As suicide rates climb in Kansas and Missouri, Olathe survivor joins the struggle to save lives

Becca Schunck, 39, has worked at the AMC Studio 28 theater in Olathe for 16 months — the longest she’s ever held a job. She survived a suicide attempt five years ago and now is building skills for life through therapy.
Becca Schunck, 39, has worked at the AMC Studio 28 theater in Olathe for 16 months — the longest she’s ever held a job. She survived a suicide attempt five years ago and now is building skills for life through therapy. skeyser@kcstar.com

Siren wails and pawing hands woke her in the ambulance’s high-speed cradle.

Those were paramedics’ faces above her and beside her. The hands were trying to affix an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose.

No, no, no!

She knocked it away. Fought them off.

Becca Schunck wanted to be dead.

Now, five years later, zestfully alive at 39, she wonders what she could do, if she could go back in time, to save her despairing self, living sullen and combative in her Olathe home.

She knows what’s working now — the better therapy strategies, a better diagnosis, that flipped the switch that has turned her on to graceful, mindful living and a roaming kindness that just might save lives.

But it should be too late.

That’s the harrowing truth that shadows her, as well as all the other individuals and agencies straining against a rise in suicides across Kansas and Missouri.

About 450 Kansans and 950 Missourians die of suicide each year, at a rate of more than 15 per 100,000 people in Kansas and 16 per 100,000 in Missouri.

The rates have risen since 2008, from close to 12 per 100,000 in Kansas and from just over 13 per 100,000 in Missouri, and remain above the national rate of 13 per 100,000.

Schunck knows how hard she was on herself and everyone around her. If we are going to break the fall of others descending through their own self-destructive despair, she knows, we have to learn what might have caught her.

What changed her?

The day after her rush to the hospital, she was sitting head-down in a Johnson County courtroom, waiting on a hearing for a court order for involuntary commitment at Osawatomie State Hospital.

Then the officer who had pulled her from her car in her garage arrived to testify. She saw him and began to cry.

What Schunck doesn’t remember is that she actually came awake for a moment immediately after the officer pulled her slumped body from her car.

“She was fighting me on the ground and calling me every name in the book,” the officer told The Star.

Deadly exhaust fogged the car and garage so thickly the officer could scarcely see or breathe. Paramedics told him later that just two more minutes in that car would have killed Schunck.

In the clarity of the courtroom, she realized she knew the Olathe officer — Tony Bussell — because he had been at her house before, in other dark moments, after she’d called the suicide hotline.

She cried, grateful for the first time, she said, that she had been rescued. She asked the judge, “Can I hug this officer?”

She felt then what counselors say marks the state of mind of many individuals when they wrestle with suicide.

“I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to end the pain,” Schunck said. “But I didn’t know how to get better.

“There was a battle going on within me and there was a shift. I wanted to live.”

‘It’s OK to ask’

Here’s the thing.

▪ Schunck was living with bipolar disorder and didn’t know it.

▪ Her mother said she had been trying to handle all her daughter’s difficulties herself, not seeking out enough support.

▪ Her father was exhausted and suspecting his daughter of being all threats and manipulation.

▪ Friends, tired of Schunck’s often-combative reactions, had mostly disappeared.

People anywhere close to the center of her universe knew something of her problems and bouts of mental despair.

She was a good student at Shawnee Mission West High School who went to college but then couldn’t keep any job as long as six months, or even a few weeks.

She was as scared as she was angry and lost.

She had tried to hang herself in her basement at the age of 31. The knot broke, landing her on her floor, but she’d hanged long enough to feel the horror of her bursting head — the sheer violence of it.

“I can’t do that again,” she thought.

But the world’s power to save her, including her own will, couldn’t overcome so much misunderstanding of mental health issues and the human tendency to turn away rather than risk uncomfortable encounters.

If you don’t ask, if you don’t look closely, you don’t know whether a friend or stranger you meet needs help, said Shana Burgess, manager of prevention services at Johnson County Mental Health Center.

“We have too much of the ‘none of my business’ thing,” she said. “It’s OK to ask. It’s OK to be direct, too. Ask meaningful questions. ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself?’

“You don’t know if the person is at the tipping point.”

Many agencies like the Johnson County center are trying to spread the practice of mental health first aid.

People too often fear that, by stopping to encounter someone who seems troubled, they’re likely to uncork problems they can’t solve.

Talking itself can be a balm. And a more serious problem can prompt a phone call — to a hotline or 911.

“You don’t have to have the answer,” said Jessica Patterson, care coordinator at Johnson County Mental Health Center. “You just need to be there.”

Active therapy

Schunck tapped away at her phone as she sat in her exhaust-filling car, posting final thoughts.

Some likely saw her Facebook missives as more of the recurring dark meanderings she’d done before, not sure what anybody could or should do about it.

Make sure my mom comes and takes care of my dogs, she texted to one of her few still-in-touch friends.

“Nothing provided me relief,” she said. “I was tired of my family. I was tired of feeling constantly agitated. I was desperate for help.”

The question posed now is, what kinds of interventions could have kept her out of the car in the first place?

It’s a difficult question, because people were trying to help her. She had been in counseling. She’d had a stay at the state hospital.

She’d been trying on her own as well, having called the 1-800-SUICIDE hotline several times over the years. Police and caseworkers had been in her home.

Everything her mother had done had worn out.

“I tried to do it all,” Nina Schunck said. She never tried to sort out when her daughter was serious in her threats or manipulative. “I took her food. Paid her bills. I infantilized her. I drove over so many times. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Becca Schunck thinks on it now with urgency.

Others walking suicide’s edge need what she nearly missed.

A psychiatrist at the state hospital determined that her severe depression was exacerbated by bipolar disorder — a critical diagnosis, because the medicines she had been prescribed for depression had been spiking her undiagnosed manic moods.

Now her therapy is active. She has a team of support. It’s not as much introspection or “sitting on a couch telling my life story,” she said, but more of building skills.

Schunck is practicing dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, Patterson said. It teaches things like mindfulness and the interpersonal skills one needs to effectively understand and fulfill needs.

“It helps me remain calm,” Schunck said. “It’s about self-care. … I’ve learned to love myself, even my flaws.

“Now I have a game plan.”

She wants to keep others from the edge.

Her life ended up pivoting on her sudden concern for her dogs and the text she sent to Nichole Cronin, “the only friend left who was still talking to me,” Schunck said.

Only because Cronin suspected peril in that text and called 911 does Schunck’s story go on.

‘Pocketful of hope’

See her wrist?

Sometimes a moviegoer handing over a ticket to the smiling Schunck at the AMC Studio 28 theater in Olathe will recognize what’s there.

A small tattoo. A simple semicolon — ; — within an outline of a heart.

If her life were a phrase, a period would mean an end. But the semicolon means the phrase goes on. Many suicide survivors have made it their symbol.

It suggests in its small way to the theater crowds filing by to see big-screen Hollywood drama that there’s a story right here.

It means she’s not hiding it. For most who go by, she’s just a smiling greeter. If you want, she’s open to share joy and pain — hers and yours.

“I have all this weird kindness I want to give,” she said. “I have my little pocketful of hope.”

Sixteen months she’s worked here. Sixteen months.

Officer Bussell and his family see shows there, and one of the times they checked in on how each other was doing, Schunck came to tears telling him she had gotten a raise.

“It was just a small raise,” Bussell said, recalling the moment. “But she said it was the first time she had worked anywhere long enough to get a raise.”

Inevitably she will tell him or his family or whoever is with him that he saved her life, Bussell said, “but I tell her, ‘You’re saving your life every day.’ 

She is a bit of a “mom” to the staff, mostly teenagers and young adults, at the theater. They know her story and some have sought her counsel.

She’s also intently mindful of the faces of customers, even in that brief passing moment.

One night the woman handing up her ticket was quietly crying. Schunck remembers asking her if she was OK. She said, “No.” And Schunck asked, “What can I do?”

The woman said it was all right and she just wanted to see her movie. Just in case, Schunck slipped into the theater later and offered help again. The woman thanked her and said she was OK.

“I want to be there for people the way people weren’t there for me,” she said. “I have this fountain of hope. I talk to people. I’m that person. It’s why I’m alive.”

Give help, seek help

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

Johnson County Mental Health Center Crisis Line: 913-268-0156

Access Crisis Intervention Hotline for Jackson County and Northwest Missouri: 888-279-8188

Wyandotte County Mental Health Crisis Line: 913-788-4200

National Hopeline Network: 800-SUICIDE (784-2433)

Kansas Suicide Prevention Resource Center: www.kansassuicideprevention.org

Missouri Department of Mental Health Suicide Prevention: dmh.mo.gov/mentalillness/suicide

Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition: www.jocogov.org/suicideprevention, 913-715-7880