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Striking Out Stigma
Last month Omaha was filled with college baseball fans from around the country celebrating America’s favorite pastime. While many of these young players will only ever dream about making the big league, Jason Wheeler of the LA Dodgers is using his unique status as a professional athlete to raise awareness about topics that are often avoided on the sports field: suicide and mental illness.
In early October of 2016, Wheeler lost his 16-year-old brother-in-law, Jeremy, to suicide. From the very beginning of Jeremy Walter’s short life, he struggled. Born nearly 10 weeks premature he fought for his life in the NICU for over a month and then in elementary school he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s Syndrome is a disorder related to autism, characterized by higher intellectual ability, minimal social skills, and restrictive, repetitive patterns of interest and activities.
Following his death, the Walter’s family shared in the Cape obituaries that “Jeremy worked diligently on his social skills to lessen the impact of Asperger’s on his daily life, and entertained us all with his brilliant mind, sarcastic remarks, wonderful sense of humor and spontaneous facts from an incredibly diverse fund of knowledge (2).”
Wheeler spoke with reporter Mike Beradino at Twin Cities Pioneer Press and revealed that there were no warning signs or any indication of what was to come in the days leading up to his suicide. He talked about a recent trip to Radio Shack he took with Jeremy prior to his death. “It was just him and me. We were hanging out that day. I was around him for that whole weekend. It was less than two weeks before,” said Wheeler. “He was always happy, it seemed like. He’d come in and get in the car, and a song would come on that he knew. He loved music. He would sing and play air drums, air guitar, whatever. He was always smiling (2).”
Like so many survivors of suicide, Wheeler replays this ride and their conversation over and over in his head trying to figure out what he missed. He was completely unaware that Jeremy was masking an internal battle with depression. Since Jeremy’s death, the family started a nonprofit called Sharing Kindness which began selling bracelets with hopeful messages in order to raise funds. One bracelet reads “Be Kind,” along with Jeremy’s name, while another carries the message, “Make the World a Better Place — Pass It On.”
Prior to being drafted to the Minnesota Twins and now to the Dodgers, Wheeler played Triple A for the Rochester Red Wings. During his time with the Red Wings, he helped spark a partnership between the Red Wings and Sharing Kindness. The partnership was timely as their local community had lost four teens to suicide over the past 18 months. The two groups have teamed up to plan a suicide prevention day at Frontier Field in Rochester, NY on August 13th. Special caps and jerseys will be worn by the Red Wings and will be auctioned off to raise money for suicide and mental health awareness and education. Minnesota Twins player, Joe Mauer, has also donated a signed bat to the cause (1).
Wheeler continues to educate himself on suicide prevention and mental health. He understands the importance of providing this knowledge to teachers, mentors, guidance counselors, coaches, and any other person who may be working with youth.
“Maybe you yourself aren’t struggling with any sort of suicidal thoughts, but what if your friend is and they come and talk to you?” said Wheeler. “Or if you’re a guidance counselor at school and you have a student come to talk to you? People who need help need to know that there are people willing to help them, and people who are willing to help need to know how to help.”
Knowing the warning signs, how to ask “The Question” (the question being “Are you thinking about suicide?”), and resources all play vital roles in suicide prevention. The majority of people who are having thoughts of suicide show some kind of warning signs in the weeks and days leading up to their death. However, sometimes these signs are not as obvious as talking about death, giving away possessions, or calling people to say goodbye. Some of these warning signs can be much more subtle, such as change in sleeping and eating patterns, increased use of drugs or alcohol, mood changes, withdrawing from friends and regular activities, agitation, rage, and anxiety (3).
When preparing to ask “The Question,” you always want to be sure that you set aside plenty of time for a conversation with the person you are concerned about. Find a private and quiet place where you have the ability to sit down. Open by acknowledging the changes or signs you have seen, for example, “Lately I have noticed that you have not had any interest in spending time with your friends and you quit playing baseball.” Next, ask an open-ended question that will force them to tell you what is causing these changes, for example, “What is going on that makes you no longer want to play or spend time with friends?” Once you ask them to explain, sit quietly and allow them to speak. Be sure to use active listening skills, such as eye contact, putting aside distracting thoughts, not preparing a response while they are still talking, and noticing the person’s body language. Show that you are listening by nodding occasionally, be sure your posture and facial expressions are open and inviting, and encourage them to keep speaking by using verbal cues like ‘uh huh’ and ‘yes.’ If needed, ask questions to clarify certain points, such as “What do you mean when you say you feel alone?” When they are done speaking, be sure to validate all of their concerns and paraphrase what they expressed to you. For example, “What I hear is that you are having a tough time with your parent’s divorce and you don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about it. That must be really tough, no wonder you are having a hard time being able to focus on sports right now (4). Please know that I care about you and I am here to help in any way I can.”
Follow your gut. If you feel like the person may be having thoughts about suicide, ask. Asking “The Question” will not put the idea in their head. In fact, if they are having these thoughts they will likely be relieved that they can finally talk to someone about them. When asking “The Question” be direct, “Sometimes do you feel so bad that you think about killing yourself?” If this is too tough for you to say, it’s okay! You can also ask the same question in a different way, “Do you ever feel so badly that you wish you could just go to sleep and not wake up?” However, if they respond yes to this question, you must ask if they have thought about suicide specifically.
Prior to sitting down with someone, it’s a good idea to prepare resources. That way if they are having thoughts of suicide you can provide them immediately with helpline numbers and information on local resources. Also, be sure to never leave anyone who is having thoughts of suicide alone. Stay with that person until they are connected to help. If you feel that they are in immediate risk of hurting themselves or others, call 911.
For more resources and information about suicide prevention, visit www.13Minutes.org.
Jill Hamilton, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation
Jill Hamilton has been the Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and a Speech Communication Minor from The University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition and The Metro Area Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, is Chair of the Nebraska LOSS Teams Conference Planning Committee, and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.