KRULL: A competition no one wants to win

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John Krull

By John Krull
Special to WTHR.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Matt Davis’s voice softens as he talks about the reason he became involved in youth suicide prevention work.

He says his son Anthony killed himself. The boy was only 18.

Davis, his voice rueful, says he thinks often of the signs he missed that his son was troubled. Withdrawal from friends and family. Detachment from life and activity. Listlessness and moroseness.

Davis, who is with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and I talk over the air with Tami Silverman of the Indiana Youth Institute and Mindi Goodpastor, the public policy director of the Marion County Commission on Youth, about this state’s tragic record regarding suicide. Studies show that 20 percent – one in five – Hoosier young people has given serious consideration to committing suicide.

That puts Indiana near the top of a national list in a category no one wants to lead.

As Davis talks about his son, Silverman and Goodpastor nod their heads in agreement and support, their gazes locked on him in sympathy.

Afterward, they say his story is common.

Too common.

Messages from listeners confirm as much.

One mother sends an email about her son. When he was 16, the boy told a school counselor that he was considering killing himself. The counselor called the mother.

The mother’s story wrenches. She writes about the fear and shame she felt when she got the call. She tells of the battles to get her son the treatment he needed and the steps forward and backward his treatment included. She relates that he tried – unsuccessfully, thank goodness – to kill himself three times.

He’s 24 now, she writes, and leading a healthy and satisfying life. But there are times when she’s in his old room and she comes across an old suicide note. It takes her right back to those moments, days and years of fear and dread.

Davis, Goodpastor and Silverman nod their heads almost in unison.

They have heard it before.

But it still hits home.

They take turns offering comfort and support to the mother. Then they explain that this is the reality of suicide. The fight against it won’t be won in a moment or with a single conversation. The treatment can take years.

And the after effects can linger still longer.

Davis says that suicides have far-reaching effects. Studies have shown that, on average, an individual suicide affects 42 people.

Goodpastor says there are states that have made inroads in combating the problem of youth suicide. They are the states that have government support programs in place, programs that provide suicide-prevention training for adults, such as teachers, coaches and counselors, who work with young people and other services for young people who are troubled.

The states that haven’t had those programs, such as, until recently, Indiana, have higher percentages of teen suicide.

I ask Davis, Goodpastor and Silverman how concerned adults – parents, friends, etc. – who haven’t had professional training should deal with a young person contemplating suicide.

The counsel that comes back is both straight-forward and humane:

  • Pay attention to the young people in your life.
  • Take note of withdrawals from friends, family and the activities of life.
  • If a young person tells you he or she is thinking about suicide, take the threat seriously.
  • Don’t try to minimize or dismiss the young person’s pain or fears.
  • Don’t offer false reassurance by saying everything will be okay.
  • Treat both the young person and the situation with respect and concern.

The most important advice is also the simplest: When young people come to us and say they’re thinking about ending their lives, we have to hear them.

We have to listen.

We have to listen as if lives depend upon us hearing what is said.

Because, Matt Davis says, lives do depend upon it.

Our children’s lives.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” on WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a WTHR newsgathering partner.

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Have Hope is a partnership between WTHR and Community Health Network that promotes awareness and prevention of suicide in Indiana. If you or someone you know might be at risk, please text or call for help. The national 24/7 hotline is (1-800) 273-8255. Locally, you can reach Community Health's Behavioral Health Services at (317) 621-5700. You can also text HELPNOW to 20121.