As the community discussion of mental health issues increases, Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Executive Director Cassandra Walton is grateful but also regretful.
Walton wishes her community spoke up about the signs of suicide earlier in her life.
Rather than learning through conversations or books, Walton discovered suicide in fifth grade after a close family member’s attempt.
“It was the first time I realized someone could be in so much pain that they feel [suicide] is their only option,” Walton said.
She experienced it again in 2015 after a close friend, Chase Bowlby, died by suicide. She said Bowlby didn’t exhibit signs of suicidal behavior. He was “full of life” and “loved by everyone.”
However, Walton didn’t have the expertise to note Bowlby’s behavior and provide help for her friend.
“It’s a burden I carry in my heart knowing when I look back, it’s that hindsight is 20/20 thing,” Walton said. “He was speaking a language I didn’t understand at that time. My heart aches when I think the world lost someone like him and I want to prevent that moving forward.”
Betty and Kevin Van Thournout experienced a similar situation in July 2014 after their son Ryan died by suicide. Prior to Ryan’s death, Betty said she and her husband had no experience with suicide.
But Ryan, who was married with two children, began to experience issues with his marriage. His wife and children moved to California and Ryan fell into a deep depression.
On July 10, 2014, at age 26, Ryan fatally shot himself in the head.
“I realized that first morning I woke up without him that I had no one to turn to who knew the grief I was going through,” Betty Van Thournout said. “The only person I knew who lost a son to suicide was Kay and Rick Warren.”
The Warrens, who own Saddleback Church, a megachurch in Orange County, California, lost their son Matthew to suicide at age 27. However, the Warrens are also celebrities and communicating with them was extremely difficult.
Betty didn’t quit, though. She continued her hunt for assistance and discovered Heartbeat Survivors After Suicide, a Colorado Springs organization that supports those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
“When our son died, Betty came to me and said, ‘I have to know that there are others who have lost their children to suicide.’ And that’s what led us to Heartbeat,” Kevin said. “At the beginning, it was finding other people experiencing this and talking to them about it. Everyone wants to share their story and people who understand their story to hear it.”
The Van Thournouts and Walton strove to learn all they could about the signs of a suicidal person and how to potentially intervene.
“It’s that proactive conversation and thinking about it before tragedy occurs,” Walton said. “The more people who understand the signs of suicide, what to do if they see any of those things or are suspicious of those signs means the more people we have who can look at each other through those lenses of prevention and proactive thoughts.”
For those who aren’t reached before death, Betty wishes to encourage conversations regarding postvention, which aids those suffering after death by suicide.
“Postvention is so often overlooked for someone who has lost a loved one to suicide, so we want to be vocal out in the community,” Betty said. “We don’t want this group to have to exist. But it does exist, so what are we going to do on the postvention side? We assist as best as possible.”
Betty and Kevin joined Heartbeat Survivors After Suicide three weeks after Ryan’s death and five years ago, they took the reins of the volunteer program.
Heartbeat Survivors works in conjunction with Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention to aid families and host events such as the Race Against Suicide 5K Walk/Run, which takes place Sept. 19 at 9 a.m. at El Pomar Youth Sports Park.
Kevin said the race unites the community and allows people to honor suicide victims.
“One of our biggest fears is people will forget. We don’t want people to forget,” Kevin said. “Our loved ones were beautiful and had lives they lived. It’s not the manner of their death that defines them – it’s their life.”
To pay tribute to all victims, at last year’s race Betty and Kevin read a list of 500 names containing El Paso County suicide victims.
“You better believe we would,” Betty said when asked if they read each name on the list. “We [read the names to] honor the people who are left behind and to honor their loved one. Just because the circumstances arose that the pain of life was too much for them doesn’t diminish who they were as a person.
“We honor that by reading their name and for those who are still here to say: ‘We see you; we hear you; we love you and we honor you’.”
Reporting technicalities makes it difficult to determine the specific number of suicide deaths in El Paso County.
“If someone lives in Teller County but dies in El Paso [County], is that an El Paso loss or a Teller loss?” Betty said. “If they’re here from Missouri, if they’re military and they complete suicide in Colorado, is that a Colorado loss? When [the El Paso County coroner] figures that out, it takes time to get those numbers out to the public.”
Regardless, Betty and Kevin read the names provided and trade off speaking duties halfway through. Emotions usually overwhelm Kevin and force him to hand the list to Betty.
“I think of the families, the parents, the siblings, the friends and the co-workers. All those the suicide affected and it gets overwhelming,” Kevin said. “I can usually get through the first half before I have to hand it off to Betty and then she does the rest. But there are so many people affected by a suicide.”
Also, to honor victims, Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention and Heartbeat Survivors After Suicide planted a tree following last year’s race.
The tree, a western catalpa donated by Heidrich’s Colorado Tree Farm Nursery, is located near soccer fields G and H and behind Scheels’ Field and Field 7 at El Pomar. Currently, the tree has no signs or memorials to indicate its purpose.
Since El Pomar is a city park, Betty said they require permission to post signage. While they are permitted to plant several more trees along that fence line, both organizations continue to discuss the details of signs.
More important than the sign is watching people heal and rediscover life. Kevin is deeply satisfied just by knowing people come to the run or contact them for assistance and watching them recover.
“Seeing them smiling again or getting married or having a grandchild or seeing life again from a time when they can’t see there’s a tomorrow to a time when they have hope and they’re able to enjoy life again is beautiful,” he said. “Seeing that and seeing we were there for them in their toughest time and we see them living life again, that makes me happy.”