Suicide prevention awareness: "There is always help”
Note: September is Suicide Awareness Prevention Month. Anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or (785) 841-2345. You can also get connected to the Crisis Text Line by texting KANSAS to 741 741.
Jordan Ott came into his dad’s bedroom. It was 3 in the morning.
Jordan, left, and Elwood Ott hold a painting of Isaiah from when he was around 10 years old. The artist was Steven Grounds.
“Mom keeps calling,” Jordan told his dad, Elwood. “She’s crying.”
When Elwood called his ex-wife, she told him the news. Their son, Isaiah, had killed himself. He was 16.
That was June 6, eight years ago. Younger brother Jordan was 11 at the time. He’s 19 now.
“The day itself is always kind of a roller coaster of emotions, that it’s another year,” Elwood said. “As much as it makes me upset or sad, I still look back on those times with him and it makes me smile.”
Isaiah would have celebrated his 25th birthday on Aug. 25.
“I was told that loved ones live on in our hearts and are always around. I believe it,” Elwood said in a Facebook post he wrote on Isaiah’s birthday. “This healing journey hasn’t been easy, yet doing the work has been worth it.”
For Elwood, the healing journey is an ongoing process.
“Honestly, I didn’t do it the healthiest way early on; I just buried my feelings, stayed busy and wouldn’t allow myself to process it. It eventually weighed me down and took its toll on me,” Elwood said. “Counseling has helped. Journaling has helped. Exercise has helped. Reaching out to people has helped. Also, reflecting on and embracing the good times. That’s what has helped me survive.”
The loss of his brother motivated Jordan to reach out to others who may be hurting. Jordan organized a fundraiser walk in March 2019 in memory of his brother to raise awareness about suicide. Jordan was a junior in high school at the time. About 300 people attended the event at the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence Teen Center. Organizations like the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ were part of the event. Jordan is a group leader at the Boys and Girls Club Teen Center; Elwood works for the Boys and Girls Club of America.
“The event was just a way to carry on his name and to give back to my community,” Jordan said. “After losing my brother, I just wanted to let people know they are not alone. You never know what somebody might be going through. It’s OK to feel how you feel. Life can be hard, but there is always help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.”
“The more I talk about it, the more therapeutic it is.”
Amy Wempe Douglass, husband Jeremy, and son Dodge visit Hayleigh’s gravesite.
The annual Douglas County Free Fair in August was always an important time for Hayleigh Wempe, a member of the Palmyra 4-H Club, who used to show her sheep during the livestock competition at the fair.
This year was different. Speaking to a group of 4-H’ers, Amy Wempe Douglass, Hayleigh’s mom, shared a message her cousin Holly Swearingen, a behavioral health specialist at the Bert Nash Center, helped write:
“HQ (Hayleigh Quinn) had been struggling with depression and lost the fight to suicidal thoughts. There is a misconception that if we talk about depression and suicide, we are pushing those thoughts and actions into their head. That is not true. The more we talk to each other and our kids about those sad or scary thoughts the more help they can get to work through those inaccurate thoughts and win the battle. Everyone at some point in time has had a dark or depressed thought. Luckily most can fight it and know that the thoughts are inaccurate. However, not everyone, especially kids, are able to process what is going on in their mind. That’s why I strongly urge you to talk to your kids and each other about the sad things we think so they realize no one is alone.”
Hayleigh died by suicide on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021. She was 15 and a freshman at Baldwin High School and a member of the wrestling, volleyball and softball teams.
“I wanted people to know what happened,” said Amy, who is a nurse. “I always said I was never ashamed of Hayleigh in life, and I was not going to be ashamed of the way she died.”
Amy said Hayleigh had engaged in self-harm behaviors before and had been seeing a therapist. Amy used to have frank conversations with Hayleigh about her mental health.
“Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems. I don’t know where I heard that, but I remember telling Hayleigh that very thing,” Amy said. “I wanted to try and normalize mental health for her. I told her there was no shame in talking about it.”
Amy has been upfront when talking with Hayleigh’s friends.
“I found out after the fact that on social media Hayleigh had made some veiled threats about hurting herself,” Amy said. “The night she took her life she made suicidal threats. None of her friends told anybody. I know there was a lot of guilt. I told them, this was a decision that Hayleigh made, and nobody but Hayleigh made, but she made it on wholly false information, just untruths about herself. It was important for those kids to understand it had nothing to do with them.”
Amy said talking about her daughter’s death is helpful with her own healing process. She also hopes it will bring mental health out in the open and help others who may be struggling.
“The more I talk about it, the more therapeutic it is for me,” Amy said. “I also think it’s important for her friends to see where her head was. She made this decision based on things they know were patently untrue. If we can stop anybody else from making this same choice, being open and talking about Hayleigh’s story will be worth it.”
Mental well-being is just as important as physical well-being
Growing up, mental health wasn’t a topic that was talked about in Yasil Lopez’s home.
“To be honest topics such as suicide within Latin households are considered to be taboo because we have managed to convince ourselves it is nonexistent within our community,” Yasil said. “Growing up I witnessed the adults in my life convince each other that if they were not happy with their life it was because they were not working hard enough. At that point in my life, I was convinced that the only type of pain I was allowed to feel was if it involved physical injury.”
As she grew older, Yasil couldn’t escape the reality that mental well-being was just as important as physical well-being.
“In middle school I learned that self-harm was a way to cope with stress, in high school I learned about the impact that suicide has on a body of students after the loss of a classmate, and after my first year of college, I learned that anyone can struggle with thoughts of suicide including myself,” Yasil said. “There are various factors in my life that led me to realize it is OK to talk about not being OK and I can say that one of those factors was KSPHQ.”
KSPHQ is Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ, formerly called Headquarters.
“With all honesty my motivation for volunteering at KSPHQ came from wanting to develop counseling skills that would allow me to gain experience helping people in crisis before finishing my degree in psychology at KU,” Yasil said. “However, once I finished my training, what kept me motivated to continue being involved at KSPHQ was the safe environment that they have established for both the callers and counselors. Volunteering at KSPHQ has further solidified my feelings that the only way to abolish the stigma and shame that is attached to topics such as mental health and suicide is to openly talk about them.”
It takes courage for people to call and reach out for help
When Auw Sheen was looking for a volunteer opportunity, some people recommended KSPHQ, better known as HQ.
“I had no deep personal connections to suicide, nor did I really have any plans to stay with HQ long term,” said Auw, who is Chinese. “After completing the training and taking multiple shifts, I realized that the skills I learned were not only good for just crisis and suicide intervention, but they were good life skills in general. These skills taught me how to be a supportive partner, a good listener, and really taught me to see the best in everyone.”
Since starting as a volunteer, Auw has logged almost 700 hours in the call room and has been hired as a training coordinator for HQ.
“My life has definitely been heavily influenced by HQ and I am thankful every day that I stayed with it,” he said.
It takes courage for people to call and reach out for help.
“I think people may underestimate how difficult it can be to open up, ask for help, and be extremely vulnerable to a stranger on the phone,” Auw said. “I've gotten countless calls where the caller hangs up right at the beginning; sometimes it may take a caller a couple of tries before they're ready to talk to us. Especially with calls that are more intense due to a severe crisis or strong suicidal ideation/intent, I always want to tell the caller how brave it was for them to call us and acknowledge how difficult it must have been for them to pick up the phone and reach out for help.”
For Auw, the work of being a counselor for a suicide prevention hotline has proven to be very meaningful.
“There's the obvious aspect I think anyone would enjoy which is helping fellow community members. I think it goes without saying that it feels pretty good when we hear from callers how much of a positive impact we make on their lives,” Auw said. “The other aspect I really find meaningful about this work is that it's pretty unifying for all people. A lot of issues can feel very polarizing, depending on who you talk to, but suicide prevention is one of those things that affects everyone, therefore it's a shared goal across most, if not all, groups of people regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, political views, etc. As I've gotten older, it feels pretty rare to have a goal that has such unified support.”
“He knew we loved him, and we knew he loved us. That gives me comfort.”
For Kay, grieving is a very individual thing.
“You have to take grief as it comes to you,” she said. “You can’t push it down; you can’t decide you’re done. It has its own timeline.”
Kay’s teenage son killed himself last spring.
“For me, sleep has been helpful,” Kay said. “I’m channeling him, I think, because I sleep like a teenager. It’s been restorative.”
Support groups for those who have suffered the loss of a loved one have also helped.
“It sort of normalizes how you are feeling,” Kay said. “Talking about him helps, too, just remembering him.”
She said people should feel comfortable talking about someone who died by suicide.
“I think a lot of people think they shouldn’t bring it up. So many people ignore and act like it didn’t happen,” Kay said. “But it feels strange not to acknowledge it. One friend asked us what life was like for us now. That’s an acknowledgment that we had a big loss. You’re not going to remind someone that their loved one is dead, they know. They know every minute of every day.”
Her son would have celebrated a birthday in August.
“Sometimes we don’t know the reasons why,” Kay said. “But he knew we loved him, and we knew he loved us. That gives me comfort.
Jeff Burkhead is the communications director at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.
For help, these resources are available 24/7:
• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 800-273-8255
• Headquarters Counseling Center — 785-841-2345
• Crisis Text Line — Text HOME to 741741
• myStrength is a 24/7 online emotional support tool. To sign up for myStrength, visit https://mystrength.com and use access code: Douglas County.
• Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center — 785-843-9192
Mental Health First Aid is a course designed to help people from all backgrounds learn about the signs and symptoms of various mental health challenges and crises. One important component of Mental Health First Aid is learning about the warning signs of suicide and how to ask the critical question, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” so that a person might actively engage with someone to prevent an attempt. Mental Health First Aid helps people develop their empathy skills and increases our abilities to connect with our friends and family members who are struggling. Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center is now offering MHFA virtually — a current class listing is available online. Click here