just be nice.”
“They might be going through stuff you don’t know.”
Another student, Austan Adams, suffered the aftermath of her mother’s suicide when Austan was 7. Her mother suffered from mental illness, and Austan has both good and bad memories of her.
“I hold onto them — the good ones — that I have.”
“It’s impacted me in ways you would never imagine. Suicide doesn’t just affect the person that it happens to — it affects all the people around.”
Austan said she and her four siblings have not been in the same room together since her mother’s death. “Growing up without a mom is hard. I have a wonderful stepmom now, and she’s great to me, but you never stop missing them — never.”
“Suicide and mental health is not a joke,” said Austan. “It is a very real thing, and it does affect people’s lives. There are outlets and ways to get help . My mom needed help and didn’t receive the right help.”
“Maybe if she had, she would still be here today.”
Austan has had her own depression struggles but would “never resort to that because of the impact that it’s had on everyone, including me. I could never do that to my family. I couldn’t.”
Austan hopes the stigma associated with mental illness ends. “Everybody struggles with it one way or another,” she said.
Though she did not always have the best attitude about counseling, Austan said she would definitely recommend it to someone struggling with mental health issues. “I really saw the benefit of it. It was very helpful.”
“Sometimes all you need is somebody on the outside of the situation to guide your thoughts and help guide your emotions through it. It’s very easy to get super emotional about things when you’re a part of it.”
“It’s awesome to have someone who’s professional and gone through training and certification and knows what they are doing to help you with all types of things.”
Austan advocates for more societal understanding of the pressures of life and the fast-paced, materialistic world that we live in. “The impact you have on one another and what you say and what you do matters.”
“Everybody needs to be more like that and understand that everyone has their own demons and their own story. We need to treat people with more compassion,” added Austan.
Another NIHS student, Jaz Wright, had suicidal ideation after a friend committed suicide and her brother was sent away to military school. “I felt all alone, and I had nobody here for me.”
“I got really bad anxiety and depression because I rarely ever felt happy. I saw him (the friend), something that a 12- (or) 13-year-old shouldn’t see is somebody dead on the side of the road.”
Wright also advises talking to others and relying on prayer and faith.
“Everything will be okay. It may not ever feel like in the moment, but in the future it will be. I know from experience — it gets better,” Jaz promised.
Student Khalil Voss’s brother fell into depression, refusing to eat or communicate with other family members. “He went to our dad and said he was having suicidal thoughts.”
“I just think that anyone who is suffering with it, they should talk to someone.”
Khalil’s family went to counseling and learned “it’s not going to be like that forever. If you talk to someone, it will make you feel a lot better about yourself and it will open up those doors to where you can actually talk to people, you can trust people, you won’t feel down all the time.”
The Suicide Prevention Town Hall was presented by Iredell-Statesville Schools, Partners Health Management, United Way of Iredell, and the Children’s Hope Alliance.