Family talks about teen suicide so others don't suffer in silence
To get help
If you are concerned about a loved one or are struggling yourself, call Rock County Crisis Intervention at (608) 757-5025. Outside of Rock County, call the National Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-SUICIDE/784-2433 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK/8255.
Several Web sites can offer help and education, including the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill at nami.org, in Wisconsin, namiwisconsin.org; the National Institute for Mental Health, nimh.nih.gov and yellowribbon.org, which focuses on teen suicide.
EVANSVILLE Monte and Terry Brumley will never know for sure what pushed their 17-year-old son to take his own life five weeks ago.
But they keep coming back to the same conclusion.
“I think he reached his limit of …”
“Pain,” Monte said, finishing his wife’s sentence.
The couple sat at their kitchen table with two of their four children—Mike, 19, and Zoe, 15—describing Paul’s talent.
Paul excelled in theater, music and art. A percussionist and choir member, Paul worked all summer to buy his own drum set. He showcased his acting ability as Darry in the production of “The Outsiders,” and his voice caught peoples’ attention as the narrator of Evansville’s “Beauty and the Beast” production. He wanted to become a musician or do voice acting.
“He had a beautiful voice,” his mother said.
But, in his teen years, Paul’s behavior and personality started changing. He wasn’t interested in his favorite activities, and he often became intensely angry or sad.
“It is hard to understand how someone can have that much talent and potential and not find hope in themselves,” Terry said.
Paul received his best grades during the past year of home schooling because his social phobia made him physically ill when entering his school building.
A disease was creeping in, taking over the easygoing, empathetic teen. It took a year of doctor visits before Paul was diagnosed at age 15 1/2 with bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder.
Probably because the school year was approaching, “he decided that he just couldn’t live like this anymore,” Terry said.
After years battling bipolar disorder and a social phobia, Paul committed suicide Wednesday, Aug. 19. Despite the mourning the family is just beginning, they wanted to speak up about mental illness and teen suicide to keep it from hiding in the shadows.
Advocates are pushing for more attention on suicide during September, national suicide awareness month. But the issue has hit home in Evansville, shocked by the suicide deaths of Paul and a 13-year-old middle school girl within a week.
“As a community, we’re very closely knit,” said Meaghan Hannibal, school psychologist for grades 6-12 in the Evansville district. “Every loss sort of just (has a) ripple effect, everyone circles around each other … with a suicide though, it’s just so tragic, even more heightened.”
Students have responded remarkably well in supporting those who were closest to the teens, she said. The deaths have left many parents wondering how and why, she said.
She’s helping students struggling with the grief, she said, and the recent deaths seem to be making people aware of subtle warning signs.
“Definitely it is an issue that we need to continue to talk about and educate not only our students but our parents,” she said.
Paul’s death created a burst of awareness of bipolar disorder and mental illness among Evansville teens, said 19-year-old Andrew Van Rooy, Paul’s best friend.
“People are like, ‘Wow, he had bipolar? What is it? I’ve heard of it, but didn’t know what it was,’” he said. “A lot of people don’t really know what depression is or how it affects you.”
In a smaller community, the stigma attached to mental illness makes it difficult to talk about, and it gets ignored, he said.
About 5.7 million American adults have bipolar disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The median age of onset is 25.
The risk for suicide is higher earlier in the disorder, Monte explained. That’s why early recognition and treatment is crucial, he said.
Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks, according to the institute. It’s not the normal ups and downs everyone deals with, but dramatic rises and falls.
It’s a chronic illness such as diabetes, which is how the Brumley family tried to treat it when Paul was diagnosed.
“You have to manage it,” Monte said. “There is no real stigma for somebody with diabetes. But if someone comes out and says, ‘I’m bipolar,’ well, there are lots of myths.”
Spotting bipolar isn’t easy because symptoms can seem like unconnected problems.
“We really want people to know this isn’t something to be ashamed of,” he said.
Bipolar isn’t curable, but it’s treatable, and diagnosed people can go on to live productive lives with treatment.
“There’s probably less stigma about mental illness than 30 years ago,” said Brad Munger, Rock County Crisis Intervention Supervisor, “but still a considerable stigma attaches to mental illness, and it’s all based on mythology.”
People believe people with a mental illness lack will or determination, that they’re not able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or that they have a bad family or environment, he said.
Insurance plans often cover only the minimum required amounts for mental illnesses, too, he said.
The changes in Paul were noticeable. The intensity of his emotions increased. He became more irritable, fatigued, sleepless, depressed, lethargic and uninterested in his favorite activities.
“A lot of his anger was directed at himself, ‘Why am I so angry all the time? What’s wrong with me?’ He was always angry, and he had never been like that. He was always easygoing, a sweet kid,” Monte said.
Several doctors said Paul was just depressed or being a teenager. Fortunately, the family found someone who specializes in teen mental illness and who recognized relatively quickly Paul was bipolar.
“We went through an entire year of hell trying to get Paul diagnosed,” Terry said. “It is hard to diagnose, but Paul wasn’t even diagnosed until after his first suicide attempt. If he had been diagnosed prior to that, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten as far into the disease as we did.”
Mental illness is implicated in 90 percent of suicides, Munger said, and almost 5.5 percent of the U.S. population has a serious mental illness. About 20 percent of kids age 9 to 17 have a diagnosed mental disorder, according to data from Munger. In Rock County, that equals 4,231 youth.
“I think there definitely needs to be more effort placed on identification of youth at risk of suicide, earlier identification of people, particularly youth who have a mental illness or possible illness,” Munger said.
Data isn’t yet available, but Munger said, “We are seeing an up-tick in the number of kids struggling with mental illness and/or substance abuse problems.”
It’s not just mental illnesses but also the difficult times many families are facing, he said.
Hannibal, the school psychologist, sees similar trends.
“I think we are experiencing more mental health issues—and more severe—in children younger and younger,” she said.
It’s never too young to have a conversation with a child about coping or being emotionally OK, she said. She works with her staff to start talking about such issues in sixth grade, expanding to depression and suicide by seventh grade and deeper as the students age.
Fighting for your kids
Monte and Terry want area parents to trust their feelings about their children.
They admit they’re not doctors, and they don’t want parents to be paranoid, but they said parents need to advocate for their children.
“If your doctor is saying, ‘Well, he’s just being a teenager,’ but you really feel in your heart that you know your son or daughter is not acting the way they should be, then maybe the thing to do is keep advocating,” Monte said.
Paul’s best friend, Van Rooy, isn’t afraid to admit he also suffers from depression. That’s why he wants teens to ask for help if they’re dealing with something that doesn’t feel normal.
“I’ve been determined to not lie to anybody about problems I have,” he said. “People care about you and are willing to help.”
As Americans, we’re taught to believe we can tough it out and overcome anything, Monte said.
“But if your DNA is set up that your brain is going to be doing this, we have to accept it and not stigmatize it or ignore it or say, ‘Well, he’s just eccentric,’ or something like that,” he said.
“If we can help one parent recognize this or one kid say, ‘My friend is acting really differently’ and they can bring it to someone’s attention, some other parent doesn’t have to go through what we have had to go through for the past month.”