WaKeeney Sean Reeder's family saw the signs and did all the right things to prevent him from committing suicide. But ultimately, their efforts were not enough.
John and Lisa Reeder, Sean's father and stepmother, remember Feb. 26 starting out as a fairly normal day. By day's end, their lives were changed forever. The 17-year-old shot himself in the head that day.
While his parents were away, Sean made three phone calls to his girlfriend. Things weren't going as well between the pair as Sean wanted. During the third call to her on that Sunday, Sean shot himself.
The previous November, Sean had made a suicide threat. What preceded that threat was the death of his beloved pet and then, two days later, the girlfriend saying she wanted to break up. On that day, Sean told his father on the phone that he wanted to kill himself.
Lisa Reeder went looking for Sean and found him south of WaKeeney. John Reeder went to Sean and talked him out of the gun. Sean spent five days at an in-patient psychiatric facility. While there, Sean drew up a safety plan of things to do if he felt suicidal again.
"It obviously didn't work the day he committed suicide," John Reeder said.
More common than murder
Nationwide, more people take their own lives than are murdered, said Karen Schueler, a consultant for High Plains Mental Health in Hays. About 30,000 per year commit suicide compared with 18,000 per year who are the victims of homicide, she said. Schueler points to other statistics that show that men ages 25 to 45 have the fastest-increasing suicide rates, and that people 80 and older have the highest rate of suicide.
In a five-part series, The Hays Daily News found Kansas' suicide rate of 12.7 per 100,000 population exceeds the national average of 10.8. Law enforcement officials in northwest Kansas report 11 suicides and 27 suicide attempts in the first nine months of 2006 and the emergency department at Hays Medical Center has treated 58 patients for 63 suicide-related incidents in that same time frame.
The problem of rising suicide rates has been the focus of recent educational outreach efforts by High Plains Mental Health, the community mental health agency for the region.
"Sometimes people think that if people talk about it, we'll put the idea in their head," Schueler said. "What we've come to learn is, it's already there. If we talk about it, people can learn there are options."
"I know there is a myth that if you ask someone about suicide, they will think about it," said psychiatrist Dr. Virginia Patriarca, who practices in Hays. "The more you don't talk about it, the more dead people."
Suicidal people are trying to solve a problem, said High Plains Mental Health consultant Ken Loos. They consider suicide whether they suffer from major depression.
"They have that sense of hopelessness," Loos said. "If you feel hopeless, tomorrow is not going to be a brighter day."
"When people are under a lot of stress, that is the main cause why people commit suicide," Patriarca said.
Loos said that if you can appeal to the part of the person's mind that is healthy, you might be able to make a difference.
Schueler said that while counseling can be an effective tool in preventing suicide, it won't always work. No matter how much help they get, how many people love them, how much medication they take, some will commit suicide anyway. Out of 100 people High Plains deals with, five still will commit suicide.
"What's difficult to understand is when a young person takes their life," Schueler said. "There's been a rise in adolescent suicide."
Kevin Struss' son, Kurt, was 19 when he shot himself in the head six years ago. Like Sean Reeder, Kurt Struss had been in a troubled relationship with a girlfriend. For his family, Kurt's death came as an unexpected, heart-stopping blow.
"There are some days you think you've got it in the back of your mind and something reminds you, and it just hits you like a brick," Struss said.
Hindsight has a way of bringing things into focus that hadn't seemed important before. Looking back, the family realizes that things they hadn't really thought about at the time actually were warnings.
"Open up your eyes," Struss said. "Look around. Go to classes. Learn what the signs are."
Patriarca pointed to loss of health, loss of spouse, job loss, financial problems, anxiety disorders, psychiatric disease and substance abuse as risk factors for suicide. Recognizing risk factors is important, because you might intervene if you recognize it early enough, Patriarca said.
Patriarca said she asks clients if they have a suicide plan, and how close they are to carrying out the plan.
"Most people will tell you," she said.
The Reeder and Struss families belong to the same church. Their pastor, Randy Gibbs, has seen firsthand the ordeals families go through in the aftermath of suicide.
"I think it's helpful to know that suicide is a decision by the person who does it and they don't consult their family in that way, so their family sometimes doesn't have any input," Gibbs said. "Most of the time I'd say they don't. The person who commits suicide is responsible."