GOSHEN — Talking about suicide can be difficult, but it’s necessary in order to help prevent the loss of loved ones.
That is part of the message Middlebury resident Leslie Weirich will be presenting in ‘Let’s Talk: Changing the Conversation About Suicide” Thursday at Calvary Assembly of God in Elkhart.
Weirich’s son Austin killed himself Sept. 10, 2016.
She and her husband Keith didn’t see it coming.
Austin was the president of the freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior class at Goshen High School. He graduated in the top 3% of his class in 2014 and received $26,000 in renewable academic scholarships, Weirich said. He ran track and played football all four years he was there. He was also voted The Scholar Athlete in one or both of those sports each year.
Austin went on to play football for Wabash College.
And then last year, on the two-year anniversary of Austin’s death, the co-captain of his football team — a 21-year-old young man by the name of Evan Hansen — also took his life.
That same year, Weirich started her own suicide prevention program and began to speak throughout northern Indiana.
“I waited until my daughter was out of high school two years,” Weirich explained. “Unfortunately, Austin took his life three days before she turned 17, the beginning of her junior year of high school. So, I wanted her senior year to be about her, and just having fun and, you know. … I knew immediately I needed to talk and I needed to share our story – but I thought I wanted the timing to be right. And I needed time to grieve too. As I’ve said, if I waited until I was finished grieving, I would never talk because when you’ve lost a child, you’re always going to grieve, but suicide adds another layer to it.”
So last October, Weirich launched a faith-based suicide prevention program.
Her talks, which have included a fundraiser at The Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, and an upcoming talk at Fairfield Schools center around one theme: no one ever dies of suicide. “They don’t,” she said. “Their circumstances might be different. What leads up to that moment might be very different. Their backgrounds completely different. But it comes down to that single moment, when whatever’s going on in their heart and their mind, they cannot reason or think themselves to the next moment where things are going to get better. So, I say no one ever dies of suicide, they die from loss of hope, in that single moment when they can’t get to the next moment.”
What Weirich tries to do when she shares Austin’s story with teens is give them a message of hope, tell them that because they have harmful or suicidal thoughts, they are not crazy, stupid or weird. “We all have gone through those times in our lives – if we’ve lived long enough,” she said. “But what I want tell them is hold on. Hold on because things are going to get better – I promise you.”
While talking to youth, she has an app that she asks them to download titled “Not OK.” Weirich has it on her phone as well. “It is simply a locator app,” she said. If they are thinking in any way of harming themselves, like cutting even, she encourages them to download this app. The tricky part: the app requires a “your person.”
“’Your person’ cannot be your friend your age because they’re going through their own stuff too just like you are,” Weirich explained. “‘Your person’ cannot probably even be a family member. ‘Your person” has got to be a trusted adult that you can put in that Not OK app and if you feel like at midnight or 2 in the morning you are just going to do something you don’t want to do you click Not OK and you stay where you are. You sign a covenant agreement with this person to be ‘your person.’ They will come and find you, pick you up alongside the road, buy you a meal, sit with you all night – whatever it takes to get to you to a place where things look different and you see some hope.”
Weirich also has a suicide prevention kit that she gives to the youth she speaks to, including the many church youth groups she has presented to this past year, and has them work on it. The youth pastor will hand it out; the youth fill it out and then turn it back in the next week
“They have to have a plan in place because when they panic in that moment with whatever’s going on, whether they broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, they flunked a class, they had a fight with their parents, whatever’s going on – they’ve got to have those tangible things to grab ahold of. And that suicide plan is a plan: if I feel like this I am going to do this. … So it’s really kind of ingrained in them what to do to hang on.”
Her talk on Monday at Fairfield will primarily to adults. During that talk, she will hone in on the harmful effects of social media. Health experts used to say the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is reasoning, judgment, decision making, they used to say it was fully developed at 25, Weirich said. Now, health experts are saying 27.
“So that part of the brain – my son was 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he looked like this big, strapping defensive lineman football player, but he still had seven more years for his brain to develop. He had the brain of a young boy even though he looked like a young man,” she said. “If you throw in drugs, alcohol and altered state and you’ve got a brain that’s not fully developed and it’s a perfect storm.
“There’s so much pressure today on kids and I think social media just magnifies it,” she said. Kids do not get a chance to work through things and do some problem-solving and mature and develop “because that rapid firing is coming at them from social media.”
One piece of information that she is adamant about is parents knowing is the password to their kids’ phones and checking their messages. “In my talk, I don’t want to judge or offend anybody, I ask simple questions like, ‘Stand up if you pay the bill for your kid’s cell phone. Continue standing if you know the password to that phone. Continue standing if you’ve looked at that phone in the past month. What other household item do you pay a bill for every month and you have absolutely no idea how it’s being use or what it’s being used for, where it’s being used but you pay the monthly bill. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid your kid won’t be your friend? They’re not going to be your friend if they’re not alive. And good kids have secrets, too. Good kids hide things from their parents. And if you can look at that phone you might be surprised what you find and it could be something that could save your kid’s life.”
Austin was 20 years old and 125 miles away. He was in college. He was in a toxic relationship and he had told them that his relationship was over and he had ended it. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t look at his phone until it was too late. And we knew that she arrived that night and then an hour and a half later our son took his life.”
Had the Weirichs had access to his phone, they would have known that the relationship was still ongoing, she said.
“Suicide is 4:1 in boys,” she said. “It’s the second leading cause of death in 10 to 25 year olds. And the second leading cause of death on college campuses. I feel like there are so many factors that if just one little thing can be tweaked or changed can save lives. So, my goal is to get out and share our story.”
Weirich will speak to any sized group. She’s had 25 to speak to in Bristol and 700 at the coliseum.
If there’s one kid who will benefit, she will show up.
“I always take my son’s letter jacket when I talk to teens. I always take his big senior picture because I always want it to be, he wore this jacket – it’s real. It’s not just a story I’m telling,” she explained. “I want to make it real and tangible.”
Since last September, she’s had at least one to two stories come out of every talk. At one session, a young woman had written letters to her family the day before hearing Weirich speak. She ran out of the room at the end of the talk. “The day after she turned in the letters to her mom and she’s still here,” Weirich said. “And she’s in college this fall. I have a lot of these stories.”
It helps the Weirichs to know they are helping other families.
The Weirichs have given away two scholarships through Dollars for Scholars of about $4,000.
And after Austin’s suicide, they donated his organs.
It was during the planning of Austin’s service that a Scripture verse came to Weirich and she holds it dearly to this day. Gen. 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”