Picking up the pieces: 'Survivors' of suicide find hope in helping
TRI-CITIES, Wash. (KEPR) — Kimberly Starr’s son, Tom, died by suicide in 2015.
He was 16-years-old and his mom said, back then, mental illness was barely even on their radar.
"Tom was funny and brilliant,” she said, laughing and acknowledging that she was a little prejudiced. “He was very service oriented. He helped people without being asked and he was a joy in our life."
The Washington State Healthy Youth Survey released a year after Tom’s death listed suicide as the second-largest cause of death for teens between the ages of 15 and 19.
Kathleen Clary-Cooke at the Benton-Franklin Health District said Starr’s family isn’t alone in their grief.
“In our area, the numbers fluctuate somewhat from year to year, but we’re not seeing a major decrease,” she said.
Benton-Franklin vital records for 2017 show 42 people took their lives in those two counties.
"We know suicide has a contagion effect,” Clary-Cooke said. “That's one of the reasons the media tries not to report suicides when they happen."
But she said it’s also naive to pretend it doesn’t exist.
"We need to talk about it,” she said. “Sometimes parents are afraid to bring it up because you think you're going to give someone the idea."
Starr said that misconception has proven false, and wrote a book about her experience called 457 Days: A Mother's Journey Along Grief's Path.
“Someone is either considering suicide or they’re not,” she said. “I think the more we talk about it, less stigma will be around it.“
Heather Escobar’s best friend, Sandy, died by suicide when they were in high school.
More recently, her sister Amy and brother John also killed themselves.
"There were people that didn't know how to reach out,” Escobar said. “Because they didn't know what to say."
Escobar said mental illness is extremely misunderstood because it’s almost invisible.
But that leads to ignorance.
“People think, ‘If we don't talk about it it's not going to happen to our family’,” sighed Escobar, getting serious. “Well, it's happened to our family. Twice. So I'm here to tell you that yes it does happen. It affects us all."
Both Starr and Escobar say there were red flags they missed.
But rather than dwell on “what if’s”, the women are giving presentations and lectures about depression, mental illness, and suicide.
Because anyone can have it.
"My brother was an athlete,” said Escobar. “My brother was very gifted. My sister was very beautiful and very successful as a hairdresser. Sometimes when it's somebody that you love so dearly, you don't see those signs, and that's the scary part."
Both women say it’s important to say something if you notice a loved one’s behavior change.
Starr’s presentations review signs of depression and teach how to gracefully ask the really hard questions.
“You just lay it out there,” Starr said. “And it’s teaching people to respond calmly.”
Starr said to first tell the person you’re concerned and ask them, "Are you feeling so bad you’re thinking about suicide?"
If they say yes, the next question is, "Have you thought about how you'd do it?"
Starr said this is important because it shows where they are in the thought process.
Next ask them, "Do you have any idea when you’ll do it?"
"And that's incredibly important,” Starr emphasized. “I've had somebody say to me, 'Tonight', and at that point, you don't want to leave that person alone."
She said you need to connect them to resources.
In doing so, you may save their life.
And saving lives while providing solace is why both women said they’ll continue sharing their stories with whoever will listen.
"Sometimes when somebody is struggling with grief,” said Starr, “sitting down next to them, putting your hand on their knee, and not saying anything might be all they need."