OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) -- The statistics are alarming and heartbreaking. The Centers for Disease Control recently revealed new data – suicide rates have been on the rise for the last 15-years in everyone between the age of 10 and 74. Public health experts argue that because suicide still carries a stigma of shame – many people simply avoid talking about it at all. WOWT 6 News is talking about it; we’re focusing on the survivors and what all of us can learn.
When she’s behind the guitar, it’s easy to hear Ally Wallin has a gift. As a Nebraska teenager she didn’t recognize it as that.
“Hopelessness can happen to anybody…and I didn’t know how to deal with and how to deal with feeling alone and that I didn’t belong anywhere,” said Wallin.
When she was 15, Ally Wallin started cutting herself. She wanted to know, would people care if she was gone?
“It wasn’t working. It wasn’t helping me. It wasn’t fixing the problem. It wasn’t solving my pain. It got to the point where I would carry around a pouch of pills just in case I got so sad that I couldn’t handle it,” Wallin said.
She eventually figured it out, because she’s still with us.
“Loneliness is a pretty powerful thing. And it can cause you to feel and believe things about yourself that aren’t true and I didn’t have any resources to combat the negative things I felt about my life, about where things were going – I felt like I had no options,” she said.
Ally Wallin now shares her story with church groups and others as a way to remove any shame and stigma attached to suicide. It’s a rare glimpse into the mind of someone who believed they were out of options and all alone.
“I was 16 years old and somebody at my high school called the office and said, ‘I think she’s going to kill herself. Somebody should do something about it.’ So I got pulled into the office and grabbed my arm and pulled up my sleeve and said, ‘Can you promise us you won’t do this?’ -- and I said, ‘No.’ They called social services and the police and it was a huge mess. They took me to a hospital from school in front of everybody – and so the whole small town was talking about what was going on. I spent three days in a psychiatric unit and I remember thinking – Is this really the life I was meant to live? Is this it for me? Is this why I’m here? Cause if it is, that doesn’t make sense to me. I always felt like I was supposed to do something great. I always felt there was something special about me. I think a lot of people feel that way but it gets stifled when it’s not accessed.”
Ally Wallin had hit rock bottom with those three days in April and the trip to the hospital.
“It was a really dark three days for me. I was wrestling with a part of me that thought I was going to be great – and this part of me who felt I should just give up. Which one did I want to be stronger? I remember sitting in my room and on the bed and thinking this can’t be my life,” said Wallin.
But, that alone, wasn’t enough to change her path of destruction.
“I left the hospital and things started getting more confusing. I started drinking and getting high and spending time with boys I had no business spending time with. I was doing all these things that were supposed to make me feel better. And none of it made me feel better,” said Wallin.
Her sadness went unchallenged, which in her mind, made everything true.
“It’s wasn’t a specific incident…moment after moment choosing to believe I was alone – choosing to believe that’s where my life was headed and there was nothing I could do about it. It kept getting bigger and bigger to the point where I couldn’t carry it any longer. I couldn’t carry the sadness,” she said.
So what changed? Remember, Ally liked music and was drawn to the talents of another high school musician.
“She was walking in faith and I was not. I wanted to be friends. I was drawn to her. I’d invite her to drinks – she’s invite me to church. We’d both tell each other no. Finally a couple days before Christmas, she said ‘I’ll hang out with you if you come to church,’” said Wallin. “I’d never been to church. I walked up to the door – as I’m walking up…I was thinking what am I doing here… I don’t know why I’m here. I’m a mess. My whole town knows it – they saw me leave in a social service vehicle. I don’t belong here. I was late. And the girl who had invited me was singing – ‘This is the year all of your tears will be dry.’ I thought – whatever this is – this is what I was looking for. That is where everything changed for me. When you get hope that’s real, it changes everything. That day I walked out of the church – I never cut again. I never drank again. I never smoked again. It was like – this is what I was looking for. This is the hope,” she said.
Hope can make all the difference for someone thinking about suicide.
For more than a decade, suicide rates have been rising for most age groups. No parent wants to see a son or daughter among the statistics.
Cameron Molitor grew up in Council Bluffs. He met First Lady Laura Bush and wore his life goals on his sleeve when he was young. Mindy Eggert read a checklist her son wrote that listed ambitious goals for a then 5th grader.
“To win the spelling bee. To read 50 books. To be on time for everything in a day…in 5th grade,” Mindy read.
Cameron still had an ambitious spirit as he got older.
“He wanted to become a chemist who could find a cure for diseases…he loved sports. He absolutely loved Notre Dame Football. We actually took some of his ashes there. They don’t know they’re there – but they are,” said Mindy.
The little boy who was so personable, happy and carefree growing up, began to shut out more of the world. His mother said he was anxious and depressed.
“He was watching his brothers’ lives and I think he saw different things in other people’s lives and he thought that was where he should be. And because he wasn’t, I think that’s what got him the most,” said Mindy
Cameron died by suicide at the age of 20.
“I miss him like nothing else. I miss him every day. But I continue to go on. We continue to go one. His brothers do. His friends do. We’re fighting the fight for everyone else now,” said Minday.
Changing the status quo can often feel like life in slow motion.
“Has anyone heard the phrase, elephant in the room?”
On this afternoon, as part of an after school program for Burke High Students, they have a conversation about mental health and suicide with The Kim Foundation’s Julia Hebenstreit.
“Our hope is we can shift the conversation so that we’re viewing mental health the same way as if we broke our arm or had diabetes or had cancer or any other medical condition,” said Hebenstreit.
Student Joy Kayode knows the more she learns the more she can become an advocate.
“Even though we’re a progressive nation, we have yet to break down those barriers as a nation,” said Kayode. “It’s hard to be a teen in 2016. It’s okay to talk about mental illness. It’s okay to talk about the unknown.”
Discussions about suicide and mental health can be uncomfortable, even controversial, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Never keep it a secret. Sometimes we’ll hear teenagers say, 'he or she told not to say anything or they’ll be really mad at me.' Our response to that is that, 'I think you’d rather have your friend mad at you rather than not be around next month,'” Julia Hebenstreit said.
So what warning signs should parents, friends or teachers have on radar?
Maybe they’ve withdrawn from Friends and activities, eat too much or too little. Experts say to look for extreme changes in behavior with no explanation in all aspects of their lives: home, school and work.
Ciara Warden is a survivor. Early in her college career, she attempted suicide.
“I had a ton of warning signs – my sleeping and eating was erratic. I was isolating. I was abusing alcohol,” said Warden. “I met with the psychiatrist there and he told me – in my 25-years plus of practicing I’ve never seen anyone alive across from me with that high of a toxicity level. He says – so you’re not supposed to be here. So you are – and do what you want with it.”
Ciara Warden turned it into a calling; she teaches at UNO’S Grace Abbott School of Social Work and practices her craft by being on the front-lines with suicide survivors.
“You don’t need a fancy degree or the education to understand your warning signs. Just knowing yourself and your own warning signs and when things are going downhill,” said Warden.
The mother of two knows it won’t be easy broaching sensitive topics when her boys get older, but for the sake of everyone, we must.
“Talk to your child. I know it’s simple but it can be a scary concept sometimes. Not for just parents but friends and peers. There’s a big myth out there that if we ask someone about suicide, it’s going to put it in their head and they’re going to complete suicide – actually research has said over and over that quite the opposite is true. That the more that we talk to someone who is feeling depressed or suicidal, the less likely it is they will complete suicide or attempt suicide because it’s giving them an outlet or relief. Wow --- someone really wants to know what is going on inside their head. So talk to your kids. You’d be surprised what they say,” said Warden.
For young people, suicide is the third leading cause of death. Homicide is the 16th. And the majority of people who die by suicide have significant mental health issues, depression being the most common.
“I don’t believe in the phrase, "New Normal." Because there is no new normal. But I do believe in new hope,” said Mindy
Just days after we sat in her Council Bluffs home remembering her 20-year-old son Cameron who died by suicide, Mindy Eggert waited patiently at Christ Community Church in Omaha for a chance to meet someone who understands.
“I want to share a momma’s hug with you. I lost my son,” said Mindy
“I’m sorry,” responds Kay
“A few months before you lost yours. I prayed someone would come along that I could connect with,” said Mindy
“I’m so sorry for your loss. Tell me your boy’s name,” said Kay.
“Cameron,” Mindy responded.
They’d never met until this night.
“I hate it, I hate it for you,” said Kay
But Mindy knows the story all too well. Kay Warren’s son, Matthew died by suicide three years ago.
“I can’t fix the fact that my son took his life. I couldn’t fix his mental illness,” said Kay. “There are 60-million Americans living with mental illness. That’s one in 5. That’s means everyone you run into – is living with a mental illness, you know somebody or you love somebody.”
As co-founder of Saddleback Church in California with her husband Rick, Kay Warren travels the country and writes books inspiring others to see hope.
“There are treasures hidden in the mess of our lives,” said Kay. You’re going to have to intentionally look for the joy in the darkness. If we really want people to get the help that they need, we need to start talking about it. It’s intensely personal to me because of the death of my son – the suicide of my son three years ago - had lived with mental illness his entire life. So it could not be more personal to me. Every time I talk about it, it’s painful but it also brings some healing – it puts some meaning around his death. If I can help someone with their pain, it helps me get through it.”
That was one powerful evening to see so many people finding comfort through her words.
The key though is to focus on suicide prevention. It happens on many levels.
“We talk to kids about coping skills and how to get help if they think they need help,” said Kevin Mills with Bellevue Public Schools.
Kevin Mills believes the gatekeepers, the teachers and staff who see the students daily are best equipped to identify any problems.
Last year, Nebraska lawmakers required all schools to do some form of suicide prevention; Bellevue went one step further and brought in speakers for parents and the community as a whole.
Sarpy County Sheriff deputies see the impact of mental illness daily. Chief Deputy Greg London of the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office said investigators saw a 33 percent increase in emergency committals meaning the citizens were a safety threat to themselves or others and were taken to the hospital.
Larry Courtnage has a good idea how the hiring world works, 600 people work for him at his west Omaha Corporate Offices. But it’s his foundation he formed that may have a more lasting effect. In 1986, his daughter Kim, who had been in and out of treatment for years due to mental illness, died by suicide.
“Started a one person operation in my basement has now grown to C & A Industries,” said Courtnage. “I wanted to take a horrible situation and make a positive out of it.”
The Kim Foundation tries to pair resources with families, while working to challenge the stigma of suicide.
“If you have cancer, you talk about it. You talk about recovery rates, treatment program and it doesn’t affect you as far as your future career. But mental health – once it’s on the record that you had a mental health issue – it will probably affect your career forever,” said Courtnage. “I feel we need to create an atmosphere around mental health so that they realize that they’re not alone in this struggle.”
We’re grateful to the families who shared their traumatic stories with WOWT 6 News. The idea was to look forward and give other families hope. It’s why Mindy Eggert along with a number of other suicide survivors and mental health professionals joined the Metro Area Loss Team, who respond when a suicide occurs to offer help and compassion.
“It’s my own therapy in a way. But all in all, it’s not about me. Sometimes it’s not even about Cameron. It’s really about those who are still here and we want to see stay here,” said Mindy.
“There’s a lot to be said about the healing power of being with someone who’s gone through the same things,” said Jill Hamilton.
The loss team prides itself on keeping in touch with suicide survivors for weeks, months, even years.
“We have a lot of families who at first feel like they can handle this – we don’t need help. And as the weeks go on, they realize the immediate support they had filters away. And so they realize Oh My Gosh! I can’t do this alone,” said Hamilton.
“I really could have used a mentor when I was in junior high,” said Wallin.
So what did Ally Wallin, who survived her teenage years, decide to do with her second chance?
A teacher helped put it in perspective. “He said, ‘Wallin – do you know what your problem is?’” That’s never a phrase that starts very well. Oh gosh. He said, ‘Wallin, do you know what your problem is? Your problem is you still think your story is just about you.’” He didn’t mean for me to ignore my story or ignore my pain. But to help me see that if I have pain, I guarantee you other people have pain. And that I could use the things I went through to give people hope. And that opened my eyes that the things you go through aren’t worthless or a waste. They can be used for something so powerful,” said Wallin.
Now every Wednesday she leads the middle schoolers at the Bellevue Christian Center.
“That’s why I do the hard thing of telling people what I went through because on the other end of the decision not to take your life – there’s something really great and beautiful. Giving people hope – giving people hope that little feeling that you’re made for something really great is true. And helping people find that something great is better than anything I could have dreamed for myself,” said Wallin.
Ally stills hears the song and sees the friend who invited her to church. She returns every December to soak it in the day that changed everything.
“I remind her everyone now and then – thank you. Thank you for seeing a torn up and messed up kid,” said Wallin.
For the Eggert family, every December 4th they invite Cameron’s friends over for a signature meal: spaghetti and a giant cookie. Cameron’s favorites.
“It’s one of those memories – every time you have it you think of him. My son didn’t think he had a purpose. So I’m here to prove him wrong. He had a purpose,” said Minday.