Hospital trains reporter in preventing suicides like her cousin’s

This story appeared on March 3, 2015 in The Gardner News 

I remember every detail of the night my 16-year-old cousin shot himself.

It was raining, and I was doing trigonometry homework next to the computer when the phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line was choked, desperate and barely recognizable.

It was my uncle calling for my mom.

My mom took the phone, gasped, and then left the room, closing the door behind her.I was left to wait, guessing what was wrong, with my younger siblings. Our guesses weren’t even close.

“Jeffrey shot himself,” my mom said when she came back out.

At first, I thought it was an accident, that he was alive in the hospital, a fluke. Then I learned it was on purpose. And then I grasped he was dead.

That was when I started crying.


In 2008, a total of 36,035 people committed suicide in the United States.

Since then, despite funding poured into awareness campaigns and increased mental health awareness, that number has risen to more than 44,000 deaths a year, which is one suicide every 12.9 minutes.

These statistics, according to Heywood Hospital Suicide Prevention Coordinator Michael Ellis, only include deaths where a note is left behind. Overdoses, suspicious car accidents and other odd deaths are not factored into these statistics.The number of attempted suicides is astronomically higher.

Based on available data, officials can prove that someone attempts suicide every 31 seconds. However, the many unreported attempts would drive that number even higher.

“It’s a major public health issue,” Mr. Ellis said. “It’s also generally preventable.”

Through Heywood Hospital, Mr. Ellis has been working to fight the stigma surrounding suicide and connecting people to help. It’s a tough job, especially in Gardner, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the state at 13.6 deaths a year for every 100,000 people, compared to the state rate of 8.17 deaths.

Every month, Mr. Ellis — who works primarily with men — works with about 20 cases in a crisis situation.

“When I took this job, I thought I would see five guys a month, maybe 10 on a bad month,” he said.

When he’s not on call, Mr. Ellis runs a support group and teaches classes, including a class about how to intervene if you think someone is at risk.

Last week, I attended the training, which is called QPR (question, persuade and refer) on behalf of The Gardner News.


Statistically, some people are more at risk than others of committing suicide.

My cousin — white, male, gay, bullied and defeated — fit the bill.

Jeffrey was the definition of the misunderstood high school student.He first started visiting a child psychologist when he was 5, and he was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.

We were the same age, and as kids we were close, swimming in my grandparents’ pool and building fairy tales to act out.

But as we got older, and Jeffrey’s problems deepened, we grew apart. I didn’t understand what was happening, and didn’t know what to do.By middle school, we were barely talking. By high school, we didn’t talk at all.

I had no idea things were as bad as they were until it was too late.

Jeffrey was my only cousin.

Contrary to all appearances, I loved him, but I didn’t know how.

At school in upstate New York, he was the target of bullies, mostly because he was gay. His first suicide attempt was in the eighth grade, when he downed a bottle of pills. His second was during his sophomore year, when he swallowed more lethal pills. His third and final attempt was during junior year of high school, when he shot himself with my uncle’s gun under the jaw and through his brain.

Jeffrey’s note was simple: “I can’t live the life decided for me. I’m sorry.”


In the QPR class, I was checking boxes as Mr. Ellis listed the risk factors outside someone’s control that make someone more likely to commit suicide.

Of the 13 listed, Jeffrey hit eight — previous attempts, male, teenager, race, mental health, LGBT, hopelessness and access to lethal means.The other risks are recent attempts by a family or friend, fostered or adopted youth, perfectionism, loss and veterans.

Of course, having one or even eight of these factors, does not necessarily mean a person will try to commit suicide.

That typically happens, Mr. Ellis said, when a person enters a crisis situation that throws everything off kilter.These crises can be caused by losing a job, the death of a loved one, the loss of a major relationship, being diagnosed with a terminal illness, financial problems, an unwanted move, humiliation, assault or bullying.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Mr. Ellis. When these issues start mounting, most of the time warning signs start to appear, such as acquiring guns and stockpiling pills, a sudden interest in religion, drug abuse, unexplained aggression, or giving away possessions.

But more importantly, people at risk will often start talking about death.

They’ll say little things like, “I wish I was dead,” “I’m just going to end it,” or sometimes “I’ve decided I’m going to kill myself.”

“Ninety percent of people who complete suicide communicated their intent to somebody,” Mr. Ellis said.


So, in that situation, how do you help someone?

Research has shown, according to Mr. Ellis, the first step is simply asking them what they mean. Ask if they are contemplating suicide in a direct, but non-aggressive way and be consistent.

“They’re going to be resistant,” he said.“But you have to keep going.”

If they are exhibiting all the signs, but say they’re not suicidal, he said to keep going by asking them why not.

Chances are they will give you a list of things they love — their pets, their kids, their job — which will become your bartering chips as you try to persuade them to get help.

For example, if they say they can’t die because there will be no one to take care of their dog, use that later when they say they want to give up.

“People will stay alive for their pets,” Mr. Ellis said.

If they do admit to being suicidal, it’s critical to refer them to a medical professional. Convince them to make a short-term promise — not to kill themselves until you’ve found them help — and then find somewhere to bring them as soon as possible. If at all possible, go with them. If not possible, set up the appointment for them.

“You have to take charge,” Mr. Ellis said.


After Jeffrey died, I cried every night for a month.

I was a complete wreck as I tried to process what happened. I lost friends, I gave up on things, I mourned. The irony was that all of the affection was lost on Jeffrey.

When he shot himself, he didn’t know I cared about him. He would have had no idea that I would think about him at every milestone in my life, and on some days, just because.

It’s estimated that for every suicide there are at least six people like me left to deal with the fallout. In Jeffrey’s case, I’m sure there were more, as I was at the very fringes of his life.

Since then, his mother, Joan Spencer, has dedicated her life to suicide prevention, starting a nonprofit called “Jeffrey’s Journey” and talking to high school students across the country.

She believes QPR trainings are as important as learning CPR.


For more information about QPR training and available resources, visit or email Mr. Ellis at If you or someone you know is in an immediate crisis situation, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-4673 (Talk).