Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a special project by the Mid-Valley Newspapers exploring the issue of youth suicide in the mid-valley. The next part in the series is scheduled to appear in early May. Previous installments can be read at the websites democratherald.com and gazettetimes.com.
The anniversary is over. The birthday has passed. But days still come when Jody Bledsoe needs to go in her room and remind herself that her daughter’s death was not her fault.
She knows it’s natural to feel that way; to wonder if somehow, some way, she could have kept Jordyn, 13, from taking her life.
Friends and family pushed hard, she remembers. “Why? Why?” they asked. “Read through her stuff. Find the reason.”
And she remembers her response, the same then as it is now: We will never know why. And there probably is no single reason.
“A lot of people were trying to find someone to blame,” the Lebanon woman says. “And that doesn’t help.”
Suicide is currently the second-highest cause of death among Oregonians ages 15 to 34, after car crashes.
Jordyn was among five young people in Linn or Benton county who died by suicide in 2012, and the mid-valley has lost at least six others since.
Rep. Sara Gelser of Corvallis successfully sponsored legislation this year to put more emphasis on research and intervention efforts for young people in crisis.
In the wake of three more deaths in the first part of this year — affecting West Albany High and the Albany Options Schools (one victim attended both), Crescent Valley High School and Oregon State University — school, health and community service officials are struggling with what more they can and should do.
Mental health specialists say it’s good to ask those questions. However, they caution, Bledsoe has the right idea: We may never know why, and there probably isn’t a single reason.
No sole cause
Jon Garlinghouse is a semiretired Eugene-based therapist who writes and consults on the subject of suicide. He estimates roughly 30 percent of his counseling work over three decades has related to suicide, either by working with people grieving a loss or with those struggling with suicidal thoughts.
The Corvallis School District asked Garlinghouse to organize a community forum this past December following youth deaths in Albany and Philomath. In a recent phone interview, he reiterated some of the most common myths and what his research has taught him is the real story.
Suicide can leave survivors with particularly intense feelings of guilt and responsibility, accompanied by anger and deep pain, he says. “It’s then compounded by this confusion, and these huge question marks, like, why? How did this happen?”
The first thing to understand about a suicide, Garlinghouse says, is its complexity. While a single event may become the tipping point, it isn’t the whole cause.
“You don’t go from a healthy, well-adjusted state to killing yourself,” he says. “In fact, with a few specific exceptions, suicide is a long-term process. Usually by the time there’s a suicide, they’ve been working on it in their mind for quite some time. It’s not unusual for it to be years, even with a high school-age person.”
A person contemplating suicide sometimes moves into planning the details of the act, maybe even going so far as to experiment with pills or with handling a weapon.
The more specific the planning, “the further down the line they are,” Garlinghouse says. The key, he said, is to “pick people up before they reach the edge of the cliff.”
The world has yet to nail down a foolproof way to figure out how to do that, or sometimes even how to determine who’s getting close. Garlinghouse recommends staying in communication, making sure trust and rapport are established, and taking seriously any indication the person has suicidal thoughts.
Then, he says, it’s time to call in a mental health specialist.
If a person you loved were trapped by a lion, he explains, you wouldn’t go out to capture that lion with whatever happened to be in your garage. Suicide, too, “is going to require professional intervention.”
At 30, married and working full time, Sean Silverii is technically an outsider at West Albany High School.
But the First Assembly of God student life pastor moves through the hallways each Wednesday with familiar ease. In jeans and black Pumas, he draws few curious glances.
One girl compliments him on his knit beanie. “Bad hair day,” he explains. “You know how it goes.”
After more than two years of visits, many students know “Pastor Sean” and seek him out to say hello. As a youth pastor, he says, he figures the best way to reach young people is to understand life on their home turf. He doesn’t preach, just chats and listens.
“I want to get into their world,” he says, “understand what their pressures are. One of the best ways to do that is to be where they are most of the time.”
On this particular Wednesday, Silverii and the students exchange high-fives and talk basketball. It’s lunchtime; noisy, crowded, friendly — nothing like the immediate aftermath of the two deaths West Albany has experienced this school year.
West senior Hannah Chilton, who belongs to Silverii’s youth group at First Assembly, was close friends with the teen who took her life last fall. Classmates, she remembers, were shocked into silence by the news.
“The halls were quiet. People in class were quiet,” she says. “Like the world came crashing down. It was awful.”
Silverii was among the people available for students to talk with tha t day. Some did, he recalls. He understands the desperate need for answers but says he doesn’t pretend to have them.
When trauma strikes in any form, Silverii says, he turns to two Bible verses in particular: Romans 8:28, which states that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, and John 16:33, in which Jesus reminds people that although in this world there will be trouble, He has overcome the world.
When people are questioning, it’s natural to want to run, Silverii tells teens. But running still ends at a destination. Growing up in California, he saw friends run to drugs, to alcohol, to money, or to other people just as flawed as themselves.
“You’re not going to outrun your troubles,” he says. “All those things are fickle. All those things will fade.”
Like Garlinghouse, Silverii stresses communication. If you’re struggling with depression, he urges, reach out. Tell a teacher, a coach, a church leader. Don’t try to take it on yourself.
“When we have questions and not a lot of answers, are we going to lean into Jesus or are we going to run from him?” he asks. “The biggest help is leaning into Jesus. We’re stronger together. You’re never meant to go through life alone.”
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School districts throughout the mid-valley mobilize trauma teams following a loss, making counselors available to speak with students and providing information on mental health resources.
In Corvallis, school district officials formed a regional anti-suicide task force following the Crescent Valley death. Chris Hawkins, a teacher on special assignment with the district’s student services office, sent an email inviting agencies to participate in a community-wide response plan both for prevention and “postvention,” which refers specifically to intervention following a suicide to help prevent others from following suit.
“Teenagers are the age group most susceptible to imitating suicidal behavior, and a plethora of significant research has shed light on the very real problem of contagion often not recognized by communities due to lack of awareness or desire to face the problem,” Hawkins wrote. “How to identify those who may be most vulnerable in the aftermath of a suicide and how to address their needs are key.”
The group outlined a number of goals, including providing additional school counseling, organizing community awareness events and purchasing new types of prevention programs that can be used by teachers, churches and community leaders.
Members are now dividing into smaller groups to work on the goals.
One goal was to make sure students leaving for spring break were aware of walk-in centers for crisis counseling that would be open each day during the weeklong vacation. That was accomplished, Hawkins said.
At West, Hannah Chilton says she appreciated two school actions following the December death: Silverii’s presence and the way the school acknowledged her classmate’s loss. For instance, she said, the school held a memorial ceremony following that Friday’s football game.
“It was nice to know we were celebrating the life she had and how much she meant to us,” Chilton says.
Suicide affects an entire community, Chilton says, and it doesn’t help to minimize the loss or refuse to talk about it. She believes that just leads to further bottling of feelings. “You have to tell people how you feel so you can heal.”
That said, she believes schools could do more.
For instance, she says, just having trauma counselors on hand does nothing for students who may not be comfortable expressing their vulnerability to strangers. She suggests introducing someone over time, like Silverii, so students will have a familiar face to turn to in times of crisis.
“I don’t know if they’d understand exactly where I’m coming from if they don’t know me personally,” she explains.
Information about the dangers of drinking, eating disorders and even texting while driving all are common topics at school, but Chilton says she doesn’t hear much there about suicide prevention. Health classes could hit harder on the subject, she says, and special events, such as a regular Healthy Teens Week, could incorporate information on depression and suicidal thoughts.
She says she does see an emphasis on treating others with kindness, a lesson she took particularly to heart after her friend’s death.
“Pastor Sean said never underestimate the power of a smile,” she says.
In Lebanon, Jody Bledsoe says she appreciates schools’ renewed attention to anti-bullying campaigns. She restricts access to social media sites for the other children in the family, and monitors their text messages and online video games for signs of cyberbullying.
She remembers a picture Jordyn drew of a girl with bandages wrapped around her, surrounded by various slurs, such as “fat” and “bitch.” “Don’t think it doesn’t matter,” she wrote.
Bledsoe now wears a charm bracelet bearing the phrase, an anonymous gift from someone she’s sure knew her daughter well.
“People try to make her the poster child for anti-bullying, and I’m OK with that,” she says. “Nobody should be picked on.”
But that said, she adds, it’s a mistake to look for one particular person or action to explain Jordyn’s death. When some of Jordyn’s friends turned on a fellow student they believed bore some responsibility, Bledsoe stepped in. She still invites Jordyn’s friends over from time to time, including the fellow student.
“I tried to make sure she knows I don’t blame her,” she says.
Terrible things can happen to a person and not everyone takes his life, Bledsoe says. “Trying to find the actual why ...”
She stops and shrugs. “I don’t think there’s a ‘why.’”
Not a ‘choice’
Few hard and fast “whys” exist for any facet of human behavior, as far as Garlinghouse is concerned. “We think we’ve figured it out and then we find new theories,” he says. “We may never completely command the knowledge of human behaviors.”
In his practice, Garlinghouse says he commonly hears people talking about suicide as a “choice,” and then usually characterizing it as either courageous or cowardly.
That’s a dangerous practice, he says, because it characterizes suicide as a rational decision.
“The idea that this is a ‘choice,’ from a range of choices, and you just happen to pick this one, isn’t true,” he says. “A person who is acutely suicidal doesn’t experience a range of choices to pick from.”
People on the verge of taking their lives have tunnel vision, often colored by desperation, he says. They are not thinking rationally. They may even twist the knowledge of people who love and depend on them into the belief those people would be better off somehow if they were gone.
“When I teach about suicide, I say this is a mistake. It’s neither courageous nor cowardly. It is, however, a tragic mistake,” Garlinghouse says.
“The mistake is to think there is no other alternative, that this is only thing you can do. And that’s never true.”
In Lebanon, Jody Bledsoe knew her daughter was unhappy. She was sleeping a lot and having mood swings. Bledsoe worried, but also figured it was general teen angst.
Several months before Jordyn took her life, Bledsoe found a note near her computer detailing some of her suicidal thoughts.
Jordyn brushed it off as a written catharsis, a way of blowing off steam that didn’t really mean anything, but Bledsoe brought her to a counselor anyway. Jordyn insisted to the counselor that her mother was overreacting. When Bledsoe asked about medication, the counselor said it didn’t seem necessary.
Bledsoe wanted to agree. “Nobody wants to believe their kid would do that. Nobody wants to believe that their kid would ever feel that badly about their own life,” she says.
She stresses to other families to take their children seriously, to keep communication lines open, to get help whenever necessary. No matter what, she says, it is critical to try.
“And then,” she says simply, “you have to also understand that it may not make a difference.”
Jennifer Moody can be reached at 541-812-6113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.