A Split Second of Hope

By Chester Curtis, Directorate, Prevention, Resilience and ReadinessSeptember 28, 2023

Leslie Weirich has a story to tell. It’s a story she hopes will save lives.

“I love a Native America proverb,” says Weirich, “that says, ‘Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it’ll live in my heart forever.’”

If there is one thing this suicide prevention advocate has learned while speaking all over the nation, it is that stories are what people remember, and stories saves lives.

At a recent Directorate, Prevention, Resilience and Readiness webinar, she shared her story of loss and recovery in one second of hope.

On World Suicide Prevention Day, September 10, 2016, she lost her son, Austin, to suicide during his junior year at Wabash College. He was a star athlete and student who showed no warning signs of suicide.

“It’s one of those days etched in my mind and into my heart in a way I will never forget,” says Weirich. “It was the hardest day of my life and in my husband’s as well. And it changed our lives forever.”

Her son, Austin, was an overachiever. He was the president of his freshman, sophomore, junior and senior classes in his high school. He ran track and played football all four years he was there. He went on to graduate with a perfect 4.0 grade average because he took weighted honors his senior year of high school and received an academic scholarship that allowed him to to play football at Wabash College.

It all began with the ringing of a doorbell at 2:30 in the morning, according to Weirich. She then heard a pounding on a front door, and she and her husband answered the door to a police officer standing on the porch. The police officer asked, “Do you have a son named Austin Weirich who attends Wabash College?”

“Those are words no parent ever wants to hear,” says Weirich. “He says, ‘You need to call this number because your son has been in an accident.’ I grabbed that card out of his hand as fast as I could and went back into my house to find a cell phone. We called the dean at the college, and he answered the phone, and he told us that Austin had been in an accident that evening. Austin was with his girlfriend, and they had an argument, and he had shot himself.”

“We had a three-hour drive ahead of us, and we were only a half hour down the road when my cell phone rang,” says Weirich. “It was the emergency room doctor who asked if we were on our way, and I told him that we were. He asked if we could pull over to the side of the road so he could speak with us. He told us he was sorry to tell us that the ambulance had just arrived with our son, and he had no pulse.”

“We just sat on the side of the road for 10 more minutes, and then we drove the next two and a half hours in complete shock and silence, except for the rain, which never let up. We got to the hospital and ran into the emergency room,” says Weirich.

“We knew within 24 hours of Austin’s death we were not going to be silent," says Weirich. “We knew if there was any part of our story that we could share and help other families not have to go through what we have, then we needed to tell it. We had no idea what a big platform we would be given to tell our story.”

However, this was not the last tragedy that Wabash College would experience.

On the two-year anniversary of Austin’s death, Weirich and her husband received a text message from one of Austin’s former roommates who told them that Evan Hansen, a friend of Austin’s, had taken his life that day.

Evan Hansen was only 21 years old and about to graduate with a double major in Spanish and biology. He had just been recognized as a co-captain of the football team. He showed up for football practice on Sunday and talked to all his teammates. He even had a meeting with his coaches, and then on Monday morning, Evan walked into the woods, and in a split second, he gave up hope, and he lost his life.

“Both young men knew each other,” says Weirich. “Both played on the same football team for the same college, and both died on World Suicide Prevention Day exactly two years apart.”

“Austin and Evan knew each other, but their backstories were very different because suicide is complicated. It’s never about just one thing,” says Weirich. “It’s about a lot of little things coming together in that single moment; it’s about when life gets so overwhelming your stress is greater than your ability to cope with it. That’s what’s happening with our young Soldiers today, especially with the ones under age 25.”

“So, that’s why it’s so important for me to talk to young men when I talk about their mental health,” says Weirich. “I must talk about the brain.”

“The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until men are 25 or 26 years old,” says Weirich. “Evan had four more years; Austin had five more years. That’s the most important part of their brain because it has impulse control, reasoning, higher-level decision-making. It keeps them alive in those moments.”

“But let me tell you about Austin’s last day,” says Weirich. “He FacedTimed me for 45 minutes the day that he died. We talked about all his new classes that semester. He told me he had a lot less stress because he had chosen not to play football that year. He was going to start preparing for either law school or getting an MBA. He worked out that afternoon. He lifted weights. He called my husband that night. He and Austin talked about 10 to 15 minutes about all the college football games coming up on the weekend and Austin’s weekend plans. He even met his football buddies for burgers that evening.”

Four hours after he left that restaurant, he would get into an argument with a young woman and in a split second he lost hope, and he lost his life.

“What happened to Austin and Evan is happening to our Soldiers,” says Weirich. “In 2021, I was invited to speak at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. They had lost 20 soldiers in 15 months.” A significant number of the suicides were over personal relationships.

“That’s why I do this,” says Weirich. “That’s why I put myself through these details that I would much rather forget.”

“Later, I was invited down to Fort Cavazos, Texas, to give the keynote talk in a suicide prevention summit. There were lots of researchers presenting their data, information and research. I was there with a personal story.”

“What I’ve learned, because I’ve done some research of my own; it’s all about the brain and the back of the brain,” explains Weirich. “It’s all about the amygdala. It releases hormones that trigger our fight or flight response and helps us to know how to respond or not respond to things around us. It regulates our emotions—especially things like fear and aggression.”

Since the brain isn’t fully developed until you are 25 or 26 years old, depending on your personality, you can default to anger, anxiety or sadness when under stress. Impulse control has everything to do with young suicide.

The prefrontal cortex is where reasoning, logic, high-level decision-making and impulse control are housed. But the back of the brain—the amygdala—overwhelms the front of the brain. In a split second, they have an “amygdala hijack,” and they lose their life. It’s all about teaching the young brain how to cope when those big emotions overwhelm their reasoning.

“My son took his life over a young woman he knew less than six months,” says Weirich. “If he could come back here today, he would be the first person to tell you what an incredibly stupid thing he did.”

“But he’s not here, so I speak for him,” says Weirich. “I speak on behalf of my son, Austin, to tell you that even the most suicidal person in the world, even the most suicidal teen, or Soldier or college athlete, doesn’t really want to die. They’re really trying to shut down that overwhelming pain in that moment. And because their immature brain doesn’t have the resources and the coping skills to hold on, they end their life. They can’t figure out another way. So, they make that permanent decision about a temporary problem. It’s a split second because their brain overwhelms them. That’s how we’re losing so many young people.”

“Once again, suicide is complicated,” says Weirich. “It’s never about one thing. But a series of little events that led up to that moment that overwhelms the young brain. Many young people, especially men like Austin and Evan, and many Soldiers—they want to handle that struggle on their own because they think admitting that they’re struggling might be seen as weakness. It might impact college athletes’ chance to play (sports). Soldiers think this will impact their promotion or security clearance, so they stuff it in their invisible backpack and don’t let anyone know what they’re going through.”

“What research has shown us is that the soldiers who identify a current romantic relationship problem are the ones who are significantly more likely to harm themselves, said Weirich. A study entitled “The influence of romantic relationships in the assessment of suicide risk in the U.S. Army” was published in Military Psychology in 2022. It doesn’t get any clearer than that.”

“We need to look at how we can disrupt that thinking,” says Weirich. “How can we teach them healthier coping skills in those moments?

Weirich says that although everyone’s story is different, the common denominator for many young adults, including young Soldiers, is personal relationships. So, she advises them to reach for coping strategies rather than a lethal mean.

“I say go for a run, go work out, just walk away; do not let those big emotions do that thinking for you,” says Weirich. “Slow down until your brain can think more clearly, and you can be here tomorrow because a better relationship is in your future, but you’re not going to find that out if you’re not here and you don’t stick around.”

As result of her military family ties, and the realization that she can have a tremendous impact by reaching out to young Soldiers who are in the high-risk demographic for harmful behaviors such as suicide, Weirich has committed to supporting as many outreach opportunities with the Army as possible to save lives.

According to Weirich, hope is the strongest weapon in the war against suicide.

“Connection creates hope, and hope saves lives,” says Weirich. “Hope is expectancy; it is expecting to meet your battle buddies for burgers tonight or go to the movies with them. It is expecting to go out with your girlfriend this week and do something fun. We’re looking forward to something. We have that sense of expectancy. I believe hope is a protective factor against suicide.”

“I don’t believe anyone ever dies from suicide; they don’t,” says Weirich. “Suicide is the manner of death, but hopelessness, lack of hope, is the cause of death. We need to live a life of expectancy that things will get better because we’re all going to go through hard times, but what we need to know is it is not going to last forever.”