You rarely hear about it on the news, but suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens and young adults.
Almost every school in in our area has been affected by suicide in recent years, but it remains a word spoken only in hushed tones.
Heritage High School in Catoosa County has lost two young men in the past year, and their families and friends say it’s time to bring the topic into the daylight. They’re spreading the word about young lives, unfinished. In fact, “Unfinished” is the theme of a school-wide awareness campaign, and the word wasn’t selected randomly. Student organizers Bryce McDaniel and Isabelle Hill are emphasizing that teens have unlimited potential, and even when times are tough, better days are ahead. Unless they choose to voluntarily leave loved ones behind, with so much still unfinished.
At Heritage, everywhere you look there are reminders. Posters, sticky notes, and t-shirts offering encouragement.
It’s the kind of movement that administrators cannot mandate and teachers cannot assign.
Students must lead the charge.
Last March, 16-year-old Ethan Gerrells took his own life. Six months later, 15 year old Nathan Leal did the same. Both were solid students, and talented musicians. Both were said to be devastated over break-ups.
Fellow students saw the toll their deaths took on family members and friends. They decided to lift up other teens who may be considering a tragic, permanent response in the face of a temporary problem.
Hill said, “It’s true, we seem to have more drama in our lives, but that’s what friends are for. We have to depend on each other to get through it all.” McDaniel added, “And you can’t be afraid to talk about suicide. There’s no use in pretending it doesn’t exist. It has hit our school very hard.”
That’s why family members are doing what suicide survivors rarely do. They’re speaking about their loss publicly, in hopes of reaching others. Each family had three sons, and still struggle when asked by new acquaintances, “How many children do you have?”
“I still say I have three sons,” Kim Stone, the mother of Nathan Leal said. “I tell them one of my boys committed suicide.” She added, “If there’s a means of educating people, and erasing the stigma and the shame, I’m willing to talk about it.”
She said Nathan displayed none of the symptoms and warning signs of suicide. “I’m told his situation was unusual,” she said. “It was a quick decision, made on a Friday night with no football game, and no band performance. He had extra time alone, and it was all quickly executed within a couple of hours.”
Kim believes her son overreacted to a breakup, and didn’t feel comfortable sharing his sorrow with a parent. She says teens often have to lean on each other, or find a trusted adult outside the home to reassure them that the crisis will pass.
She said, “I don’t know that Nathan had the coping skills to handle what had happened. He couldn’t deal with the tough times, and that’s more common than many adults believe.”
Her friends Chad and Jackie Gerrells are nearing the first anniversary of the night that shattered their family. Both describe their middle son Ethan as a model child and student: smart, funny, fun-loving, and talented.
“And then all of a sudden he changed,” Jackie said. “He started losing weight, he was staying by himself a little more.”
Ethan was also despondent over a recent breakup, and had agreed to undergo counseling and therapy. The Gerrells believed they were doing everything they were supposed to do, and for a while, their efforts seemed to be working.
As is the case with many teens, there were frequent changes in Ethan’s mood. Jackie said, “We had found out from a friend that he was talking about suicide, so we did what we could to lift him up.”
They suspected something was wrong one night when Ethan hadn’t called them back for a few hours. It wasn’t like him to be out of contact for that long. Ethan’s dad and older brother went looking for him, and their worst fears were confirmed. They still struggle with the question: is there anything more they could have done?
Ethan’s father Chad said, “Everything seemed to be fine, even in his last days. We later learned that can be because they’re at peace with their decision. We had never thought of that.”
Both sets of parents are thankful that Heritage High is tackling this once-taboo topic, encouraging students to open up about their feelings. Everyone involved in the Unfinished campaign knows there are no easy answers, but they’re hoping to make a positive impact, one precious young life at a time.
Anyone with an emergency or who feels suicidal should call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, 911 or the Georgia Crisis and Access line at 800-715-4225.