Suicide; The Hidden Problem--Part 1

Posted by Bryan Henry  -  bio | email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - A new day is beginning to shine over Alabama, a new day Sue Matthews will face without her only son.

"Nothing in my life has ever been that devastating," said Matthews.

"My wife found him," said Alan Weeks. Weeks knows how Matthews feels.

"It was not a good scene," he explained.

This is a story of two young men who grief counselors will tell you 'died by suicide.' Matt hanged himself and he was only 18, fresh out of high school. He left his a family a note.

"It was very plain and simple...'mom, I hate to do this but I don't fit in," Weeks said.

Patrick Matthews took his life in the same way in the Birmingham City Jail. He started using drugs and was arrested for public drunkenness. The end came a few days before Christmas four years ago.

"He took his own bed sheet there and threw it across the window sill," Matthews recalled.

On average a little more than 500 die by suicide every year in Alabama. That's about a hundred more than the number of homicides we see each year in the state.

Closer to home in the River Region, the number is around 30 a year and remember these are the obvious suicides, meaning sometimes the manner of death isn't so clear. Nationwide, more than 30,000 Americans take their lives.

"He said to me several times.. 'I want to kill himself but I'm afraid,' said Matthews.

Based on family photos, Patrick Matthews seemed happy with a winning smile and a love for animals..

"He helped me build the stonewall," said Sue Matthews while looking around her garden.

And a gift for gardening.

"We started with that tree," said Matthews.

Deep down though, Patrick was hurting.

"He didn't have good self-esteem," said Matthews.

In a word.. depression, the kind of paralyzing darkness Mr. Weeks says gripped his son Matt and never let go.

"It just caught up with him like cancer would," said Weeks.

"It's a medical emergency, not a philosophical choice," said Dr. Judith Harrington of Birmingham.

Harrington is an expert in suicide prevention.

"It's a medical crisis that could have been intervened upon if we had more public education," said Dr. Harrington.

Public education in the sense of getting the average person to understand what to look for and help that individual, and getting people to understand mental illness shouldn't be a stigma. The good news is depression can be treated and preventing a suicide is very possible.

For example:

"I know CPR well. Well, why can't we do that for the public when we see suicide warning signs," Dr. Harrington suggested.

The things to look for include threats to hurt or kill themselves.. talking about death.. feeling hopelessness.. rage and anger. Up to 75% of all suicides give some kind of warning.

"Never, ever feel like it's attention-seeking or a drama queen," said Dr. Harrington.

What isn't clear is why white Americans tend to die by suicide than any other race, specifically those 65 and older. Harrington says in most suicides it's often a combination of factors; personal defeats or humiliation mixed in with clinical depression. Research is being done now to determine whether the sour economy in recent years has played a role.

"I did the best I could," Sue Matthews said.

The sad truth, however, is sometimes all the help and best intentions aren't enough.

"We were on top of it. Matt was under a doctor's care" said Mr. Weeks.

Weeks has chosen not to allow his son's death to keep him from reaching out. He spends his days now giving out hundreds of DVDs to public schools and universities, documentaries that deal directly with depression and bullying. Suicide is reportedly the second leading cause of death for people 25 and younger.

"Don't be afraid to get help," said Weeks.

Bryan: "Do you ever wonder what might've been?"

"All the time," Matthews said with a slight smile.

Sue Matthews has written a book waiting to be published about Patrick's death and depression. This is her way of reaching out, moving forward and giving back.

"They just need to get help and keep trying," she said.

Sue Matthews, Alan Weeks, two families with two crushing losses, two parents who refuse to let their children's death by suicide overcome their desire to light a better way out for others who are fighting the same mighty battle.

Recent statistics  show that more than 30,000 Americans commit suicides every year with the primary reason due to depression.

In Alabama that number is a little more than 500 a year. That's about a hundred more than the number of murders the state sees on a yearly basis.

The stigma of suicide is a sensitive issue for many, especially for those families who have lost loved ones to  suicides.

Pastor Dr. Travis Coleman of Prattville First Baptist Church remembers his first funeral some 30 years ago was a suicide.

Coleman offers this bit of perspective on the subject.

"I try to offer all the hope that I that situation but I also try to be that you don't want to be to speak too quickly and not cause any more heartache for a family publicly," said Pastor Coleman.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those 25 and younger.

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