"In his notes, he'd written â€˜don't forget me.'"
Sherry Lack was not about to let that happen. Her son, Dean, committed suicide in 1999, eight days after his 15th birthday. Since then, Lack has shared her story in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria during annual suicide-prevention forums.
This year, the Atascadero resident will also get to share with San Luis Obispo residents what she's learned in the hopes that parents and peers of all ages will recognize signs and symptoms before it's too late.
"You don't want to end up where I am because you didn't know the resources or the signs," she said.
Lack shared candidly that she thought her son had made it through the worst of his teenage angst and depression. He expressed his pain through getting into goth, Lack said. He changed his hair color from light blond to black. He wore more black clothing. He began cutting his arms. But he swore to his psychologist that he wasn't suicidal.
And he seemed to get better.
"A week or week and a half before my son committed suicide, I remember telling my boss that he's been in a good mood the last couple weeks. He's over the adolescent angst," Lack said.
"What I know now is that people, right before they commit suicide, they're a lot more relaxed and happy... because they made up their mind to do something," she continued. "I misinterpreted it mainly out of ignorance."
One misconception Lack attacks with fervor is that "people talk about suicide because they're trying to get attention.
"If somebody's so desperate for attention that they are going to threaten suicide, then you need to take them seriously," she said. "The people who tend to commit suicide talk about it. They don't really want to kill themselves."
After Dean took his life, Lack said she learned that several of his friends knew his plans.
"But there's a code of silence among kids. They thought he was being dramatic and wouldn't do anything. They didn't want to tell because he would get angry," she said. "But their friends have to be brave enough to stand up and tell an adult."
In her presentations during the Glendon Association's forums, Lack focuses on teenagers' situations and her personal experience. She said that such public presentations break society's code of silence surrounding suicide.
"It's the hidden secret. Then, when someone you know commits suicide, people don't know how to react to you," Lack said.
In her own grieving, she said the best comfort came from friends who simply let her ramble.
"For a while, I had to talk a lot about it. I had to get it clear in my head what had happened because [I was] in shock," she said.
Now, she talks about her son freely - often startling friends who fear to tread on the touchy subject. She said she chose to let Dean's life and suicide be a part of who she is, not consume her whole identity.
"I'm not going to ignore that he was a part of my life or cut his name out of my vocabulary to make other people comfortable," Lack said. "I'm not going to cut out the happy parts because something horrible happened."
* * *
"Each one of us can do something to prevent suicide."
Lisa Firestone, director of research and education for the Glendon Association, said it takes everyone to make the community safe in terms of suicide prevention, especially when it comes to debunking myths.
"It happens with little or no warning and there's nothing we can do - that's a real myth," she said. "Another myth is that it's one particular trigger that causes suicide.
"It takes a whole lifetime of a person feeling pretty lousy about themselves to bring that on."
Firestone also said a suicidal person isn't always someone who's been depressed for a long time - often it's the star of the team or the good student.
"You have to look at the inside picture - what's going on in their minds, how do they really feel about themselves," she explained.
"People who are struggling with depression and how many are untreated can be a significant cause of suicide," noted John Truman, fellow forum panelist and adult division manager for Santa Barbara County Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services.
"It's important for everyone to have this information," Firestone said. "They could be the ones who make a difference - by being willing to pay attention to signs and symptoms of friends, to be able to reach out and talk to them.
"It's hugely healing just to listen and care about a person."
Popping next door to say hello to a neighbor, especially an elderly neighbor, said Joyce Ellen Lippman, covers that extra mile for someone who might consider ending his or her life.
As director of the Central Coast Area Agency on Aging, Lippman will share during the forum her expertise on suicide in the senior population.
Much of a senior's desire to end his or her life stems from depression, which often stems from becoming isolated and struggling with serious health problems, she explained. The No. 1 vulnerability for seniors is the death of a spouse, Lippman added.
"When we experience challenges, we rely on our inner strength, our friends, and family. When we get older, friends die, family moves away, we get more isolated," she said. "Some people are more prone to get depressed, and poor mental health can result."
Lippman emphasized that there is help for caregivers, family, and seniors through the agency - and there is always hope.
"There is no magic answer. Listening, connecting, being there - doing that is wonderful," Lippman advised. "The sense of hopelessness is unnecessary. There is hope."
Andrea Rooks is News editor at New Times' sister paper,
the Santa Maria Sun. She can be contacted at arooks@santa
Knowledge is power
The Santa Barbara-based Glendon Association invites locals to its three suicide-prevention forums:
â€¢ Santa Barbara: Sept. 20, 7 p.m. at Victoria Hall, 33 West
â€¢ Santa Maria: Sept. 22, 7 p.m. at the Allan Hancock College Student Center, Building G, Room 106
â€¢ San Luis Obispo: Sept. 27, 7 p.m. in the Board of Supervisors chambers, 1055 Monterey St.
Glendon has held forums for several years in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria, but this is the first year it will hold one in San Luis Obispo.
Each of the free forums will feature guest speakers sharing their expertise on several topics, including risk factors and warning signs; youth suicide; suicide in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities; seniors at greatest risk; losing a son to suicide; and the suicide helpline.
Glendon will also hold a free depression screening on Oct. 8 in the Santa Maria Town Center from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information, call the Glendon Association at 681-0415, or visit www.glendon.org.