Soldiers, teens learn about suicide with help of survivor
September 23, 2011
FORT POLK, La. -- Suicide can be a difficult topic to discuss. It can make people uncomfortable and those who have considered or attempted suicide may not always be ready to share their stories.
Jordan Burnham, a 22-year-old motivational speaker from Pennsylvania came to Fort Polk Sept. 13 and 14 to share his personal story with Soldiers and students at the Bayou Theater and Siegfried Youth Center.
It was Sept. 28, 2007 and Burnham was 18 when his parents found a duffel bag of alcohol in the trunk of his car. His parents were upset and Burnham said he felt like he "was a disappointment, always making my parents upset. They looked like they didn't want me as a son anymore." He attempted suicide by crawling out of his nine-story window, a 100-foot drop. He hit the ground at an estimated 60 miles per hour. To this day, he still doesn't remember going out the window.
Burnham broke his pelvis, left fibula (which pushed through his skin), shattered his femur, broke his jaw (in four places), left wrist and had bled internally from his brain and his organs after he fell out the window. "I hit the ground in a standing position, with my left leg taking the impact. It's what saved my life," he said.
His parents were told he had 48 hours to live. After 48 hours, the doctors gave him 24 hours. When he lived beyond that, doctors said he had a 40 percent chance of survival.
He finally woke up after a coma and multiple surgeries. He didn't know why he was there or what happened. He remembers "feeling around, but there was a tracheotomy tube in my throat so I couldn't talk. I felt around and there was an IV in my arm and I was hooked up to three different monitors. I looked at my left leg and there were steel rods sticking out of my leg, my hand was wrapped up like I was about to go into a boxing match. I had no idea why I was there. To this day I don't remember going out my window," Burnham said.
He didn't plan on committing suicide. Burnham was diagnosed with depression when he was 16.
No one in the hospital would tell him what happened. "My sister was visiting and I mouthed 'what happened?' She started crying. She told me, 'You went out your window.' There were so many thoughts and questions going through my head, like who pushed me? How drunk was I to accidentally go out my window? Who slipped me a drug to make me do something like that? She told me, 'no one was in the room and you were completely sober,'" Bunham said.
While he was in the hospital, his weight dropped to 80 pounds. He had no idea when he would get out of the hospital and return to school.
A reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer wanted to do a story about his suicide attempt. "I figured by telling my story, maybe other people outside the hospital could read it so they would never be in the same position I was," he said.
The story came out in January 2008. The response was overwhelming. "There were a lot of people that called, visited, wrote letters, anything you can think of. It was great to get feedback, to know that I was making a difference with this story. People thanked me over and over for telling my story and making them feel as though they weren't alone in dealing with how they struggled with their mental health," Burnham said.
Burnham spent three months at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital followed by two months at the Bryn Mawr rehabilitation hospital.
Burnham was missing his senior year at Upper Merion High School; instead, he spent most of it in the hospital. He had dreams of being the captain of the school teams, as he was an athlete before the accident. He was confined to a wheelchair; unable to play the sports he loved. He went to his senior prom and graduation in the wheelchair.
"It was cool, but I went to and left prom in a wheelchair and I know I stuck out in a negative way.
I'm going and leaving graduation in a wheelchair. It was great to graduate on time, have my family there, to walk with the walker to get my diploma, but I was still dependent on my wheelchair. It was all my mind could think about. It's still tough for me to look back on my senior year. I missed an entire year I can't get back," he said.
But Burnham was not discouraged. "I try to focus on telling my story. Traveling wherever I have to so I can share my story to whoever wants to listen. That's why I tell my story. It's why I have this job," he said.
People still ask him how he is doing since the suicide attempt. "I feel great doing what I do today. I love my job. It's the most rewarding job I could ever think of. I have a healthy emotional balance," he said.
Burnham said it was an honor to speak to the Soldiers. "Their service is so commendable. They deal with so much, but some feel the need to put on a façade or persona. They feel they need to be careful of what they say to continue their career," he said.
"I want people to know it's OK to talk about what they're going through in a confident manner.
Sometimes we need someone to listen to what we're going through. While seeing a counselor often carries a stigma, it's not a negative thing. You wouldn't refuse to see a doctor if you broke your arm or your leg, so there is no reason to refuse to see a counselor for your own mental health," he said.
Burnham said Soldiers who spoke to him after his presentation said that marriage issues and suicidal thoughts were things they had to go through. "They would hide their depression. I hope my story helps them with their emotions," he said.
When speaking to teens at Siegfried Youth Center, Burnham helped them understand mental illness and depression, asking them what they thought about mental hospitals, depression and suicide.
"Two-thirds of young adults won't seek help if it's needed," he said.
To make the experience lighter for the teens, Burnham shared what he likes to do that makes him feel happy, like listening to music, hanging out with friends and going to see movies.
He explained that depression never fully goes away. "I still have depression. It's not a cold that goes away after a couple weeks. It's something I have to cope with and I do that much better. I make sure I don't drink to express my thoughts or emotions, see my therapist and take my medicine as I'm supposed to. Your mind is like every other part of your body -- you have to keep it healthy," Burnham said.
Since beginning his journey of speaking engagements in October 2008, Burnham has appeared on Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, in ESPN and Sports Illustrated magazines and speaking before Congress with Joe Pantoliano, the actor who has appeared in movies like "The Matrix," "Bad Boys II" and "Memento." He has been to 29 states and three countries, always sharing his story in hopes of helping others, he said.
He shared with the teens how to help a friend through a rough time. "It's good to check up on them. Ask three questions. You're asking the same question, but in a different way. Ask them first, is everything alright? The first answer can often be something they say to back you off. So ask again, is everything OK? They still give the answer you want to hear. On the third time, find a common ground of understanding about their situation and ask one final time. That might be the time they're willing to share their experience," Burnham said.