Two fathers use own tragedies to teach suicide prevention
September 13, 2010
- Two young men completed suicide
- Their fathers now work with the AFSP to help educate others
FORT KNOX, Ky. -- Ken Richey and Vince Gottbrath belong to a club that's growing every day.
They are board members of the AFSP (the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) as they are fathers of young men who took their own lives.
In the U.S., a person under the age of 25 completes a suicide nearly every two hours. Kentucky now ranks 10th in the nation for such suicide deaths. Nationally, suicide is the third leading cause of death for people 15-24, and even the Army has seen a rise in suicide deaths.
Dustin Richey was 18 years old, a popular senior at a Louisville high school, when his parents realized Dustin's personality was changing and he seemed depressed. His parents took him to a behavior health professional who started Dustin on antidepressants. But Dustin died a few weeks later.
Similarly, Jamie Gottbrath was 24, a junior at the University of Kentucky, and under the care of a physician who had prescribed antidepressants. Jamie took the break-up with his girlfriend very hard and believed he wasn't "worthy" enough for her. He died three weeks later. But like many others who decide to end their lives, he seemed upbeat once he had his suicide plan in place.
"The night before Jamie's death he seemed better, and we thought he was better," Mr. Gottbrath said. "I was naAfA-ve enough to think that all he needed was those stupid pills."
"If I was educated then as I am now," Mr. Richey said, "I would have known he was suicidal, because Dustin was a classic case."
Both men now work with AFSP, teaching suicide awareness classes to high school students in Louisville. Although neither is a health care professional - Mr. Richey is a businessman with Louisville Stoneware and Mr. Gottbrath works in the motor pool at Fort Knox - they volunteer their time and share their experiences.
"I do what I do now so other parents don't have to go through what I did," Mr. Richey explained.
The men focus on what others can do to help someone who is suicidal.
"Communication is the key," Mr. Gottbrath said. "You may need to pry a little to get to the bottom of the problems. Sometimes you have to ask hard questions."
He said that his son faithfully kept a journal, but Mr. Gottbrath believed that his college-age son was nearly grown and entitled to his privacy - a decision he now regrets. If he had read his son's journal, he believes that he would have understood how desperate and hopeless Jamie was feeling.
Mr. Richey had a similar experience, with Dustin sharing a quote from a favorite author about dying when life wasn't being lived to his fullest.
"He showed me that quote twice," Mr. Richey agonized. "Why didn't I get it'"
Sometimes parents may pick up clues from their children's behavior, but don't want to push the issue for fear of saying the wrong thing or making their children angry.
"It's better to make your kids mad than to bury them," Mr. Richey pointed out.
"If you're seeing signs in your children or friends, talk to them, but don't leave them alone," Mr. Gottbrath said. "Most really want to talk about their issues."
He also teaches a class called QPR (question, persuade and refer) to high-school kids. He tells them that listening is good, but questioning can be helpful too, if the questions are worded appropriately.
"You can't just ask if someone is thinking about hurting themselves," he explained. "That may not work, because in the suicidal person's mind, suicide isn't hurting themselves-it's a way to relieve their pain."
Most suicidal people have other mental health diagnoses, and they are not thinking straight. They believe suicide is their only option; they can't think rationally so no other solution is apparent to them, and their emotional pain becomes overwhelming, Mr. Gottbrath said.
Unfortunately, emotional pain doesn't stop with the suicide victim, but spreads to those left behind.
"Suicide is a death you don't get over," Mr. Richey claimed.
"You try to get through it, but you never get over it," agreed Mr. Gottbrath.
Although he still grieves, Mr. Richey said, "I'm at peace with Dustin's death now because I know he's not waking up in pain every day."
The AFSP sponsors fundraising walks throughout the country. This year an "Outer Darkness Walk" will be held at Louisville's Waterfront Park Nov. 6. For more information or to register, visit the website at http://www.afsp.org.