It’s been two-and-a-half years since Sharla Miller lost her son, Matt, to suicide.
In that time, Miller has tried to make sense of her son’s decision by not only personally gaining a better understanding of mental health issues but also building a wider community platform for its discussion.
As such, Miller is spearheading next Saturday’s “13 Reasons to Fly” conference, to be held at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center from 8:30 to 3:30. The Nov. 13 event is free, but registrations are encouraged.
It’s the third year for the conference, which was warmly received in 2019 by students and their families. Last year’s event was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I made a vow that I wasn’t going to let my son’s death be for nothing,” Miller said Wednesday of her dedication to raising awareness about teenage suicide, the second-leading cause of death among that age group.
Matt Miller was 19 and about to begin his sophomore year at Kansas State University when he took his life.
Saturday’s all-day conference will include keynote speaker Amber Jewell of Le Roy, a counselor for Southern Coffey County schools and the author of the new book, “Finding Hope.” Jewell also works as a motivational speaker specializing in suicide prevention.
Also on hand will be staff from the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center, including Matt Stuckey, Doug Wright, Lisa Holloway, Janalin Taylor and Michelle Hoag. They will lead a workshop on coping skills and mindfulness; Lori Cooper, youth pastor at Wesley United Methodist, and Kurt Jackson of Yates Center, also a motivational speaker, also will participate.
Miller said it’s still unclear whether Isabelle Cole, the founder of “13 Reasons to Fly,” will be able to attend the conference, but that they have been in contact.
“She’s at a different time of her life from 2019,” Miller said, explaining that Cole is now attending university.
The day will include break-out sessions where people can meet in small groups.
The focus isn’t solely on youth, Miller said.
“We know that the elderly suffer disproportionately from depression, mainly because of their isolated circumstances. This is for them, too,” Miller said.
No matter their age, people have a tough time discussing depression.
“There’s such a stigma attached to it. It’s so hush-hush. But it’s everywhere,” she said, noting that during the COVID-19 pandemic health professionals have seen a dramatic increase in calls for help.
To be the mother of someone who has taken his life is beyond pain.
“It’s been very, very tough,” Miller conceded. “But there’s that saying, ‘you can get bitter, or you can get better.”
Taking her story public is no cakewalk.
“It’s forcing me out of my comfort zone at a time when I’m still wrapping my head around what Matt’s loss means to me and my family,” Miller said. Matt also left behind two sisters, Paige and Jenna.
“Probably the most helpful advice I’ve heard is from Isabelle Cole when she said, ‘It’s OK not to be OK,’ because some days I’m not OK.”
Miller is steeling herself for the upcoming holiday season and the expectations of celebrating. Milestones that her son’s close group of friends are celebrating — college graduation, acceptance to postgraduate studies, etc., — also trigger missed opportunities.
“This would have been Matt’s senior year in college,” she said.
She recalled how on this past Mother’s Day, a group of Matt’s friends “tracked me down after the girls had left and brought me flowers and a card. Even with Matt gone, I feel they’re my boys.”
“Matt probably didn’t appreciate how many people he touched. I gave away 25 of his football jerseys, some to people I didn’t even know,” she said.
“The thing is, Matt was just like everybody else. I’ve had many mothers of his contemporaries tell me that their sons have since confided in them about their feelings of inadequacy and suicidal thoughts.
“If Saturday’s program can save one life — one life — then it’s a success,” she said.
Miller works as an agent for Farm Bureau Insurance, with offices in Iola and Yates Center.
Though her temptation is to bury herself in her work, she is learning that is not a coping mechanism. “I’m learning to take care of myself,” she said, which includes stepping back when life seems overwhelming.
“I used to just push through any situation, until I broke.” Now, she weighs the emotional toll of certain activities and circumstances.
She’s also hired a life coach who is instructing her on ways to be nicer to herself.
“Don’t go until you can’t go anymore,” she advised.
“Matt’s death has also changed how I parent,” she said. “Now, if Jenna calls and says she’s having a rough day, I say, ‘let’s talk about it.’ Before, I would have brushed her off, saying ‘that’s life.’
“It’s important to give other people credit for their feelings.”
Miller has also come to accept Matt’s death in the sense that he thought at the time “he was doing the best thing for everybody else.”
Because Miller had an uncle who attempted suicide, she knows of the lasting pain it causes for a family.
“I grew up hearing that suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem, and I always told my kids that,” she said. “It’s hard for kids to see beyond their immediate problems and to see the big picture.”
For Miller, she first discovered she suffered from depression while a college student. Meeting with a therapist was a breakthrough.
“I was always trying to fix how I felt. It was such a relief to discover my body couldn’t process stress, that I had a chemical imbalance,” she said. Medication and routine counseling have made all the difference.
“I remember my mom saying she wished we’d found this out earlier than my junior year in college.”
Sharla’s family had “no idea” that she was suffering. “There were some pretty gray days,” she said of her youth. Despite being a homecoming queen and star athlete during her high school years, “I always felt I wasn’t that good at anything. I suppose that’s how Matt felt.
“I always thought the girls might need help because of all their drama, so I looked for signs of depression with them. There was none of that with Matt.”
One of Saturday’s sessions will deal with helping friends of suicidal students.
“What if your friend confides in you that they have suicidal thoughts but ask you not to tell anybody? You tell them that I care for you so much and I want you to live, that I did tell someone.”
For more information about Saturday’s conference go to “13 Reasons to Fly SEK,” on Facebook.