When Steve Ulrich talks to high school students about suicide, he comes armed with some frightening statistics. Addressing three dozen students recently at Male High School, he points out that 1 in 10 students have made a suicide plan.
That number, along with many others he shares during a one-hour presentation, seems unreal. But then he tells the story of one of their peers, a senior at Manual High, an all-star football player, who ended his life just a year ago.
“We talk about suicide after the fact; in reality, it’s a mental health issue,” he says. “With depression, things are going on in our mental health world that we’re not addressing.”
Ulrich, a television producer by trade, has been committed to providing information about suicide prevention since his 20-year-old son Nathan lost his life to suicide in 2002. Nathan was a walk-on basketball player at Western Kentucky University. After an injury, he lost his spot on the team, and later his girlfriend ended their relationship.
To this day, Ulrich gets emotional when talking about the days leading up to his son’s death.
“Why didn’t somebody talk to me about depression?” he asks. “Why didn’t somebody talk to Nathan about depression? I’m that somebody now. They will throw dirt on me and I will still be talking about suicide prevention because I know these kids are trying to manage through stuff, but they can’t do it on their own. There’s too much pain, too much stuff weighing them down.”
Ulrich began talking to students in classrooms three years ago, and now travels throughout Kentucky to talk with students in middle and high schools. His talk at Male came in December, just before the most dangerous time of year for suicide.
“Many times around Christmas, because it’s so busy and people are reaching out, that number doesn’t go as high as we think it does,” he said. “To me, suicide is the last act of self-medication. They want the pain to end. They’re not looking at ending their life, they’re looking at ending the pain that’s up in their head.”
During the presentation, he pointed to one key statistic — the result of a survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that said 1 in 10 people have a plan for how they would commit suicide. So he asks the students how many have such a plan. Several hands shoot up.
“I wanted to know if that was actual and factual. Every classroom I go to, it’s either 1 out of 10 has a plan or it’s higher,” he says.
The number of suicides in Metro Louisville has gone up every year since 2009, and could reach 200 this year, according to Ulrich’s presentation. They occur all across the city and affect all age groups.
His advice for parents and others who may think a loved one is showing warning signs — ask questions and persuade them to get help. Warning signs include talking about wanting to die, feelings of hopelessness, talking about being a burden to others, increased alcohol and drug use, unusual sleep patterns and extreme mood swings.
Ask a question directly, such as “Have you been thinking about ending your life?” and don’t ask questions like, “You’re not going to do something crazy, are you?”
Encourage the person to get help, offer to take them to get it, and either call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go online to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.