Saturday , August 09, 2014 - 11:42 AM
PLEASANT VIEW — Greg Gray used to joke with his family by quoting from The Dark Knight, a Batman blockbuster released in 2008. Every now and again around the house, he would teasingly ask, “Why ... so ... serious?” in his best imitation of the Joker villain’s voice.
“So I say the same thing to you young people here, Why so serious? Lighten up,” Greg’s father, Steve Gray, Gray told an audience gathered Friday at Weber High School for a forum on suicide and loss. “Laugh at yourself (and) give yourself a chance.”
Many teenagers are still without the life experiences they need to put their problems in perspective on a day to day basis, Gray said.
“You have so much ahead of you,” Gray said. “Give it a week. Give it a chance.”
Gray was one of three speakers who spoke at the “Healing and Hope” themed discussion Friday, designed to be a resource for students and their families who have seen a rash of students, alumni and one teacher die by either suicide, sickness, accident or even homicide stretching back to 2011.
At least 157 students attempted suicide in the past school year in the Weber School District. Nationwide, about 5,000 teenagers commit suicide each year; it is the third leading cause of death for Americans between 15 and 24.
Gray, a Weber High graduate, never contemplated suicide, he told the forum audience of about 150. But he fell into deep despair when his 22-year-old son Greg died saving his sister from drowning in a Cache County river in 2011.
“I was down, literally down as low as the dirt,” Gray said, and he wanted to know why it had to happen to his family. “I thought, ‘are we being punished?’”
Gray admitted “it doesn’t take much” to put him in that mindset and bring him low even now.
“But as time goes on I go to that place less and less,” he said. “Pain is an interesting thing. Healing hurts. ... You may wonder, ‘will depression and anxiety always be a suppressing part of my life? Things will get better. It will get better. ... We are survivors. We are Warrior strong.”
Jeremy Stokes joined the Air Force reserve in 2002, shortly after graduating from Weber High School. For about a year, Stokes felt on top of the world, but a failed relationship had him contemplating suicide in 2003.
“It was like a roller coaster with no stop. It just kept going down and down,” Stokes told those gathered Friday. “I would miss work for no reason. ... I quit paying my bills. I quit sleeping.”
By February 2004, Stokes felt cornered and alone. He tried contacting his ex once more, but after she first avoided and then rejected him, he grabbed a gun from his car, loading it with a single bullet.
He pointed it at his chest, thinking “this is it.”
“I didn’t mean for the gun to go off, but it did,” Stokes said.
Stokes woke up in the hospital to learn the shot had missed both his heart and his spine by mere centimeters. As his memory returned and he realized it was he who shot himself, he was startled.
“I realized I wanted to live, I did not want to die. I started healing after that,” Stokes said. “I learned how to open up to people and ask for help and stop bottling everything up.”
Stokes had never realized just how much he had isolated himself.
“I cannot stress enough how important it is to ask for help,” he said. “It might be the hardest thing you ever do, but it’s worth it.”
Now, Stokes frequently works with those contemplating suicide and says he keeps an extensive support network of family and friends close at hand at all times.
Jeff Tesch, a licensed family therapist and parent coach based in Ogden, said willful isolation is one of the warning signs of a teenager contemplating suicide. Other indicators include losing interest in things they once loved, irritability, difficulty sleeping or eating, or giving away their sentimental belongings.
Parents are often hesitant to take their teen’s talk of suicide at face value, according to Tesch.
“They wonder if there’s emotional manipulation involved, if it’s serious,” Tesch said. “Any kind of suicidal thoughts or behavior — take it serious.”
An advanced sign of a teenager contemplating suicide may include a sudden uptick in mood after a prolonged period of depression. The teenager may be shielding their family from their own suffering, Tesch said, or may have made up their mind about how to take their own life.
“A real significant jump in risk is if there’s a plan that’s been determined,” Tesch said. “We tend to wait too long, though, to get the help we need. We often wait way too long.”
For those who have lost loved ones to suicide or another cause, Tesch added, setting aside a specific time of day or time of the week to mourn can help family members function in the aftermath of a tragedy.
“We can choose when to grieve. ... We can’t allow it to overcome us,” he said. “Do we as human beings have control over what we think? We do, and that’s an enormous tool for us.”
Tesch asked the audience why it’s typical for those with a physical disease or illness to receive visits, meals and other favors while the same thing isn’t done for those with mental illnesses. Misunderstanding of mental illness as a medical malady remains a major problem, he said.
“Insurance companies don’t view mental health the same way as physical health,” Tesch said. “It’s not just a stigma, it’s our culture. We haven’t treated them equally.”
It’s not unreasonable to treat a mental setback the same way one would consider cancer, according to Tesch.
“It’s a true physical illness,” he said. It can be genetic or it can be trigerred through life events.
Anyone having suicidal thoughts, or who knows someone who is, can call 1-800-273-TALK for a suicide hotline.
Contact reporter Ben Lockhart at 801-625-4221 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SE_Lockhart. Like his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/blockhartSE.
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