Guest Commentary

Help teens discuss mental illness to prevent suicide

Lane and Jan Marrs
Lane and Jan Marrs

A year ago, my family lost our 18-year-old daughter Lane to her mental illness when she died by suicide. Since then, I have come to know that we were not alone in our struggle with her disease. We are no longer alone in our pain at having lost a daughter, son, brother, sister, spouse, parent or friend to this illness.

In this terrible year, I have come to know too many families in the Kansas City area who can lay claim to the same horror mine came to know.

In our pain and guilt, we rehash every minute of Lane’s last hour, week, month and year in an attempt to understand this disease and how it came to claim our child’s life and future. It’s what parents like us do.

How many teens have we lost to suicide in just the last few months? Is it eight or 10? I don’t want to count, because every single one is a singular tragedy and each is one too many.

As we examine that time, we’ve come to understand that mental illness is uniquely difficult to navigate because it is not spoken of. It is particularly dangerous for teens because in those delicate adolescent years they are more sensitive to the fact that mental illness is not socially acceptable. For fear of being different, they don’t tell even their most trusted confidants what they’re dealing with and what’s overwhelming them.

That inability to open up becomes the true danger of this disease. These kids, these children who are struggling to cope every day, need the care and support of others to help ensure that they are not lost. They need to know that they aren’t alone, that they aren’t outcast and that they are not beyond healing.

That is why we have joined with other parents bound by this tragedy to try to make a difference. Our organization, Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids United as Partners, or SpeakUP, aims to help kids speak up about their struggles. We are assisting Kansas City area schools with education and aid for both kids and the adults in their worlds. Our resources include crisis training for teachers, knowledgeable speakers and a new teen-led mental health campaign that will reach more than 20,000 students in the metropolitan area.

Working with the Greater Kansas City Mental Health Coalition, our centerpiece is the You Be You campaign, developed by Bernstein-Rein. You Be You provides materials that promote mental health resiliency structured to be delivered by teen leaders within a school. Its goals are to help teens understand that it is OK not to be everyone else’s definition of perfect and to get them talking about mental illness like any other medical issue or special need. The hope is that it helps someone who might be quietly suicidal to find the courage to talk about it, or that it enables a peer or teacher to recognize the symptoms so they might head off a tragedy.

You can join us in this fight for our children’s lives on Sunday at Ironwoods Park in Leawood. We will walk to raise funds to help provide these resources to our schools. We will walk to create resources that might help you and your children start a conversation with someone who is struggling. We will walk because the suicide rate for children age 10 to 14 doubled from 2007 to 2014.

We will walk for our daughter Lane and for all the others we’ve lost. We’ll do it joyfully because we are becoming the help they needed. And we’ll walk for your kids because while we’d love to have you join us, we don’t ever want you to be one of us.

You can register for the walk on our website at SpeakUP.us. There you can learn more about the important things we’re doing for our teens.

Jan Marrs is a graduate of the University of Kansas and global human resources director for an engineering firm in Kansas City.

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