I haven’t always been a suicide prevention advocate, but I became one on a rainy April night 22 years ago when my 18 year old brother, Jamie, took his own life.
For many of the first years doing suicide prevention work, I’d have told you there were few to no warning signs leading up to Jamie’s death. However, the warning signs were absolutely there, we just didn’t know what to look for or that they even existed. To realize we missed symptoms and to understand his suicide wasn’t as impulsive as we initially thought, hurt me. We couldn’t help what we didn’t know then, but that didn’t mean I had to sit idly by and wait for it to happen to other families. So I didn’t.
Before I knew it years passed and I’d done hundreds of presentations in communities and schools, as well as among civic and faith-based organizations. As we approached the 20th anniversary of my brother’s death, a few bad dreams resurfaced that began to trouble my mind and heart. I felt a strong sense that what I was doing was no longer ‘enough’ and as a result I found myself searching online for mandatory suicide prevention education in schools across the nation – with and for our students.
Much to my dismay, some states “recommended” prevention education but typically with staff. Only five states had legislation “requiring” the work be done with student populations. So I hit the ground running and never looked back. It wasn’t easy to share my families experience in the capacity of us being the example of what NOT to do, but I used those most difficult realizations as fuel for my fire.
In 2014, I found myself at an Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk — in the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ no less. It was my first AFSP experience with AFSP and I left Philadelphia with a light of hope burning inside of me. I always say “When I found the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, I found MY people.” I reached out to the AFSP Public Policy Office and they helped me every step of the way. They fed me the information I needed, assisted with my research and listened to me. With their help I was able to better guide the attorneys I was working with to create something that would legitimately decrease the amount of lives lost to suicide.
After five months of arming myself with research, the time had finally come to pitch the idea to lawmakers. My vision was BIG and I challenged (and pleaded with) them to make suicide prevention a priority in West Virginia schools. I was told time and time again it was unlikely to happen, yet they couldn’t deny there was a need for the work to be done. The previous year WV lost 36 middle school students to suicide — Thirty-six 10 to 14-year-old- students had taken their lives in a single year. Doing nothing wasn’t working and we needed a drastic change – quickly. The high school and college student numbers were just as heartbreaking,
After my initial presentation, I left the interim committee meeting with a few dozen handshakes and a pocket full of promises from my lawmakers. They assured me they’d support this law if I brought them the evidence and information they needed. Four months and four additional presentations to the committee later, they began to realize I wasn’t going away. The first draft of WV House Bill #2535 was eventually completed and it was 18 pages of the most boring but beautiful life-saving piece of work I’d ever read.
Twelve (yes, 12!) drafts of the bill later, it was ready to be introduced during legislative session. Little did I know the most difficult and challenging part of the process was yet to come – lobbying. As someone who’d avoided politics nearly my entire adult life, I had a lot to learn. I quickly learned what did and didn’t work.
What could go wrong did in the beginning; the bill was lost between committees in the House, the draft didn’t get fully completed in the Senate – I faced obstacle after obstacle yet I continued to show up and work at the grass roots level like lives depended on, because they actually did.
As I fought for the policy, I began to feel a greater sense of responsibility as lives around me continued to be lost to suicide. I took each life lost personally, I knew we were failing our people. This policy/ law wouldn’t only help save our students, but it also had the potential to help save adult lives through the education of those students. “Education is our best form of prevention…” I heard myself saying time and time and time again.
The more I shared via my social media and through media news outlets the more others came on board and joined my efforts. When others began to ask how they could help, I made it easy for them to contact their representatives and guided them through what information to share safely. Thousands of emails, hundreds of meetings and phone calls later I could see the change taking place. For far too long West Virginians had allowed the stigma surrounding suicide to control what we were doing, the silence was deafening and yet it spoke volumes.
The day finally came and I found myself speaking to a delegate about the importance of our #BeTheVoice campaign. Before leaving her office I urged her find her voice when the time came for the vote, I specifically asked her to share her experience with suicide loss if at all possible on the House floor. At the conclusion of the final reading of the bill, she stood and asked to speak. With her voice cracking, she shared her experience and urged her fellow lawmakers to pass this live saving policy. And then the unthinkable happened… as another delegate stood and shared, and then another, and then another.
30 minutes and 15 delegates later, it was with tears streaming down my face that I realized each of those stories shared was the sound of the silence being broken on suicide in my beautiful West Virginia. Hearing those lawmakers speak out about the thousands of others that had contacted them regarding this suicide prevention legislation – I can’t begin to describe what it felt like to know my efforts began that movement in the place I call home.
A few weeks later as my work on the Senate side of the Capitol was nearing an end, I held my breath as an amendment was requested prior to the vote. I feared they’d remove an important piece of this legislation. In an effort to honor a young man whose death by suicide had impacted and SAVED so many other lives across the state – the amendment was to simply change the name from the “Suicide Prevention Law” to “Jamie’s Law”.
Though we have the honor of the law being named after my brother, I feel it’s important to express that it isn’t really about him at all. It’s about every student with a personal struggle who has an entire life left to live. It’s about them living that life. That’s who this law is for, not my brother.
Ultimately “Jamie’s Law” is about saving lives. The law requires ‘mandatory suicide prevention education “for students” in middle/ high schools and across college campuses statewide annually.’ The law passed UNANIMOUSLY in both the WV House and Senate during 2015 Legislation and WV’s Governor Tomblin held a ceremonial signing of the law during National Suicide Prevention Week.
As a result of my nightmare (literally and figuratively) safe and meaningful conversations regarding suicide prevention education are now happening. Prevention programs are being implemented in schools and more lives are being saved. Those who are struggling are being helped – before it’s too late. I hope I never forget the most difficult moments in my journey that allowed me to recognize the need for something greater. I know this work isn’t for everyone, but it has been through my service to others and through my affiliation with AFSP that I truly began to find my way.
In the year my brother should have celebrated the milestone of his 40th birthday, we passed a law they named after him instead. There just aren’t words for that.
If you feel the need burning inside of you to do something greater — act on it. For 20 plus years I wondered why someone didn’t come forward and do something about this… and then I realized, I am someone. So I did it.
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