Friday, May 22, 2015

There Should Be A Law...

In the months since Peyton's death, I have tried to figure out how I could make a difference.  What will it take to open the eyes of those around me to the problem?  It seems that a topic of life and death such as suicide would be something that educators and communities would want to address, but not so much.  I have been told that by speaking about it, it could put the idea into a kid's head that suicide is ok.  Personally, I thought that way of thinking went out with the idea you could get the clap from a toilet seat, but I was wrong. So how do you get educators to listen when they don't want to?  The same way you make them teach a test that they don't want to, you make it a law.

After a student at my school took their life over the Christmas holidays, they gathered the staff in the cafeteria to address us on suicide prevention.  The counselor began the presentation by telling us they "Had" to do this, and after viewing art work of one student from another school and telling us to look out for any student that talks or writes about death, or draws disturbing images like the ONE we saw, contact a counselor.  After that we were sent on our merry way ready to save the world with information we could normally have gotten from a pamphlet.

During lunch, I decided to make good use of my time.  I looked up the Texas state law regarding suicide prevention training for teachers. I used the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention  website to see the laws in various states.  To my horror, I discovered that Texas requires that minimum academic qualifications for certified educators also require instruction in the detection of students with mental or emotional disorders; also requires that school districts provide at least a one-time training for teachers, counselors, principals, and other appropriate personnel to learn to recognize students at risk for suicide or in need of early mental health intervention.  I thought about whether, before that day, I had received any training in the time since 2013 when that law had been passed, and I couldn't.

While perusing that same Website, I saw the mention of the Jason Flatt Act.  I went to the Jason Foundation Website to learn more about the Jason Flatt Act.  Not only that, the program was offered free of charge to any entity that wanted to use it,  and had been passed in 13 states already (Georgia recently became 14).  Now Texas had just gone through an election cycle, and both my state representative, Mark Keough, and state senator, Brandon Creighton, were new.  I went to their respective web pages and emailed them immediately.  I asked for their help regarding legislation such as the Jason Flatt Act, and despite the fact it wouldn't help Peyton, it could help the students of Texas and keep them from making the same choice as Peyton.

After a month, I still hadn't heard from either Keough or Creighton, I decided to write to them again, but this time, I decided to cover moe of my bases,  I also wrote to every member of the House and Senate Education Committees as well as Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Governor Greg Abbott.  I also went on my Products for Peyton Facebook page, my regular Facebook page, every Facebook Group I am a member of, and my Twitter account encouraging others to write to their state legislators as well.  As I sat at home that night, my phone buzzed letting me know some one had replied to one of my many posts.  I apologize for forgetting who it was and denying them credit, but they informed me of SB1169 in the Texas Senate.  I read the bill and suddenly became invigorated. This is what I had been looking for.  Once again, I shared this information on social media, and the response was overwhelmingly in favor.

The next day I began yet another email campaign to all the same people I mentioned before.  This time, I was contacted by a staffer in Governor Abbot's office, and he assured me that this bill was on the Governor's watch list, and that it was a priority.  Emboldened even more, I began to call the offices of Senator Diane Campbell, the bill's sponsor, and Senator Larry Taylor, chair of the Senate Education Committee.  I also kept up my emails to other members of the Education Committee as well as constant posts on social media encouraging people to call, and providing updates on the bills progress.

One night, as I was sitting at home, I received a tweet from a man named John Horton who had seen one of my posts about SB1169.  He said he was a political strategist and asked me to call him. When I called him, I discovered that I was not alone in the world. He told me about The Jason Flatt Act, Texas-In Honor of Johnathan Childers.  It was spearheaded by Coach Kevin Childress from Fairfield, Texas.  Coach Childers had lost his 15 year old son Johnathan in August of 2013.  His group worked  with State Representative Byron Cook to get the bill introduced to the legislature in Austin.  In March of 2015, it was introduced as HB2186.

Although John told me that he would send my information to Coach Childers to have him contact me, I couldn't wait.  I emailed him the next morning telling him Peyton's story and my desire to be involved.  He quickly responded in kind, and invited me to come to Austin the following week to help him lobby for the bill.  We continued to communicate through out the week.  As fellow survivors, we had a great deal in common, including the fact that we truly understood what the other has gone through, frustration at school systems that spent countless hours training teachers how to teach a test,  and our desire to keep what happened to our sons from ever happening to another young person.

When I met Coach Childers at the Capitol, we embraced and he began to fill me in on what we would be doing.  He laid out who we wold be meeting with and what would be discussed.  It was a whirlwind day as we went from meeting to meeting.  I listened to Coach Childers passionately explain the purpose of the bill, the changes that had been made in the committee hearing.  After the first few meetings, I felt confident enough to speak up as well.  The majority of the people we met with seemed receptive to the bill, and by the time I had gotten in my truck and headed back toward Houston, I finally felt hopeful.  I felt that we were on the verge of making a huge difference for teh children of Texas.

A few days later, HB2186, with 120 coauthors, passed the Texas House 139-3.  A few days later, with Coach Childers and his family on the floor of the Senate, SB1169 passed the State Senate 29-1.
The House bill adopted the Senate language, and was passed out of the Senate Education committee.  Now it is back to the House for concurrence.  Although the fight will not be over until Governor Abbot signs it into law, I remain optimistic.

The process is never easy.  There are hoops to jump through, egos to soothe, supporters to appease, but first and foremost, the children of Texas will be the ones that benefit.  As Coach Childers said, "We can't teach them if they aren't in the desks."

Lost Another Young Person

I plan to keep this short and to the point.  I saw in the news that a young man in Robinson, TX chose a permanent solution to what was troubling him.  His name was Johnny Rogers, and he completed suicide in the student parking lot of Rogers High School on May 20, 2015.  It is sad that this has happened. This makes the 7th student suicide in Texas this year that I am aware of.  Seven young lives lost to never fulfill their potential.

Why does this continue to happen?  I wish there was a succint answer to this question, but there isn't.  For my son, it was a combination of bullying and mental illness.  I cannot, and will not speak for the others.  That is not my call.  I know that each has a story to tell, and I truly hope that others will not silence their stories.  If we continue to stifle these stories, then the epidemic will continue.

God bless Johnny, Peyton and the others.  I hope that their pain is gone, and you are happy.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Hey World, Suicide Exists!!!!!

When I was but a wee lad, I had a fear of the dark.  I was convinced that there was something living under my bed, and that it only came out in the dark.  My mother used to try and convince me that if it isn't there when the lights are on, then it isn't there when they are off.  Eventually, I was able to convince myself of that same thing.  As I grew older, and especially after I entered the education field, I began to see that same philosopy applied to education.  If we say it doesn't exist, then it doesn't.

I have seen this applied to gangs, "We don't have a gang problem, just a lot of kids that like to dress the same, hang out together in large intimidating packs, cause trouble, and deal drugs, but they aren't a gang."
Drugs were another problem that was constantly denied, "We don't have a drug problem here, you can get what ever you want, no problem." Now I am seeing it applied to mental illness and suicide. Not only by the administration, but by the community as well.

I live near the Woodlands, Texas.  It is a primarily middle class to upper middle class area.  However, there are quite a few out here that fit easily into the 1% category.  To say that this is a highly competetive area would be an extreme understatement.  Whether it is the floor plan of the house, the decorations, the lawn, the cars, the pools, hell, even the closets, there is a constant one upsmanship in the air.  I have also discovered that many of these parents have no problem using their own children as pawns in the game.  I have known nine year old little leaguers with their own private hitting, pitching and fielding coaches. Five year olds that spend five to six days a week in competitive cheerleading, and are dressed like street walkers for compettitions, but that is another story for antother time.  Even once the kids reach high school, it doesn;t stop.  I have seen students in upper level classes that have no business being there because the parents want them in there.  I have seen coaches spend hours on the phone being yelled at by angry parents because their child is not on the varsity squad, or not starting, or worst of all, cut from the team because they lack even the most basic skills to play the game despite the thousands the parents spent on private coaches and lessons.
I have even seen students with learning disabilities denied the basic services offered through special education because the parents refuse to believe that THEIR child is anything but a future Rhodes Scholar and leader of the free world. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that topics such as mental illness and suicide would be as taboo or prohibited in the lexicon of topics for conversation. After all, their perfect child can have no problems what so ever.

After Peyton's death, I made a vow to myself to keep any other parent from ever feeling the way that I do.  I also wanted to reach out to students and let them know that it is OK if they feel out of sorts, or as they don't belong.  I wanted them to realize that they are not alone in what they are feeling, and that it is okay to ask for help.  I reached out to schools and churches, scout troops, civic organizations.  Any one I felt might benefit from my message.  Instead, I was met with the sound of crickets.  It seems that those in positions of power have adopted that "If we don't acknowledge it, it doesn't exist" philosophy.  I have been told that I would be contacted only to find my inbox empty and my phone not ringing.  I have even been told that they don't want to glorify suicide by talking allowing me to talk, or that by mentioning it, I am putting the idea into some one's mind. Perhaps the most ignorant statement heard was on the local news about a district not allowing students to wear memorial shirts in honor of a class mate that perished in a car wreck.  The administration explained they don't allow memorial shirts because of suicides in the past, and they don't want to glorify suicide.

First of all, no one is being glorified.  Students are mourning a lost friend.  No student in their right mind is thinking, "hey what a great idea".  The problem is, most suicidal people are not in their right mind, and by putting it out there, you are allowing students and others to open a dialogue.  This is what needs to happen.  By keeping silent and refusing to acknowledge the problem, these kids are pushed further into silence until it is too late.

In the 24 years I have been teaching, I have been at several schools where suicide has occurred.  Each time, we received an email (or a photocopied letter) about what happened with specific instructions not to talk about it, and to refer all student questions to counselors.  It was only recently, after the death of a student by suicide at my school that we received any training at all, and the training was maybe 10 minutes, and could have been emailed out, or each teacher given a copy of the pamphlet it was read directly from.

We no longer have the luxury of ignorance.  Suicide is here and its real.  Dialogues need to be opened, students and others need to be addressed, and society needs to know that it is ok to admit to a problem.  No loss of life to suicide should be swept under the rug or marginalized.  If the person had died of a disease such as cancer, there would be prayer circles, and memorials, dedications in year books and t-shirts.  However, when the person dies as a result of depression, it is hidden, not spoken of, and trivialized.

NO MORE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

It's Not A Stigma, It's A Problem

I have lived every parent's worst nightmare.  I received "The Call", the one that catches us out of the blue, knocks us on our ass, steps on our throats, makes breathing impossible.  Once it lets up on our throat, it kicks us in the ribs, the head, the gut, the nuts, and anywhere else it can inflict pain.

After "The Call" came "The Wait".  Gut wrenching hours spent by a hospital bed praying for a positive outcome, looking for any sign of improvement, momentary respites of false hope that are dashed to bits by reality.  Test results taunt you, faith eludes you, and death haunts you.

After "The Wait" came "The News".  All of it was bad.  You prepare for the worst.  You know you are walking out with the same number you walked in with.  Hope is gone, miracles are gone, hail marys are gone.  All that is left is the body that held the spirit, but the spirit is gone.

After "The News" comes "New Normal", which I talked about in a previous post.  Ultimately, you learn how to live your life over again.  Nothing will ever be the same.

After Peyton's suicide, I tried to understand as much as I could.  I read everything that I could in order to try to get a grip on my new reality.  I began by trying to understand why some one would take a belt and use it to hang himself from a ceiling fan.  This is not what you would expect from a "normal" person, hence the reason that 90% of suicides are committed by people suffering from mental illness.  That wasn't the first time I had come across that term, but it was the first time that I applied it to my son. After all, Peyton suffered from depression and anxiety.  Those are, in fact, mental illnesses, therefore, my son was mentally ill.  It was hard for me to admit to that, because I also suffer from depression (have for years), and so I too am mentally ill.

 Peyton was mentally ill, but not in the way that is stereotyped in the media and on TV.  He wasn't standing on a street corner in his bathrobe screaming about the apocolypse.  He wasn't in a church steeple with a deer rifle picking off random pedestrians, nor had he been fitted for a straight jacket and residing in a padded room.  No, he was a typical 13 year old.  He loved watching Dr. Who, reading, playing video games, texting his friends, and trying to become a You Tube sensation. I don't know if subconsciously I didn't want to admit that either of us was menatlly ill, or I just didn't think that depression would be classified as such.  After all, I took my medication every morning, held a full time job, was married, owned a house and truck.  surely these were not what the mentally ill did.

I have been teaching for 24 years.  My students that were mentally ill abused drugs, lashed out at authority and others, cursed out the teacher, had to stay in the same room all day because they couldn't interact with others without being violent.  Those kids were menatlly ill.  In fact, we would use the politically incorrect term, "Crazy."  My son was not one of "those" kids.  He was a tuly good kid.  He made good grades, was praised and liked by his teachers, and generally seemed to enjoy life, but that all came crashing down on October 8, 2014.

My search for answers began as I tried to pass the hours at Peyton's bedside.  I had brought my Ipad with me, and began to delve into the clinical world.  I tried to get a handle on depression and anxiety
And how they affected people. My education continued when I became involved with my survivors group. We all talked about our loved ones, and how we missed that, but most of all, we began to examine their lives, and how we lost them. For the most part, we never saw it coming, but we all knew there was something wrong. We al talked about how their personalities would change, or we would discover things about their past, but each one of us could not fathom the emotional pain they must have been goi g through to take their life. Each of us was at a low point in our lives, and we were all hurting in a way we had never hurt before, but none of us had ever reached the point of truly going through with suicide.

I want to relate my experiences in this matter. I had been warned by many that the weeks and months following Peyton's suicide would be difficult, and I had to be careful about giving in to urges. The first was alcohol.  In Our house,we generally keep several types of liquor. I have Scotch, whiskey, vodka, tequila and rum in addition to beer and wine. I thought about how easy it would be to drink the pain away, but with only an exception or two, I never really did. I would have a drink on occasion, but never to the point of losing control, and certainly not to the point of blacking out. I also had sleeping pills that been prescribed to me, and often, especially after refilling it, did I think about how easy it would be to down the whole bottle and wash it down with a nice single malt, but that was as close as I got.  I never mixed the two, and most nights would cut the pills in half because I didn't feel that I needed the whole dose.

So the question is, what brings a person to the point that suicide is the solution to a problem?  The first thing I hear people talk about is the pain. Many times this pain goes beyond emotional to the physical. I can undestined that all too well. I suffer from depression, and I know how it can lead from physical discomfort to outright pain, but once again, never, even after Peyton's death, have I reached that point. I have thought about physical pain that I have experienced from root canals to broken bones. Some times the pain has been crippling,  but even then, I wanted relief, but not permanent escape.

 I can't even begin to imagine how severe Peyton's (or anyone else's) emotional pain must have been. From all the conversations I have had, one common theme seems to emerge time and time again, "They wanted the pain to stop."  This is a pain so severe that it over rides rational thought. It makes the person forget all that they have, all those that care for them, and all that they have yet to experience. They can no longer even dull the pain with drugs, alcohol, cutting, or any other escape technique.  It consumes them to the point  that death is the release.

We all want to know "why?", but we may never. I think it begins with our society. Our society makes illnesses such as depression and anxiety a stigma, something to be ashamed of, or the punchline to a joke. With many, it is seen as a weakness, that what you are feeling is bad, and there fore, so are you. What about children and teens that face mental illness? Will they talk to a counselor at school?  If the counselor can fit them in among all the other tasks they are assigned.  Maybe they will go to a parent.  What if that parent doesn't want to admit that there is something wrong with their child and tells them that it is "just a phase" or "you'll get over it."  For those of us brave enough to admit our illness (whether to ourselves or others)  and seek help, we may be hindered by cost because of the lack of insurance coverage.  If we do have insurance, we may have to choose from a small list, and getting an appointment may be next to impossible.  Even once you do get it, will that person be a good fit for you? If not, then you may have to wait even longer.  If we get in and click with the professional, perhaps there will be medication involved.  If so, is it the right one, will the dosage be enough, too much, too little?  With all of this hitting a person in need of help, it is no wonder that many give up hope.

The first thing we have to do as a society is take away the stigma.  Remember that every person suffering from mental illness is just that, a person.  If they had cancer, there would be little doubt as to whether or not that person needs treatment, and just like you wouldn't tell a person with cancer to "get over it" or "learn to deal with it" or even "just think cancer free thoughts and you'll be fine", you don't do that to mental illness.