Rick Kirchhoff just happened to be home early to change clothes before coaching high school baseball practice when the deputy coroner knocked with soul-crushing news.
Kirchhoff’s youngest son, Ryan, had just killed himself in a car crash.
“Only in hindsight am I certain that Ryan was dealing with depression before his death,” Kirchhoff says after a few seconds of reflection. “Something prompted what he did that day. Something beyond his coping skills. Something that developed into hopelessness.”
Warning signs hid in plain sight for years, masked by typical adolescent behavior, he realizes now. But in the weeks leading up to his suicide, Ryan’s grades began dipping and the day before his death, police arrested him.
“Too often, parents have no inclination of what’s going on in their child’s mind,” says Kirchhoff, a long-time pediatric dentist and dad of four.
In Illinois, suicide is the leading cause of death for kids ages 10 to 14 and the third leading cause of death among those 15 to 24.
It is preventable, says Courtney Collins, Illinois area director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
This fact may seem skewed to some parents in the wake of the recent Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” the 13-episode adaptation of a best-selling novel by Jay Asher. The controversial show chronicles the life and death, by suicide, of 17-year-old Hannah Baker through 13 audiocassette tapes she made before killing herself. Each tape profiles someone in her life who either victimized her, ignored her or didn’t defend her, according to her point of view.
Advocates like Collins insist the issue of teen suicide is much too complex to paint it in such broad brush strokes.
Still, “13 Reasons Why” has sparked uncomfortable but crucial conversations between fearful parents and confused children. Netflix already plans a second season so if your tweens and teens haven’t heard about it or watched it (even secretly), they will.
Aysha A. Hagene, a psychotherapist at Simply Counseling in Chicago and Evanston who specializes in depression, anxiety and stress, gets a lot of questions about the series from tweens and teens struggling with some of the same issues as the main character.
While Hagene acknowledges the show tackled intense content, particularly the unyielding scene as Baker made the choice to live or die, she says the series opens a way for parents and kids to talk about what’s going on in their own lives.
But be prepared to hear about things you don’t want to hear.
“As a parent, you are going to probably be scared and really react, but I think the best thing is to listen calmly and reflect your teen’s feeling. Keep the teen talking instead of trying to present solutions right away,” she says.
At the same time, be alert for red flags. If they say things like ‘people would be better off without me’ or ‘would anyone even come to my funeral?’, seek professional help, she says. It could mean they are thinking through suicide.
Hagene, a mom whose own mom committed suicide, knows life can get busy and tweens and teens often choose to keep parents in the dark about their lives. A lot of times, she’s found, kids think parents will make things worse for them.
But she says not to give up.
Plan for one-on-one time—she suggests going for an ice cream or pizza or doing something else they enjoy—just to chat about what’s going on in their lives.
“Most often, the teen is so glad that the parents took some interest in their lives,” she says. “Just being there to listen is really helpful.”
Or go for a walk together. “Even a 10-minute walk can make a world of difference to your kid.”Once you get them talking about things bothering them, don’t just tell them things will get better. Instead, share your own challenges growing up, (with less detail, of course.) “It let’s them know everyone goes through tough times and gives them hope,” Hagene says.
Get involved in their school, she says. Find out how the school is dealing with bullying and cyberbullying while listening for hints about other issues that may be going on with kids in the school.
Or help them find a safe place to talk and a person they trust outside their friend and family circle. Seeing a therapist is not just for those in crisis. Even the National Suicide Prevention Hotline offers a 24-hour online chat to empower kids going through tough situations, not just those considering suicide.
Out in the open
Like many parent survivors, Kirchhoff advocates for choosing to talk openly about suicide rather than whispering later about suicide notes.
It’s something that had been rattling around Kirchhoff’s mind like a broken piece of glass since 1970, when his brother, John, cut short his own life. He was just weeks away from graduating from Michigan State University.
“Back then, we just didn’t talk about suicide, except within the family,” says Kirchhoff, who lives in Crystal Lake. “I didn’t want this to happen with Ryan’s death.”
Just days after Ryan’s death, Kirchhoff took part in his first Out of the Darkness walk to raise money and awareness about suicide. Within months, he joined the local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and today, he is co-chair of its Illinois chapter and vice chair of its Public Policy Council.
Kirchhoff, who often speaks publicly about his son’s suicide, now talks with kids like Ryan struggling with suicidal thoughts.
As a kid, Ryan was creative and self-reliant, while popular at school with plenty of friends. At home, he enjoyed a close-knit family life, his father says.
“So why did he do it?” asks Kirchhoff, who has repeatedly asked himself this very question since April 7, 2005. “I don’t know.”
“Will I ever know why? Probably not, at least not in this lifetime.Jerry Davich is freelance writer, author and dad.
Suicide warning signs
Watch for a change in behavior, particularly after a painful event or loss. Most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do.
While there’s no single cause for suicide, suicide most often occurs when stressors exceed coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition. Depression is the most common condition associated with suicide, and it is often undiagnosed or untreated.
Learn how to have a conversation about mental health and suicide at afsp.org/mentalhealth. Raising the question about thoughts of suicide does not increase the risk or plant the idea; it creates the opportunity to offer support.
Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Need to talk? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 (TALK). Someone dies by suicide about every 11.89 minutes in this country.