Saying, "Goodbye" without end
September 15, 2011
Sergeant First Class James Casteel, came home from another day of working in Special Operations at Fort McCoy, Wis. on February 23, 2004. He was greeted by his 15 - year-old son, J.J., an outstanding student, an Eagle Scout, editor of the school paper, socially well-adapted and loved by many.
Immediately the two started their customary conversation about each other's day and what transpired.
The conversation - so routine, so ordinary that Casteel cannot pick out the details, ended without event. J.J. went downstairs as he normally did and Casteel went upstairs to cleanup for supper.
"I never heard the gunshot." said Casteel "I was in the shower when I felt this horrible, eerie feeling come over me. I ran downstairs to check on him [J.J.] and I found my son lying on the basement floor...dying."
Casteel paused to control the devastating memory before continuing, "We had a few moments together before he passed away."
Looking back at the warning signs, Casteel remembers J.J. working his way throughout the house, a few days prior to his death, making lists. "When I asked him what he was doing he said, 'Oh I'm just taking an inventory, Dad.' Then later that day he was sitting down writing notes so I asked him again what he was doing. His reply was strange to me, 'What's the word for 'window' in Spanish, Dad?' I told him, 'ventana' and he said, 'thank you,' that was it. To anyone else with kids that may seem like typical things to do and one would blow it off as normal, but on that day I knew something was going on; I just didn't know what."
Casteel, like many other parents whose children commit suicide, did not make the connection of oddities and eerie feelings until it was too late.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 15-24 with the top two causes being accidents and homicides.
Most adults can remember the difficulties of being a teenager. They remember the gray area between childhood and adulthood; the need and desire to fit in and be accepted socially; the constant pressures from parents and peers to be responsible, continuously perform at high academic standards, and to be the best at sports, etc. Then there's the hormonal aspect of being a teenager and that alone can be monumental to deal with.
For teens that have an adequate support network of family, friends, religious outlets, supportive peers or extracurricular activities; can use that network for an outlet to deal with those everyday frustrations. Many teens, despite the available network, still feel disconnected and isolated from friends and family and those are the teens that remain at an increased risk for suicide.
It is important to note the risk of suicides with teens increases dramatically when they have access to firearms and ammunition at home. Nearly 60 percent of all suicides in the United States are committed with a gun.1
While there is the possibility of many factors leading to suicides and attempted suicides the following, presently, take the lead:
a psychological disorder, especially depression, bipolar disorder, and alcohol and drug use
feelings of distress, irritability, or agitation
feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness that often accompany depression (a teen, for example, who experiences repeated failures at school, who is overwhelmed by violence at home, or who is isolated from peers is likely to experience such feelings)
a previous suicide attempt
a family history of depression or suicide (depressive illnesses may have a genetic component, so some teens may be predisposed to suffer major depression)
physical or sexual abuse
lack of a support network, poor relationships with parents or peers, and feelings of social isolation
dealing with homosexuality in an unsupportive family or community or hostile school2
Being involved in your teen's life, showing that you care and remaining supportive can help avert suicidal thoughts and non-genetic bouts of depression; however, even the most involved families can still suffer from the tragic, senseless loss that suicide brings.
"We had a second family at McCoy. J.J. was well known and loved on the installation especially with the Emergency Operation Center guys and the Explosive Ordinance Device team members - he'd come in to work to visit them and discuss Army Field Manuals and Technical Manuals - he was so interested in those things. If it blew up, J.J. knew about it. He had a great social life." Casteel remembered that one of J.J.'s favorite family things to do was to invite 15 of his classmates each year to the Armed Forces Day Celebration in May where J.J. and his friends would spend the day climbing in and throughout the display tanks, helicopters and various military vehicles. J.J. had an intense fascination with his father's career, military history and procedures.
Missed warning signs have a devastating result. Not all warning signs will be present in possible suicide cases, but it is important to know them and take them seriously, they are a call for help. Seek immediate help if you think you know a teenager - or any individual for that matter - that may be contemplating suicide. Some warning signs to look for include but are not limited to:
disinterest in favorite extracurricular activities
problems at work and losing interest in a job or important projects
substance abuse, including alcohol and drug (illegal and legal drugs) use
withdrawing from family and friends
changes in eating habits
begins to neglect hygiene and other matters of personal appearance
emotional distress brings on physical complaints (aches, fatigues, migraines)
hard time concentrating and paying attention
declining grades in school
loss of interest in schoolwork
risk taking behaviors
complains more frequently of boredom
does not respond as before to praise
actually says, "I'm thinking of committing suicide" or "I want to kill myself" or "I wish I could die."
there are also verbal hints that could indicate suicidal thoughts or plans. These include such phrases as: "I want you to know something, in case something happens to me" or "I won't trouble you anymore."
teenager begins giving away favorite belongings, or promising them to friends and family members
throws away important possessions
shows signs of extreme cheerfulness following periods of depression
creates suicide notes
expresses bizarre or unsettling thoughts on occasion3
"If I could go back to...just before," said Casteel "I would have asked more questions. I wouldn't have settled for the odd replies that didn't explain the strange little things he was doing. As far as parents knowing what to look for, unless you search for, have training or a health professional...counselor...tell you what those warning signs are you may miss them - overlook them. Some are so very small. Some would seem 'acceptable' until after the fact.
"My wife and I, though now divorced, went through countless hours of beneficial counseling to begin the healing process. We took classes, sought out chaplain assistance and used many resources that were available to us to help get through. Some counseling may not work, but you don't stop, you keep going until you find some that do.
"I couldn't take it at Fort McCoy anymore because of the day to day contact with people that had known my son so I requested to transfer to another installation. I didn't know it then, but staying involved with the community, working with other people with similar experiences and staying involved with the counselors help to make it better. You never get over it, but it does become easier to make it through each day."
Casteel moved to Fort Greely, Alaska in 2009 and dove in to help Chaplain Vince Cepeda with the program from Living Works, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training also known as ASIST. Casteel spoke of his experiences and offered his services on this topic frequently to help educate others on the programs and services available. One such program is safeTalk. This program offers training to anyone over the age of 15 to prepare them in identifying persons with thoughts of suicide and to connect them with suicide first aid resources and to learn how to apply the TALK steps of Tell, Ask, Listen and KeepSafe. Casteel continued to build his support network and often thinks back to all of the friends and family who helped him get through the loss of his son.
"The support and love we received when J.J. died was unsurpassed. We had planned a small funeral, but in the end over 2,000 people attended. Busses from two school districts, full of children came - he had attended two schools. Susie, my wife, was stationed in Minnesota and I was in Wisconsin so J.J. spent time in both locations. Children from both schools came to his funeral. A lot of people from the installation came as well as J.J.'s entire Eagle Scout troop."
Today, Casteel takes some comfort in knowing that J.J.'s brilliantly clear, hazel eyes are able to see the beauty in the world and his heart can experience the fullness of life and love. "He donated his organs to the hospital and my wife and I found out later that two children were saved because of this. One received J.J.'s eyes, the other his heart."
"We still look for reasons why this happened... what J.J. was going through, what he was thinking - we have no explanation. We'll never have closure. Every day I have to fight to get through it and learn to say, 'good bye' all over again."
1 Statistic taken from www.kidshealth.org, "Teen Suicide"
2Factors taken from www.kidshealth.org "Suicide factors for teens"
3Warning signs taken from www.teensuicide.us "Teen suicide warning signs"