Making sense of the struggles
They’re two mothers with similar and yet very different stories.
Lori Cooper and Sharla Miller have known each other for years. They attended mission trips together with their sons through Wesley United Methodist Church, where Cooper is youth minister.
Cooper’s son has battled depression for more than a decade and made multiple suicide attempts. The first one came with no warning signs.
Now, the Cooper family struggles every day to keep him safe.
Miller’s son lost his life to suicide in June. He had spent his last days with friends, making plans for the future. He’d never shown signs of depression or expressed suicidal thoughts.
Now, Miller wonders every day what she could have done if only he had reached out for help.
“Whatever that problem was, I would have moved heaven and earth to fix it. I would have done anything.”
The two women are among the leaders of a program dedicated to suicide awareness. The event, “13 Reasons to Fly SEK,” takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at Wesley United Methodist Church, 301 E. Madison Ave.
The featured speaker is Isabelle Cole, founder of 13 Reasons to Fly, a national suicide prevention campaign that takes a different spin on the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why.
The event is free and includes lunch both days, with free T-shirts and giveaways. Registration can be made now through the day of the event, but call 620-365-2285 today to guarantee a T-shirt size. The event is recommended for middle age students to adults.
Miller had told her children: “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
She had experience with suicide. An uncle had attempted to kill himself and instead was left paralyzed for the last 20 years of his life. He died when Matthew was just a year old.
And Miller has her own story, fighting depression, going back to high school.
Later, after a friend killed herself at college, Miller went to a doctor. She learned her body does not produce enough serotonin, a chemical that promotes wellbeing and happiness. She would need to take medication for the rest of her life to fight depression.
“It’s manageable. Some days, it’s more manageable than others.”
So Miller did what she could to educate her children about suicide. She told them about her uncle.
From the outside, it looked as if her children were fine. Matthew was popular and well-liked by a cross-section of kids. He was active in school, in sports, in church, in the community. He had attended Allen Community College and planned to go to Kansas State University in the fall. He seemed happy.
But inside… She’ll never know what was inside Matthew’s head when he decided to take his life.
He didn’t leave a note. He didn’t post his intentions on social media. He hadn’t shared his feelings with his family or friends.
“I read that it takes only 10 minutes to make that decision,” Miller said.
At her son’s funeral, Miller had a letter read that she had written to God. She asked, “Why did you choose to sacrifice my only son, too? Show me what you want me to learn and do with this tragedy. I am ready.”
And, now, just five months after Matthew’s death, she’s ready to share her story in the hope it can help others.
“I really don’t want to publish or share my story at all, but feel I need to. I really want to just stick my head in the sand and pretend it didn’t happen. I want to stay in bed and not face reality, but I know that won’t help possibly save another young life from ending too soon,” she said.
“You just try to find a reason for it all and in the process maybe help someone. I hope everyone is able to walk away this weekend with one more tool to put in their toolbelt of life to make their world a little better and brighter.”
Lori Cooper and her family have struggled with issues related to suicide and mental illness. She works as a youth minister to address those issues with local youth, and is one of the organizers of a suicide prevention event, 13 Reasons to Fly SEK. It takes place this weekend at Wesley United Methodist Church. REGISTER/VICKIE MOSS
The police knocked on the Cooper family’s door one night about 10 years ago. Someone reported their then-14-year-old son had made suicidal threats on social media.
“We were asleep. We had no idea,” Lori Cooper recalled. “He was at home, by himself in his room.”
They took him to the hospital for a suicidal screening. They learned he suffered from a depressive disorder, something he’d likely battled and hid long before that first attempt. They’ve spent a decade in therapy and with medications. The Coopers have guardianship of their son, now age 24.
His most recent suicide attempt took place about a year ago.
“It’s something we struggle with every day. We still haven’t found that magic thing that will help him,” Cooper said. “He may suffer from depression the rest of his life. We just hope we can get it controlled so he doesn’t end his life.
“There’s definitely a team around him to protect him and keep him safe and talking to us. It’s like...What else can we do? Are we going to find anything to work? It’s really hard.”
As a youth minister, Cooper shares her story with the kids she works with at church. She wants them to feel comfortable talking about mental illness. She wants them to protect and watch out for each other. She wants them to know they can come to her or to each other when they’re struggling. She helps them communicate with their parents, so other families aren’t surprised by a knock at the door in the middle of the night.
“At first, you don’t want anyone to know,” she said of her family’s experience. “Now, I want to share. I don’t want people to be afraid to tell their stories. It’s not a sign of weakness. Every single one of us has felt down at times but some people get so far down into depression they can’t figure out how to find a way out.”
She recognizes the challenges faced in today’s society, for everyone but especially for children. Social media, especially, can feed into a person’s insecurities. People hide behind a screen to bully and intimidate others.
“It used to be, you could get away from your bullies,” she said. “People have so much pressure on them than they’ve ever had before.”
Her son was bullied and still struggles with the aftermath. On social media, he sees posts from those who bullied him. They’re getting married. They’re starting families. It looks like they have such great lives, and he’s still suffering.
“He’s on a roller coaster. Everything will be OK and then, BAM, something happens. It can just hit out of the blue,” Cooper said.
Her son turns to social media when he’s feeling suicidal. Family and friends alert them when they see a post that concerns them. Just a few days ago, someone reported a post to the Coopers.
“Sometimes, we don’t see it. We think everything is going OK. But sometimes other people will see it.”
That’s why it’s important to Cooper to end the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness. The more comfortable people feel talking about those issues, the more likely they may be to reach out for help, for themselves or others.
She’s hopeful to continue the conversations that will come from this weekend’s 13 Reasons to Fly SEK event. She also hopes to start a support group for caregivers of those who suffer from mental illness.
“It takes a toll on everyone,” she said. “It was devastating to think my son was suffering in silence and he felt so desperate to think that the only way he could find peace was to end his life.”
Matthew was the second death by suicide for Wesley UMC youth in two years.
After the first, in 2017, Cooper wanted to do something. No one knew exactly what action to take, though.
Just a month or so after Matthew’s death, church members attended a national youth meeting in Kansas City. They heard Cole speak and decided to bring her program to Iola.
Saturday’s activities include four workshops, with two sessions in the morning and two in the afternoon so everyone can have a chance to attend all four if they choose. Local mental health professionals from the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center and the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas will lead workshops. Topics include recognizing signs and symptoms, developing coping skills, journaling and positive self-care.
Sunday’s events include a question and answer panel with a variety of local and area professionals, as well as Cole. You can submit questions ahead of time, anonymously if desired.
Attendees can choose how much of the weekend’s activities to attend, Cooper said.
Miller was asked to join the organizing committee. It’s been good to put her energy into helping others.
“I’m still raw,” she said. “Let this be for a reason, not a repeat. If one child or one parent can get help or help someone, then this weekend will be worth it.”
Cooper is grateful for the community support. Numerous sponsors signed on to help.
She doesn’t want anyone to have to attend another funeral for someone who died by suicide.
“If we can fill the church up for the dead, we can fill it up for the living.”