Out of the Dark

Grant junior Griffin Kowash is no stranger to suicidal thoughts.

Since eighth grade, Kowash has struggled with depression. “I just got really zeroed in on all the negative stuff going on in the world,” he says. “It kept building on itself and I didn’t really have a way to get that out.”

For months, Kowash says, he’d been contemplating suicide. But he got serious about it at the beginning of his freshman year at Grant. “I just remember a really intense feeling of isolation,” he recalls. “It was kind of like I was trapped inside my head, watching through a window or something.”

In October 2011, another student made a rude comment as he passed Kowash. That, Kowash says, is when he began planning to kill himself. He drafted suicide notes. He said goodbye to his dog.

During a routine check-up the day before he’d planned his suicide, though, Kowash’s therapist sensed something was off and referred him to Providence Portland Medical Center’s psychiatric unit.

Kowash was far from thrilled. But soon he saw the difference it could make. “I started to really open up,” he says. A couple weeks after arriving at Providence, he felt ready to return to school, and the Providence staffers agreed.

Kowash isn’t alone, especially among his teen peers. Suicide, in some capacity, affects everybody. Some struggle with it themselves, and almost everyone has a friend or family member who has thought about taking his or her own life.

Nearly two months ago, the Grant community faced the issue when sophomore Henry Soltvedt died from injuries he sustained while attempting suicide. The loss hit family and friends the hardest, and almost every Grant student, parent and staff member felt the reverberations.

But suicide is a hushed subject. Most people don’t like to discuss it openly, partly because of the stigma accompanying depression and other mental health disorders. There are, experts say, many misconceptions.

The biggest fallacy, says Sonja Miller, supervisor of school-based mental health consultants for Multnomah County, is that nothing can be done to stop a suicide – or the factors preceding one. Miller has worked with at-risk people for nearly two decades and has struggled with her own depression almost her whole life.

“Depression is one of the most treatable mental health disorders that there is,” she says. Many benefit from anti-depressant medication, but even a few words from a friend can sustain someone who feels like life isn’t worth living. Professional counseling, though, is one of the most helpful tools, according to Miller and others who have struggled with mental health issues.

Suicide is a window of time, Miller says, “where people are thinking nothing will ever change.” The period – when someone is feeling hopeless and might contemplate suicide – generally spans a few weeks, she says. “If you can give them an opportunity to kind of work their way through that, then, you know, life will look different.”

In other words, nobody is suicidal all the time, and you might be able to help someone by reaching out to them.

Sometimes one major event, like a family death, triggers a suicide attempt. Other times, little things, like constant bullying, add up until someone feels like they can’t bear it anymore. Whatever the stressor, Miller says, there’s one thing almost all suicide cases share: loss.

It could be a home, a parent or a friendship, but sometimes the loss is less concrete. In some cases, it can be harder to find the root cause. “It could be loss of health, loss of economic security. It could be expulsion from school. It could be loss of freedom,” she says.

Although it wasn’t the only factor, Kowash says bullying was an issue. “I’ve been bullied a little bit, but it’s not the kind of systematic stuff,” he says, adding that he considers himself a bit of an outcast. Pressure had been building, and a single comment from a classmate was all it took to push Kowash over the edge.

“I just remember a really intense feeling of isolation. It was kind of like I was trapped inside my head, watching through a window or something.” – Griffin Kowash

At home, though, Kowash had a loving family that kept him afloat. At one point during the summer before his freshman year when Kowash was feeling particularly depressed, he reached out to his mom, who shared her own experience dealing with mental health issues. She helped him find a good counselor.

But he also acknowledges: “I was so uncomfortable with talking to my parents because, you know, they kind of hold this image of me being a really excited, cheery kid.”

Miller knows that can be a tough position for parents.

“Parents tend to be kind of in denial about it,” Miller explains. “Nobody wants to think that about their child, you know? That they could be that sad, that they would want to take their own life.”

But after talking with his mother and starting to visit a counselor regularly, Kowash says he has come a long way. “I’m doing better,” he says. “I definitely haven’t gotten to that same point that I was a few years ago.”

Dea’aira Willingham, Grant junior, struggled with suicidal thoughts as a middle school student in Stockton, Calif. For her, the stressor was a dysfunctional family that left her feeling ignored and rejected by her mother.

Willingham’s older sister, a recent high school dropout at the time, got pregnant at 17. Willingham learned one of her older brothers was heavily involved in gangs when a family member found a gun hidden in his bedroom. “I guess that’s why I wasn’t getting the attention I was supposed to – or thought I should be getting,” Willingham says.

Most days when Willingham came home from school her mother was at work, and the two didn’t talk much when they were together. But the tension inside the house was still palpable. “I know she was dealing with a lot of things,” Willingham says of her mom. “But when parents stress, it usually falls down on the kids.”

Before the school year ended, she decided she needed help from the outside. Along with a friend who was dealing with similar issues, Willingham approached a teacher who she knew would listen. The three talked for more than an hour. “After that point, she always checked in with us to see if we were OK,” Willingham says of the teacher.

But she was not OK. Willingham’s home situation still made her feel unwanted, and destructive thoughts kept surfacing. At the beginning of ninth grade, she started cutting herself. “I had cuts all up my arms. And that’s how I dealt with it,” she says. “I didn’t know what else to do.”

It didn’t improve until Willingham moved to Portland halfway through her freshman year and started living with her dad, who had been absent for most of Willingham’s childhood. When she moved in with him, though, Willingham says he provided the support she needed.

When she enrolled at Grant, Willingham joined an all-girls support group headed by Grant counselor Megan Schlicker. The group met once a week just to talk. “It’s really helpful,” Willingham says, “to know that there’s actually people that care.”

“When adults tell kids, ‘Oh, I’m here. You can always come and talk to me,’” she adds, “kids don’t usually do that.”

Schlicker agrees, but thinks group sessions – like the all-girls group – work well. The format allows adults to facilitate a conversation among students rather than meet with them one-on-one, which can be intimidating. “I think that’s why group counseling is so good for teenagers,” Schlicker says.

“It’s really helpful to know that there’s actually people that care.” – Dea’aira Willingham

Willingham says she got a lot out of the group sessions, and thinks suicide and mental health shouldn’t be kept in the dark. “It’s definitely something that people need to talk about on a daily basis and not try to ignore,” she says, “because it is going on.”

Senior Ainsley Hunt knows that firsthand.

Last September, she learned one of her closest friends from summer camp had hung himself. “I collapsed on the kitchen floor in tears,” she remembers.

Still crying, she drove to another camp friend’s house, where they watched TV together, sharing boxes of tissues while they wept.

The camp, an annual weeklong retreat focusing on Christian worship and spiritual growth, built a close-knit community of kids. Because of church and years of the camp, the group was very close by high school. Most kids return to the camp for a week every summer.

After her friend’s death, the group met to share stories and mourn. Hunt gathered with a few friends around a bench built in their friend’s honor. They mounted the head of a horse-shaped piñata to the bench – because the boy loved horses. “What helped me the most was hearing stories,” Hunt says.

Her friend had always focused on brightening his friends’ days, but he struggled with his own mental health. “He never talked to me about it because he always tried to put on a front for all the people he was helping,” says Hunt.

One hint at his depression was a conversation Hunt had with him a month before he died. “It wasn’t like, ‘This is why I’m sad. This is why I’m feeling this way,’” Hunt remembers. “It was more like, ‘I don’t know why I’m sad, but I just haven’t been happy.’”

Most days, Hunt wears a dark chain with a pony-shaped pendant that she was going to give him when she saw him next.

She also keeps a journal where she writes down memories of him. Her faith tells her she’ll see him again someday, but she reflects on his life and concludes: “I think what causes suicidal thoughts is trying to keep it inside.”

Miller encourages anyone diagnosed with depression or with recurrent symptoms to craft a care plan for the down times. “Some people do struggle with depression a fair amount of their lives,” she says. Miller is one of those people. Diagnosed with recurrent Major Depression Disorder, she knows what it’s like to feel hopeless.

Her care plan is simple. It includes staying clean and sober – challenges she once struggled with – talking with her husband, taking walks around her neighborhood, eating well and getting plenty of sleep. She also avoids scary and violent movies.

Miller thinks there is a lot of untreated depression today, particularly in adolescents. Boys seem to be especially hard to diagnose, she says.

Aggressive and antisocial behaviors, she explains, can be manifestations of depression. But they’re often disregarded because of a “boys don’t cry” societal mentality.

On March 10, suicide became real for many Grant students, staff and parents. Sophomore Henry Soltvedt had died the day before after attempting suicide on a Friday and being kept on life support over the weekend. “I think it was a wake-up call for a lot of people,” says sophomore Isaac Justice, a friend of Soltvedt’s.

He was on his way to the hospital when Soltvedt’s mother texted Justice to let him know they had taken Soltvedt off life support. “I’m gonna see him Monday,” he thought. But Monday came and Soltvedt wasn’t there, “so I’m like, ‘This actually happened,’” says Justice.

Lauren Wood, a friend and ex-girlfriend of Soltvedt’s, still hasn’t fully grasped the situation but thinks indicators existed that he was thinking about suicide.

According to Wood, Soltvedt wasn’t always open about his emotions, but in the weeks before his death, he started talking about how he felt more often. “I didn’t realize it at the time but it was kind of like a goodbye,” Wood says.

Julian Downs, another friend of Soltvedt’s, says he saw warning signs, too. “He sold me one of his old boards, and it was kind of weird. He said he was gonna stop skating, and at the time I didn’t really think of it,” he says.

Drugs and alcohol may have been a factor, too. Wood thinks Soltvedt sometimes got drunk or high to escape his emotions. “He said it was a way to kill the pain for just a little bit,” she says.

Justice met Soltvedt the summer before their freshman year, but they weren’t close until this school year. Things became strained in February 2014. “To be honest, Henry and I weren’t on good terms when he did it,” Justice says. He’d been holding a grudge against Soltvedt for a few weeks about something he now considers trivial. “It was just me being stubborn,” he says.

In the days leading up his death, Justice thinks Soltvedt tried to reach out to him. A tweet from Soltvedt, which Justice thinks was directed at him, said: “I wanna be chill with you dawg.”

The next day, as Justice was making plans with another friend after school, Soltvedt said in passing: “Dude. Your house is worlds away.” At the time, Justice thought nothing of it, but now he thinks Soltvedt was trying to tell him he missed their friendship.

“Unfortunately, that’s something I’m gonna have to carry for the rest of my life,” Justice says. “It makes you more self aware, and people need to be self aware.”

When school officials announced the death, they didn’t mention suicide. The family had asked for privacy and the school complied. “When something like this happens,” Grant Principal Carol Campbell says, “honoring the family’s privacy is the most important thing. The families are going through a really, really difficult time.”

But the silence only led to speculation. That, coupled with social media – a number of students learned about the cause of death and were posting things online – created an awkward situation with no discussion. Some guessed he had died in a tragic car accident, and a rumor even developed that Soltvedt had been murdered.

“I feel like they should have addressed it more,” says Wood. “It would’ve stopped rumors.”

At Soltvedt’s memorial service a few days later, it was announced that he took his own life.

Campbell understands students’ frustration that the cause of death wasn’t announced before the service. “It is hard to have information, or to know what is happening and not be able to share it,” Campbell says. “It’s a fine line that we walk.”

But avoiding the subject only makes things worse, says 2012 Grant graduate Katrina Rapp, a former youth crisis line worker for the nonprofit Lines for Life. She thinks the stigma around mental health creates a cycle where people don’t feel comfortable expressing their emotions, furthering the emotional instability. “Teens are too embarrassed or shameful of what they’re feeling,” Rapp says. “They’re too scared to talk to anyone about it.”

While support from friends and family is important, Miller says, a formal mental health infrastructure – walk-in clinics, crisis lines, professional counselors, etcetera – is vital. She also stresses the importance of “gatekeeper training,” the idea that everyone can be the eyes and ears watching for people at risk. “The more people that you have educated to recognize the signs and symptoms, you know, or to hear what somebody is really saying,” says Miller, “the more likely you are to intervene early.” ♦

More mental health coverage includes a profile on late Grant sophomore Henry Soltvedt and an article on how Grant health teacher Natalie Riley is approaching mental health in the classroom

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