If Jonah Payne had lived, he would have celebrated his 21st birthday Sept. 12. But when he was a 17-year-old student at the Early College Alliance at Eastern Michigan University, he killed himself with a firearm.
Jonah dealt with mental illness since he was a child and had been medicated for bipolar disorder since age 8. However, his mother Gwen La Croix says that by his teens, he'd "come a long way."
"He was very smart, in the National Honor Society, and he helped out in the youth group at the Baptist church down the road," she says. "Then he got into a situation that made him angry one night, and instead of knowing how to deal with that or feeling like he had coping skills, he found a weapon of my ex-husband's, a firearm in the hall closet I didn't even know was there, and killed himself in our home, a month after his 17th birthday."
La Croix took the anger and sorrow she felt over her son's death and poured it into advocacy around firearm safety and suicide awareness, getting involved with Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action. She often finds herself giving talks in September, since the month has been designated as National Suicide Prevention month.
She feels mental health professionals are doing a better job of creating awareness around suicide prevention, but it's important to keep talking about it since there's been an uptick in suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among young people. Deaths by suicide among 15- to 24-year-olds in Washtenaw County have risen in recent years, with the past decade's highest tally – 17 deaths – coming in 2016.
That uptick is also a concern for Adenike Griffin, behavioral health manager for the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti. Although suicide statistics for the Ypsilanti area in particular are not available, she says the community certainly isn't immune from the problem, noting there were multiple suicides among Lincoln Middle School students a few years ago.
"Now with COVID, we have to be especially careful, because youth are in a really difficult position," Griffin says. "They're isolated and more likely to become depressed and anxious, more likely to feel there's no way out of those feelings, and they're less likely to reach out for help."
She says she thinks there's a strong possibility that suicidal ideation among youth may rise even more over the next year.
"Regardless of whether their home is stable or unstable, they're still at a point in their lives and development where their peers are the most important to them," she says. "To take that away from them, to take away football games and homecoming and events they look forward to, leaves them feeling like they don't have much to live for. School becomes about just doing the work, and not about the social part of school."Adenike Griffin.
She urges friends and family to be on the lookout for signs such as increased isolation, seeming more depressed or anxious, sleeping less or more than usual, talking about not wanting to live or going to sleep and not wanting to wake up, telling friends and family goodbye, or having a specific time, place, and plan for harming themselves.
The Michigan Department of Education's Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth Survey found that in the 2017-2018 school year, 15.8% of over 5,000 Washtenaw County survey respondents in middle and high school had seriously considered suicide. That number had risen from 11.4% in the 2009-2010 school year, the oldest data available. Alison Paine says she has no trouble believing those statistics. Paine leads a support group through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Washtenaw County called Parents Together for parents of children who have contemplated or attempted suicide.
"No community is unscathed," she says. "Whenever I present to groups of 100 kids or more, at least three self-report [as suicidal] to their school counselor the next day. Getting the information out there and letting kids know they're not alone is super important."
Paine says that when discussing youth suicide prevention, particularly when talking to parents of suicidal youth, she wants to emphasize that "there is hope." Alison Paine, pictured with her horse Johnny, sometimes leads equine therapy programming.
"Many of these children have survived and are doing well with treatment," she says. "... Lots of these kids have got through the crisis and are doing fine."
La Croix says one of the saddest parts of Jonah's death was that he didn't see how positively he had impacted other people in his life. He thought he didn't have many friends, but more than 250 people showed up to his funeral. One friend wrote and recorded a song, and the leader of a dance troupe created a dance based on his life and death.
"As teenagers, it's often hard for them to see their impact, hard to see the people they're going to become," she says. "It's a volatile and vulnerable time. I tell people going through depression and suicidal thoughts to make sure they're talking to an adult, even if it's calling the national emergency hotline."
She also encourages friends and loved ones to break the stigma around the topic of suicide and talk to survivors about their loved ones.
"As a society, we don't do well with grief, and we don't like to admit people are going to die," she says. "Something people tend to do is not talk about the person. And I know, going through my experience and aiding others, all you want to talk about is that person."
The main point La Croix wants to get across to those she speaks to about Jonah's story is that "feeling the way you do in this moment does not mean that's how you're going to feel in two years or 10 minutes."
"It's such a permanent solution to a short-term problem," she says.Gwen La Croix (center) with her sons James and Jude Payne.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at (800) 273-8255. La Croix says calling the lifeline may feel like too much for someone actively contemplating suicide, so she suggests in that case that they use the national crisis text line and send the word HOME to 741741.
There are also local resources for those experiencing suicidal thoughts, including the Corner Health Center, which provides health care, including mental health services, to youth ages 12-25. NAMI Washtenaw County also offers mental health education and support groups, including a support group for youth with mental health challenges and a group for parents of young people who have contemplated or attempted suicide.
Corner Health has two events coming up centering on mental health and support for youth. The first, called "School has Started: So Now What?" takes place from 5:30-6:30 p.m. today. It is aimed at those ages 12-19 and is part of what Corner intends to be a monthly series. Registration for the event is available here.
The second Corner Health event will be held Oct. 12 in partnership with NAMI. The free Peer 2 Peer program is aimed at youth 18-25 who need mental health support. Registration is available here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe except La Croix/Payne family photos courtesy of Gwen La Croix.