Tulsa mother advocates for mental health education after her son's suicide
TULSA, Okla. — Talking about teen suicide is a difficult conversation to have, and some experts said that’s mainly because of lack of education.
In partnership with the Frontier, 2 News worked to uncover stories unmasking an issue not often discussed.
Many parents told 2 News they thought bringing up the topic to their kids would plant the idea in their heads. Now, after one mother’s tragic loss of her son, she said she knows this is not true.
Karen Sullivan is hoping education about mental illness will take a front seat not only at home but in schools across the state.
Sullivan looks over a table full of pictures. From mischievous smiles to quirky selfies, her son Caleb looks at the camera.
His life is on display in the living room.
“I just love that picture and seeing his face, and just wondering what he’s thinking sometimes,” Karen said of her son. “He just looks so beautiful.”
The saying a picture is worth a thousand words, and for Karen, it rings true. Her son was a happy, talented, and fun-loving young man. You could see it is eyes.
But what Caleb’s pictures don’t show is the struggle tucked away in his mind.
“He came to me one night, and he said, ‘Mom, I think you need to take me to a hospital.’ And I said, ‘well, what’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘I don’t want to be alive anymore,'” Karen said.
Caleb was in middle school when he shared those thoughts, and his mom sought the proper care. She took Caleb to therapy and pulled him out of school. She said over time; he got better.
“The following year was the first year of high school, and he wanted to go, he wanted to go back to school,” she said.
Karen said this was a step forward in Caleb’s healing, but the sparkle in his eyes seemed to go dim by senior year.
He went back to counseling and was diagnosed with social anxiety. Karen said Caleb promised she didn’t need to worry.
“About three weeks into his senior year, I came home one night from a haircut, and I found him,” Karen said. “It just blew our world apart. We miss him every day.”
Caleb’s illness is why Karen became an advocate for mental health education and suicide prevention.
“I was afraid to bring up that word,” she said. “I thought I would be giving the idea, and that’s wrong. I learned that that’s wrong.”
After her son’s death, she found journals in his room where he expressed his unhappiness and thoughts of suicide.
“So often mental illness, it doesn’t go diagnosed until they’re in a crisis mode. We didn’t know,” Karen said.
Faith Crittenden, LCSW and Senior program director with Family and Children Services focusing on children’s mental health, said there are things parents can do to be proactive, and it starts with being direct.
“I think sometimes people also ask ‘Are you feeling like you want to hurt yourself?’ versus coming out and saying ‘Do you want to kill yourself?’ because kids may say no, like if they’re feeling suicidal, ‘No you’ve asked me if I want to hurt myself, and no I don’t want to hurt myself, I want to end my life,'” Crittenden said.
She said if a child expresses suicidal thoughts, there are actions to take right away.
“If you feel like your child is in immediate danger, you can always go to an emergency room,” Crittenden stated. “Any of the major hospitals you can walk in and get some help, but also there are agencies like ours where we have programs called wraparounds, which helps with stability.”
The program COPES helps get families stable to avoid going to an inpatient facility, which is another resource typically available for the mentally ill.
Karen, now speaking out hoping her son’s story could save someone else’s child, said although he’s gone, she still feels his presence through his art.
“This is what Caleb painted that he thought heaven looked like,” she said, holding a painting of mountains peeking through the clouds.
A glimpse of heaven through her son’s eyes.
Along with her support group, Karen said they are thrilled about the new law in Oklahoma requiring mental health training in schools, which they hope gives teachers the resources and knowledge to recognize students in crisis.
Our efforts at 2 News and at the Frontier are ongoing to provide children the help they need. The recent legislative bill is just one step toward bringing down teen suicide rates.
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