For Adam Carter, the moment came some 15 years ago in the preschool classroom where he taught.
Three-year-old Malcolm would not – or perhaps could not – sleep during the nap time; instead, Carter remembers, the young boy asked to climb onto his teacher’s lap.
Carter would have rather taken those few moments to rest himself, or to sanitize the classroom and its toys, but he nodded and plopped into the rocking chair. Malcolm joined him.
“He said, ‘Did you know that my grandpa just died?’ ” says Carter, who did not know. “Malcolm, at 3 years old, said, ‘I have mixed feelings about that.’ ”
For Stephanie Weber, the moment came nearly 40 years ago. She had recently “retired” from teaching to become a stay-at-home mom to four children, the youngest of whom was only 11 months old.
Weber’s mother, who had tried to die by suicide two-and-a-half years before, succeeded in her second attempt. She was 61.
It stirred within Weber feelings of shock, grief and anger, and bestowed on her a new title.
“The initials by our names are ‘survivor,’ ” Weber says. “We have been down in the trenches where we never wanted to be.”
Laura Bartosik’s moment came only three years ago. Her son, Seth, “so likeable, so compassionate,” chose to take his life at the age of 20.
Bartosik and her husband, Brett, overwhelmed with shock, tears and guilt, struggled to understand. Their only child was gone.
Seth was always “a happy-go-lucky youngster” and “a social butterfly.” Teachers told the proud parents that Seth was “a joy to have in class” and “a chatty kid.” He loved to fish, skate, play hockey and ride his skateboard.
Two years after he graduated from DeKalb High School, he was ready to attend culinary school. The taste of his bread pudding with caramel sauce is one his mother cannot forget; her voice breaks in sorrow when she says that she’ll never get to taste it again.
“I never imagined that this lovable kid, this social butterfly, would take his own life,” Bartosik says. “You feel your heart just breaking.”
Carter, Weber and Bartosik – their lives all jarred and redirected by personal grief or the grief of others – were among five panelists Oct. 12 at the NIU College of Education’s Community Learning Series on “Suicide Prevention: Sharing Strategies of Care.”
Panelists also included Brooke Ruxton, who serves NIU students, and Vince Walsh-Rock, who works with students at Downers Grove South High School.
Organized by the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, the evening was dedicated to what Chair Suzanne Degges-White called “breaking the silence.”
It was a night of courage and questions, capped by a performance from Aurora’s Simply Destinee dance troupe, formed in honor of Destinee Oliva, who died by suicide in 2010 at the age of 16.
It was also a night with a challenge to “end the stigma” and to “ask the hard question” to those who might seem suicidal: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
Mental health issues impact all ages and all people, something made vividly clear through the stories from the panelists. However, when it comes to suicide, many people are reluctant to confront it or to even speak its name aloud.
“We have to say the word,” Weber told the audience inside the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center. “Saying the word ‘suicide’ doesn’t cause someone to take their life.”
“Talking about death and talking about dying is hard. It’s hard all the time,” Carter added. “These are conversations that are hard to have, but they’re worth having.”
Ruxton, director of Counseling and Consulting Services at NIU, related the story of a former NIU student who earned excellent grades, was active in extracurricular organizations and held leadership positions on campus.
Despite her outward appearance, she worked hard to keep her inner suffering a well-guarded secret. She contemplated suicide every day. She cut herself to treat the sadness. When she chose to seek help from Ruxton, it took three or four therapy sessions for her to utter even one word; during those appointments, the young woman could only curl up into a ball and cry.
“I could see the pain, so I just sat with her,” Ruxton said. “I helped her to breathe.”
At the end of each appointment, Ruxton asked important questions: “Can you come back next week? Are you going to be safe until next week?”
The answers, fortunately, were always “yes.”
Eventually, as graduation arrived and their counseling relationship ended, the young woman gave Ruxton a note of thanks with a quote from Elizabeth David, a 20th century writer from the United Kingdom: “There are people who take the heart out of you, and there are people who put it back.”
“What meant most to her was feeling cared about,” Ruxton said.
Around 40 percent of students who visit the NIU Counseling and Consulting Services have considered suicide, she said. Around 13 percent of those have tried to kill themselves.
Young people today are “navigating this world that’s constantly sending them information” via social media, she said. When mental health issues arise, they might feel ashamed or embarrassed by what could seem to them signs of weakness.
“Not every person who is struggling is going to say, ‘I’m having a hard time, and I’m going to go see a counselor,’ ” Ruxton said.
Sadly, she added, the stigma of suicide prevents many from receiving the critical intervention they desperately need from friends, family and others in their lives.
“People don’t know where to start. They’re afraid to cross a line or open a can of worms,” she said.
However, she added, “you don’t have to fix it right there and then.”
Vince Walsh-Rock and Stephanie Weber
Walsh-Rock remembers cases of suicidal thoughts among Downers Grove South students as “minimal” when he started there 20 years ago. Now, he said, the staff under his supervision bring two – or sometimes three or four – such reports each day.
Many teens feel a “pervasive isolation,” he said, a type of trauma that requires compassion and action. Their young minds can believe that “this is the worst thing that’s ever happened – and it’s happening to me.”
Consequently, he teaches “depression literacy” and uses “threat models” that clearly signal to caregivers and others when they need to access appropriate services.
He also empowers everyone from teachers and school administrators to custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and secretaries to “see something, say something.”
“If you work in isolation,” he said, “you’re going to make mistakes.”
NIU’s Carter, an assistant professor of trauma counseling in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, has concentrated his career on intervening in the lives of preschool children.
Despite their tender ages, and as impossible as it seems, he said, there are 4-year-olds with thoughts of hurting or killing themselves. It’s as easy as walking in front of moving cars or jumping out of windows, he said.
Carter prepares future counselors to understand the grief experiences of children ages 3 to 5 – “it looks different,” he said – to help parents and caregivers communicate with the little ones.
“It’s something we as adults tend to be very afraid of talking about,” he said. “We don’t want to have these conversations with them.”
Aurora’s Simply Destinee dance troupe performed at the end of the evening.
Should the unthinkable happen, Bartosik said, survivors can find ways to move on.
For the Bartosiks, the answers lay in honoring their son’s memory and by supporting, teaching and empowering his friends and other young people.
They first opened their home as a safe space for Seth’s friends to share grief and ask questions. “We thought, ‘We can all stumble through this together, or we can let the kids just suffer through this all alone,’ ” she said, “but that’s not who we are.”
Next, they launched a non-profit organization called Project Seth in the hopes that sharing their son’s story could potentially save the lives of others.
“This is how we got our hope. This is how we make it through every day without Seth,” she said. “He didn’t do anything wrong. Something was wrong – and that’s why he took his life.”
Weber, the executive director of Suicide Prevention Services of America, counseled the Bartosiks in their mourning.
Her love for suicide survivors is the foundation of all her work, which includes education and training, a suicide hotline, support groups, public speaking and, of naturally, counseling. “I am honored that they trust me with their pain,” she said, “and we move forward together.”
Of course, she acknowledged, not every answer will come.
“You have to keep asking yourself ‘Why?’ until you no longer have to keep asking. The person who has that answer can’t tell us,” she said. “We finally have to let that go and move on.”
Mark McGowan, NIU Newsroom