Teen Suicide: Melanie Lawson shares a personal story because we need to start talking

Taking a deeper look at the stigma and resources for families who need help

This week, we are tackling the difficult topic of suicide as numbers rise at startling rates among young people.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – We are in the middle of a mental health crisis. In January, Cheslie Kryst, former Miss USA, jumped to her death. She was beautiful, smart, and appeared to have it all. She’s now gone. The week before that, 26-year-old Ian Alexander Jr., actress Regina King’s only son, also died by suicide. These lost lives are just the beginning.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. News4JAX is devoting this space to take a deeper look at the stigma that still exists around suicide, ways to talk with your kids about it, and resources all families can tap into if they need help.

MORE: Suicide risk factors, protective factors and warning signs | What pushes middle-aged white men to take their lives?

My story

This is personal. My husband Tarik Minor and I were headed to the airport for an anniversary trip when I got a text from a dear friend. Her 17-year-old son took his own life.

She was ripped from her bed in the middle of the night knowing that she would never see her firstborn and only son ever again. It was surreal and quite devastating.

I’ve known him since he was a toddler. Our family spent holidays together.

(NOTE: For the privacy of my friend’s family, we are not sharing her name or her son’s name. But she offered us these photos to show the joy he exuded despite his inner turmoil.)

A friend of Melanie Lawson lost her precious 17-year-old son to suicide. (Photos provided by family)

As we prepared for the memorial, the funeral home my friend was using reached out and said her son’s death was not an isolated incident. They explained they have never had so many funerals credited to suicide, and something had to be done.

I saw that firsthand the day of his memorial. In the other room, another mother was holding a viewing for her 15-year-old daughter who died by suicide. That week they laid another child to rest who died by suicide.

So yes, this is something we must talk about.

Suicide statistics you need to know

Facing the crisis

Keith Wards, at Sarah L. Carter’s Funeral Home, and I sat and looked through funeral programs from people who recently died by suicide.

“This family here was distraught, very distraught. The mother, brothers, and sisters just didn’t think that this would happen to their family because he had it all together,” Wards said.

We flipped through program after program.

“Yeah, this family here kind of seeing the signs and they were just blind to the fact. They didn’t want to face reality with what was going to take place,” Wards said.

Keith Ward works at Sarah L. Carter's Funeral Home and noticed a worrying pattern of families dealing with loved ones who had died by suicide. (WJXT)

Wards does heavy work. Every time a family walks through the door there’s sadness, but there’s nothing like burying a loved one who took their own life. Wards said they’re angry, sad and in some cases embarrassed.

“A lot of families don’t like to talk about it, because they want to keep it private, amongst the family,” Wards said.

Wards has been working at Sarah L. Carter’s Funeral Home since he was 15 years old. He learned from Ms. Carter herself. She drips elegance, poise, and professionalism. But when it comes to mental health, she has secrets.

“I had kids at a very young age. Having my mother there for me, with them, we couldn’t really talk about things. They came from that era where everything was so secretive,” Wards said.

That’s exactly how she raised all of her kids.

“They are particular about what they say around me. I’m not saying that they don’t do things, but I’m absent of what they do,” Carter said.

Melanie Lawson is continuing our look into teen suicide. We spoke with local funeral home workers about the number of people they've buried because of suicide.

Breaking the silence

This is the reality for a lot of families, especially in the Black community. It’s about respect and sometimes that comes with a dangerous level of silence.

“I’m passing it down to her, right. So, when it came about her time, it’s like, ‘Hey, no, we’re going to talk about how are you feeling?’” Carter said.

“But see, I had to learn,“ said Katrina Cook, Carter’s oldest daughter.

She said that lesson came with a shocking discovery.

“Taking one of my children to the doctor, just for a regular exam, noticing marks on their arm. And, you know, there was just something in me that said, ‘What is this?’ I didn’t ask in front of the doctor, but I saw the doctor looking at the arms, and I’m looking. And when we left, that’s when I asked the question: ‘Hey, have you been cutting yourself?’” Cook said.

Her daughter was cutting and that was something Cook had never even heard of before she saw the marks on her own daughter.

“I’m like, ‘Why are you not happy? You know, is there something else I can do?’ And the response was just real simple. ‘No, I’m fine. I just wanted to see what it felt like.’ What do you do with an answer like that? I just, I didn’t know what to do. But I did start researching it. I had to learn how to talk to my children in different ways and ask different questions,” Cook said.

Katrina Cook works with her mother Sarah Carter at the family's funeral home. (WJXT)

Cook also works at Sarah L. Carter’s Funeral Home, and she sees the devastation when parents don’t talk with kids or notice the signs that there’s a problem.

“For a mother to go into a bedroom and see that her young child, you know, had hung himself. Maybe 8, 9 years old, you know, you just don’t think about that,” Cook said.

Cook points out how her own childhood experience made her even more sensitive to the signs.

“I think children can put on a brave front. I mean, I took stock of myself as a young person. I knew how to put on the right face at the right time. And I knew how to switch it up when I needed to. So, you’re happy here. But then you go into the bathroom, close the door, and you cry your eyes out,” Cook said.

It’s been a journey for this mother and daughter to see eye to eye but with time there’s been growth and respect. They’ve ultimately broken a generational curse of silence.

“I’m very proud of my daughter, and her relationship with the children, and how she’s open with them. They don’t mind sharing with her,” Carter said.

“I say first, be honest with yourself. I think it is really important as parents to talk to our children, and respect what they’re saying, you know, they’re little people. When you say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ that just doesn’t work. So, I think it’s a good idea for us to start early, asking our children, ‘How are you feeling?’ and respect what they say,” Cook said.

Cook said she also asks her children if they think she’s a good mom and explained that was a hard question, but they were honest with her and that opened the lines to more conversations.

Resources

When you’re working through mental health concerns, it can feel like you’re all alone. But as you can see by the statistics so many families are dealing with this.

There is caring, sympathetic, discreet, help available for free, starting right in your kid’s school. Marchelle Smith is the site coordinator at Englewood School Family Resource Center.

“Right here we have our food pantry. OK, so we were seeing donations from community leaders, organizations, schools, churches, and this is where they bring all of their items to us,” Smith said.

All the students have access to the pantry if they need it.

“It’s like a one-stop shop for mental health, for behavioral, for whatever someone needs, anything that can hinder their success in the classroom. We take on that,” Smith said.

When you're working through mental health concerns, it can feel like you're all alone due to the stigma. However, many families are dealing with this and there is caring, sympathetic, discreet, help available for free.

There are eight full-service schools in Duval County. They are in neighborhoods where access to mental health services is hard to come by. With parental permission, students get access to anything they need to help them thrive.

“When you can also develop that rapport with that child, then they’re able to open up and some of those suicidal thoughts or the rates will decrease because now they have a support system,” Smith said. “What we see as a full-service school, we’re that support system for them.”

It’s not just for students at the neighboring school. Therapists travel to any school in the county to offer services to students and their families once a week.

Keto Porter is the director for Full-Service Schools at United Way of Northeast Florida.

“This is not a journey that kids take by themselves. We want to make sure that we’re educating the parents so that they can also help along the journey,” Porter said.

Porter said the United Way’s 211 helpline received more than 100,000 calls last year He also pointed out that one in five kids exhibit signs or symptoms of mental health problems but nearly 80% of them will go untreated.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Free long-term help is just a phone call away.

“It’s all about relationships, again, finding someone who understands what the situation is about and being reliant on them, to connect them to resources that are not nonjudgmental, and able to provide a quality staff person to be able to provide those services,” Porter said.

Porter said consent from parents is sometimes their biggest obstacle. They can work with a child one time in a crisis but after that, they are required to get parental consent.

In St. Johns County they have a similar program called Community Partnership Schools. St. Johns Care Connect is also available to support students and families who need outside counseling.

Children’s Home Society of Florida counselors provide the mental health services for Full Service Schools PLUS in Duval County as well as the Community Partnership Schools models in Duval, St. Johns and Clay in partnership with The United Way and the school districts

MORE: Data on suicide from the National Institute of Mental Health

Important numbers

How to talk it through

The Children’s Home Society helped us work through several scenarios that teens and parents might face.

Branden Tharp and Kendyl Nealey, counselors with CHS, role-played the scenarios with another volunteer to give an idea of how these conversations might go, and how teens and parents can respond if someone they know is dealing with suicidal thoughts.

Scenario 1: Teen talking to another teen

Scenario 2: Parent talking with child

Scenario 3: Parent talking with child about friend


About the Author:

Anchor on The Morning Show team and reporter specializing on health issues.