Sometimes You Have to Force The Conversation

When something is described as an epidemic, it should have the spotlight shone on it. If that epidemic is affecting children in our community and beyond, we need to shout it from the rooftops. No one enjoys talking about suicide. Perhaps that’s why many of our neighbors suffer in silence. Maybe that’s why more of our children are taking drastic measures to escape the pain and darkness that envelopes them. Most definitely, it’s a reason to force the conversation.

Tackling the issue of teen depression and suicide isn’t easy. Nothing worthwhile normally is. I remember getting the call from a local school, asking if we could help spread the word about the prevalence of depression and suicide among teens. It was a daunting task. Being the father of three teens, seeing suicide strike families in our own school district and reading the seemingly endless Facebook posts about children taken way too soon impacted me in a way that I didn’t expect. There is no price I wouldn’t pay to protect my children. I couldn’t imagine the pain the families must be suffering. I wanted to find reasons why a child would take such tragic steps, but couldn’t. Then, we started to listen. Not talk, just listen. I was amazed at the stories we heard.

Morgan was a well-liked junior high student at Pleasant Valley. Alice was a high school student that friends called the local “Dr. Phil” at Davenport West. Jeff Knudson was your all-American boy in the North Scott District. To look at them, on the surface there was really not much in common. It’s when you look deeper and listen to their family’s stories, you realize there was one common denominator that would shatter the ones they loved. All three harbored a dark secret. They all suffered from severe depression. I sat down with all three families. I cried when they cried. I tried to put myself in their place, but couldn’t. I felt an overwhelming urge to race home and hug my children. I learned a lot.

Suicide is not a selfish act. In fact, after speaking with experts I learned most of the children don’t really want to die. They just don’t want to suffer any longer. They loved their parents and siblings as much as those parents and siblings loved them. They didn’t take their lives to hurt others. They did it because they believed it was the only solution. It’s our responsibility as parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, teachers, coaches and friends to help them understand that is not the only way to end the pain.

In our documentary, If You Only Knew: The Journey Through Teen Depression and Suicide we heard from the families of Morgan, Alice and Jeff, but we also heard from survivors. Young adults who either attempted or contemplated suicide. We spoke with therapists about warning signs, treatment and the un-nerving number or teens and even younger children who are suffering. WQPT aired the doc. The floodgates opened. The day of the documentary airing, five local mayors came together to proclaim it Quad Cities Suicide Awareness Day. Local media covered the event, some promoted the documentary. The community began to have the discussion. It was long-overdue. One of the most haunting comments I heard came from an expert in dealing with depression and suicidal tendencies. He said, “The days of waiting for your children to come talk to you about their feelings are long gone. You need to force the conversation.” Those words sent chills down my spine. For some reason, that brought home the enormity of this epidemic.

For the next several weeks, we received Facebook posts from parents of children who are contemplating suicide. I personally received text messages from parents asking for my help. I didn’t know how to respond. I’m a story teller, not a therapist. We were inundated with emails from families in 16 states and social media messages from people in two other countries. They saw our promo but were not able to watch the documentary because they didn’t live in the WQPT viewing area. How can we reach them? It’s taken a couple of months and some invaluable partnerships, but we have a plan. Very soon, our documentary will air on digital streaming sites. We are currently in negotiation with several and will be announcing which ones will carry it in the near future. We are also rebroadcasting the documentary in September on WQPT. This summer, we’ll hold four public screenings in the Quad Cities and beyond if requested. Last but certainly not least, in the fall, we’ll kick off a campaign led by teens, called “We All Have Stuff.” You’ll see a series of videos where teens share the stuff they are dealing with. There will be a mural that will travel to area schools. We’ll provide the paint and allow students to draw an image or write a message depicting their stuff. We will do our best to normalize the conversation about depression.

They are our children. This is our community. The conversation has begun.

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