Tell Them Momma

Tell Them, Momma, Life's Too Much to Lose

by Today's Woman Magazine: Louisville, Kentucky

August, 2003 Issue

If only someone had noticed his depression. If only he had asked for help. If only someone had interrupted him as he cradled the cold steel of the loaded gun.

Eighteen suicide survivors have created a unique blue quilt to honor the memory of their dead.

Each quilt-square contains one photograph. There is a man proudly holding up a big fish and another wearing a tuxedo. Others are posing for cameras held by loved ones.

One young man represented on the quilt is Nathan Alan Eisert. He liked computers, rap music and basketball. Nathan was 6 feet, 5 inches and 200 pounds of lean muscle, a basketball player for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

Nathan's mother, Jan Ulrich, chose her favorite photo for the quilt. It is a joyful candid shot taken by the Courier-Journal in November 2001 after WKU beat Kentucky. In this photo, her son is performing a victory dance, kicking one lanky leg into the air, smiling broadly and waving his fists.

On June 8, 2002, with a gun he took from a locked gun cabinet in his father's Bowling Green home, Nathan shot himself. He was 20 years old.

Nathan is survived by his parents, who are divorced and remarried, as well as his 18-year-old sister Shanna, three grandparents, and six step-siblings. His mother and her husband Steve, who live in Louisville, have become active in Kentucky's suicide prevention movement. This is why Nathan?s mother is willing to tell her son?s story, over and over again. She wants to prevent other parents from losing children to suicide.

First of all, Jan wants us to know how normal Nathan was. "I did not see this coming," she says. "I thought [suicide] happened to troubled kids -- kids who take drugs, get in trouble with the law; raging, angry kids. This was not my son."

She describes how people eulogized Nathan at his funeral. A friend said, "He was the nicest kid I ever met." One of his former coaches from Seneca High School said Nathan was the "kind of kid you want your daughter to bring home."

"I don't want this to be the Nathan story," Jan says. "His story is typical." Thirty-thousand people kill themselves in the U.S. each year.

How is Nathan Eisert typical of suicides? He was young; suicide is the second leading cause of death (behind accidents) for young people ages 15-24 in Kentucky.

He suffered a quiet mental illness, major depression; 95 percent of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental illness and two-thirds of suicide victims are depressed.

He did not seek treatment; nearly half of all Americans with serious mental disorders never seek treatment. He was male; men complete suicide attempts four times as often as women.

He used a gun; guns are used in 73 percent of suicides in Kentucky. (Nationally, guns are used in 60 percent of suicides, according to the Center for Disease Control).

Two weeks after her son's death, Jan Ulrich was still barely able to get out of bed when her father -- Nathan's grandfather -- brought her a stack of printed information about suicide prevention.

At first she objected. Then she studied the information and was stunned. Suicide, she discovered, is an insidious epidemic, nurtured by our denial. And, it is preventable.

In 2002, Kentucky's Suicide Prevention Planning Group was established by the State Department of Mental Health to promote awareness and coordinate mental health resources. The group is composed of survivors, educators, law enforcement personnel, mental health treatment providers and others.

Public awareness is the first step in prevention, according to the Ulrichs, and it costs almost nothing. The 1999 U.S. Surgeon General's report agrees when it states, "Investment [in promoting mental health] does not call for massive budgets; rather, it calls for the willingness of each of us to educate ourselves and others about mental health and mental illness and thus to confront the attitudes, fear, and misunderstanding that remain as barriers before us."

Suicide Awareness begins at home. It is time to pay attention, to understand, and listen.

Pay attention . . . observe signs of depression

Thoughts of suicide are one symptom of a major clinical depression. When we are clinically depressed, we sleep too much or too little, our appetites change, we seem withdrawn or lethargic, disinterested in previous hobbies or interests. We might express feelings of hopelessness, have panic attacks, or use alcohol and drugs to dull the pain.

In Nathan's case, family and friends recognized symptoms of depression too late at his funeral. It was like assembling the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. His girlfriend saw one symptom. Family and friends saw others. The basketball coaches saw another.

Nathan had lost weight, he slept more, was withdrawn, his grades dropped, he cut classes. Because of the latter, he lost his basketball scholarship.

Nathan did not tell his mother he'd been suspended from the basketball team. She learned this on the day Nathan's father found him dead. "If only I had known [that he had been cut from the basketball team]," she says. She would have understood his despair. "Basketball became his life; almost like a religion."

IF ONLY is the phrase that plagues survivors like Jan Ulrich.

If only someone had noticed his depression.

If only he had asked for help.

If only someone had interrupted him as he cradled the cold steel of the loaded gun.

Understand . . . People who attempt suicide do not necessarily want to die.
People who kill themselves often do not want to die; they only wish to stop the pain, according to Jan Ulrich who is a fountain of information about suicide truths and myths.

One myth is that suicide is inevitable. Jan describes how a well-meaning person asked, "Don't you think, if Nathan hadn't [killed himself] then, he would've done it another time?"

"NO," Jan says. She is sure her son would have lived if he had received professional help.

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. People who are suicidal can change their minds rather quickly. In a 1988 essay titled "Heaven and Nature," writer Edward Hoagland explains why he no longer keeps a loaded gun in his home.

"Death's edge," he says "is so abrupt and near that many people who expect a short and momentary dive may be astounded to find that it is bottomless and change their minds and start to scream when they are only half-way down."

Jan understands how quickly a depression includes death-thoughts. It was just after Christmas 2002, and she was driving her car at night. She had been physically ill and was trying to recover from the difficult holiday season.

"I put on a song that I cry to a lot, "I Believe" by Diamond Rio, Ð and I heard my own voice say, "drive into the lights."

The first set of lights came by and then the next and I heard the voice say again, "Drive into the lights."

Upon returning home safely, Jan wondered "How can I of all people, who [have] everything to live for, feel that way?"

With professional help her depression resolved. The experience left her scared but smarter about how deep you can go and how fast it happens.

Listen . . . people with suicidal thoughts want to talk

Having suicidal thoughts is more frightening than discussing them. Talking about suicide does not persuade a person to kill themselves any more than the sight of a condom induces a person to have sex.

If you suspect someone is depressed, tell them you?ve noticed they seem sad. Ask them if they ever think about hurting themselves.

Then listen. Talking about suicidal thoughts can help.

According to Laura Krome, LCSW, a Louisville psychotherapist, "Most suicidality is isolative. When a person begins to talk about it, they are often able to see it in a bigger context, with its repercussions." This may be why crisis phone lines have been an effective prevention tool.

According to psychotherapist, Krome, the first years of college can be hazardous. College students sometimes feel vulnerable and unworthy. They might feel they've let their parents down.

College students will often call a suicide hotline. Crisis counselors are safe strangers, trained to respect each person's point-of-view, even the desire for suicide. Counselors do not say, "You have so much to live for" or "Look on the bright side." They ask questions, listen and try to understand.

Nathan's memory encourages his mother to continue her efforts in prevention and awareness. This summer, as she approached his 21st birthday and the one-year anniversary of his death, Nathan inspired Jan to write song lyrics. The chorus goes like this: "Tell them, Momma, tell them not to follow in my shoes. Tell them, Momma, a life's too much to lose."

© Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

© Stephen Ulrich 2013