Just before Chris R. started high school, his father told him the next few years would be the best of Chris’ life.
As is the case for a lot of kids, the opposite was true. Chris was small for his age, his voice hadn’t deepened, and girls wouldn’t go near him. He was constantly bullied.
“I tried desperately to fit in, and I just didn’t,” he told a group of community members March 7 at the Prairie Village Municipal Building.
Chris, who is now in recovery and asked that his last name not be used, was among the featured speakers invited by the Prairie Village Police Department and First Call KC for a panel discussion, which was open to the public, about teen substance abuse, addiction and suicide.
The event was especially poignant during a school year that has seen a county-wide increase in suicides.
The oldest of four boys who all went to private schools, Chris grew up in Iowa. He tried sports, band, and debate in an effort to belong. Then, early in his junior year, he had his first drink.
Chris said he can still remember how it felt. After several drinks, “all of a sudden I was the high school jock that had all the girlfriends. Instantly, I was the man. That’s what drinking did for me, and I loved it.”
The top two risk factors for suicide among teens are depression and substance use. Chris did not attempt suicide, but he did lose more than a decade of his life to alcohol and cocaine addiction.
Deputy Lacey Daly, a student resource officer at Shawnee Mission East, told the group: “We let students know we’re not just there for law enforcement when you’re in trouble. We’re another resource to get you some help.”
When a student at the high school is reported as struggling with addiction or depression, even with thoughts of suicide, Daly is often part of the intervention conversation, which also includes school counselors and social workers.
All Shawnee Mission high schools have a similar safety net for students.
Whether teens are dealing with inner turmoil by self-medicating or considering suicide, communication between students, classmates, parents, and school faculty and staff is crucial.
Joe Karlin founded the Tom Karlin Foundation after his son’s suicide six years ago. One of the foundation’s missions is empowering young people to “address mental health in themselves and peers,” according to the website.
Karlin wants kids discussing mental wellness all the time.
Like Chris, Karlin’s son, Tom, struggled with substance abuse during high school.
Unlike Chris, Tom was a popular athlete who appeared to be doing well.
Everything seemed fine during Tom’s senior year at Shawnee Mission West as far as Karlin was concerned: “Nothing in our minds said suicide. That was the last thing on our mind,” Joe said.
Tom’s suicide shocked his friends as well. His suicide note revealed that he’d been molested as a younger child — no one had known that he struggled with feelings of shame in the wake of that trauma, another risk factor for both addiction and suicide.
But when family and friends don’t know, they can’t help.
Chris pointed out that alcoholics are particularly adept at manipulation and covering up the truth. Although he drank to the point of blacking out on many weekend nights, he shrewdly kept the problem from his parents.
Getting sober on his own proved impossible. Like many alcoholic or addicts, he had to reach rock bottom and accept help from others to build himself back up.
“Tonight is eight years ago to the Wednesday night before the Big 12 Tournament that was the start of my last weekend out as an alcoholic,” Chris said. “I was at the Big 12 Tournament for five days. I didn’t sleep. I put everything and anything in my body, and my body gave out on Sunday afternoon and I ended up in the hospital. Twenty-four hours later my brothers were driving me to rehab.”
Chris is not sure if his descent into addiction could have been prevented, but he said that the cycle might have been broken if his parents had asked more questions about where he was and who he was with.
“In my high school years and 20s, I was chasing this person that I desperately wanted to be,” Chris said. “When I finally caught him, I hated his guts.”
Close contact with friends who’ve also clawed their way back from hitting bottom is what keeps him sober today, so good health persists as being reliant on a peer group.
While he can’t offer any easy fix for kids who are struggling, Chris firmly believes “there’s hope in every one of us.”