by KELSEY CIPOLLA | photos courtesy of KEEP THE SPARK ALIVE FOUNDATION
Sometimes you choose a cause, and, sometimes, tragically, a cause chooses you. That was the case for Sylvia and Nathan Harrell, whose teenage son, Chad, died by suicide on June 12, 2017.
“When Chad died, our first innate reaction was that we wanted to dig a hole and we wanted to curl up in a ball and bury ourselves in that hole as deep as we possibly could,” Nathan says. “But we also knew, based on what we were going through, that we would not be able to lay our heads on our pillow at night if we did not do something to help.”
Through their Keep the Spark Alive Foundation, the Harrells are honoring their son’s memory while raising funds for suicide awareness and prevention initiatives. The foundation’s inaugural golf tournament in May raised more than $150,000 for the Blue Valley School District’s K–12 resiliency and suicide prevention and awareness curriculum. The family also started a support group for teens who have lost a loved one to suicide.
Unfortunately, the Harrells are just one of many local families whose lives have been touched by suicide. Missouri and Kansas are ranked 13th and 15th in the nation when it comes to states with the most deaths by suicide, and the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics show suicide rates are on the rise.
SUICIDE AND TEENS
In recent years, suicide among teens has become particularly prevalent – between 2006 and 2016, there was an almost 70-percent increase. In addition to the program at Blue Valley, a growing number of schools are also incorporating Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City’s You Be You campaign, developed in collaboration with Bernstein-Rein Advertising.
The campaign is designed to reach teens with a positive message of self-worth and value and includes a website with resources, school-specific videos, social media, posters, stickers, T-shirts, and more. Student organizations at each of the schools help roll out the campaign and host events that align with its message, says Sarah Link Ferguson, Jewish Family Service’s mental health coalition coordinator.
“We want students to really establish buy-in and become advocates for other classmates who they see are struggling,” she says.
You Be You launched last year at 13 schools on both sides of the state line and will be in 23 schools this fall. One of the biggest takeaways from focus groups conducted during the first year was the need for programming and resources for parents. Students said they were comfortable talking about mental health among their peers but were afraid to talk to adults, including their parents, because they didn’t necessarily seem to want to hear it or know how to respond.
Link Ferguson is now working to develop resources for parents with program partner Speak Up, a local foundation created by two families who lost loved ones to suicide that works to bridge the gaps between community, schools, and parents.
Rennie Shuler-McKinney, director of clinical services at Shawnee Mission Health’s Behavioral Health Center, encourages parents to start having conversations with their kids early, to create an environment where they feel comfortable telling you what’s going on.
“Teenagers, just as their brains are developing, don’t have that ability to really think down the road into the future,” she explains. “They see the here and now as the absolute.”
Although it can be difficult for people struggling to see any hope, Shuler-McKinney says those who do seek help are able to find relief from some of their symptoms.
Kevin Timmons, co-owner of Nick & Jake’s, wants to better connect local youths to mental health resources, after his son, Nick, the restaurant’s namesake, died by suicide last year, Timmons and company created the Nick’s Voice Fund, which aims to create a dramatic effect on the suicide rates in the Kansas City area. Through Nick & Jake’s annual golf fundraiser, Fore the Kids, more than $450,000 was raised, funding immediate psychiatric help at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
“We wanted to try to put kids in a position where there’s a better chance to talk to psychiatrists about their problems,” he says.
FINDING SUPPORT, FIGHTING STIGMA
One of the biggest barriers to suicide prevention and awareness continues to be that suicide is so stigmatized. “When we don’t talk about something, we can’t change something; we can’t make something better,” says Kevin McGuire, the mobile crisis response team leader for Johnson County Mental Health Center and co-chair of the Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition.
Although deaths by suicide receive attention immediately after they happen, McGuire would like to see conversations and preventative efforts happening beyond crises. Creating opportunities for those conversations is the focus of the Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition, which serves as a hub for suicide prevention in Johnson County and the broader community, working to provide education and resources and to help remind people that suicide happens here, whether we like it or not.
Local support is also available for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Bonnie and Mickey Swade founded Suicide Awareness Survivor Support (SASS) after they lost their son Brett in 2003. Although they found attending a support group helpful, they decided to start their own specifically for those who have lost loved ones through suicide. Today, there are groups throughout the metro.
“A suicide support group is not like just a grief support group, because when you lose someone from suicide, you have all kinds of questions: ‘What could have happened?’ ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘How could I have stopped the suicide?’ You have more questions, I think, than someone who has lost a loved one from cancer or some other disease,” Bonnie says.
In addition to the support groups, SASS hosts events like Hope for the Holidays and an annual day of healing to provide therapeutic opportunities for survivors of suicides.
“You never really get over the loss,” Bonnie says, “but you get through it.”