Tulsa mother advocates for mental health education after her son’s suicide

Tulsa, Okla. Talking about teen suicide is a difficult one, and some experts have said this is mainly due to a lack of education.

In partnership with Frontier, 2 News has worked to uncover stories that reveal an often-under-discussed issue.

Several parents told 2 News that they thought bringing the topic up to their children would implant the idea in their heads. Now, after a mother’s tragic loss of her son, she said she knew that wasn’t true.

Karen Sullivan hopes education about mental illness will take a front seat not only at home but in schools across the state.

Sullivan looks over a table full of pictures. From mischievous smiles to quirky selfies, her son Caleb looks into the camera.

His life is on display in the living room.

“I just love that picture and seeing his face, I just wonder what he’s thinking sometimes,” Karen said of her son. “It looks very beautiful.”

Saying a picture is worth a thousand words, and for Karen, it feels right. Her son was a happy, talented and fun-loving young man. You can see it’s eyes.

But what Caleb’s photos don’t show is the conflict in his mind.

“He came to me one night and said, Mom, I think you need to take me to the hospital. And I said, ‘Well, what’s wrong?’ He said, ‘I don’t want to be alive anymore,'” Karen said.

Caleb was in middle school when he shared these thoughts, and his mother sought proper care. She took Caleb to therapy and pulled him out of school. She said over time; He improved.

“The next year was my freshman year in high school, and he wanted to go, and he wanted to go back to school,” she said.

Karen said this was a step forward in Caleb’s recovery, but the gleam in his eyes seemed to dim by the first year.

He returned to counseling and was diagnosed with social anxiety. Karen said Caleb promised she wouldn’t have to worry.

“About three weeks into his senior year, I came home one night from a haircut, and found him,” Karen said. “You blew up our world. We miss him every day.”

Caleb’s disease is why Karen became an advocate for mental health education and suicide prevention.

“I was afraid to mention that word,” she said. “I thought I’d introduce the idea, and that’s wrong. I’ve learned that this is wrong.”

After her son’s death, she finds a diary in his room in which he expresses his unhappiness and thoughts of suicide.

“A lot of times mental illness, it’s not diagnosed until you’re in crisis mode. We didn’t know,” Karen said.

Faith Crittenden, LCSW and senior program director at Family and Children’s Services focused on children’s mental health, said there are things parents can do to be proactive, and it starts out by being direct.

“I think sometimes people also ask ‘Do you feel like you want to hurt yourself?'” versus going out and saying “Do you want to kill yourself?” Because kids might say no, as if they were feeling suicidal, “No, you asked me if I wanted to hurt myself, and no, I don’t want to hurt myself, I want to end my life,” Crittenden said.

She said that if a child expresses suicidal thoughts, there are actions to be taken immediately.

“If you feel your child is in immediate danger, you can always go to the emergency room,” Crittenden stated. “Any of the major hospitals you can go to and get some help, but there are also agencies like us where we have programs called comprehensive courses, which help with stability.”

COPES helps stabilize families to avoid going to an inpatient facility, and is another resource usually available for mentally ill patients.

Now speaking in the hope that her son’s story can save someone else’s child, said Karen, although he is gone, she can still feel his presence through his art.

“This is what Caleb painted as thinking heaven looked like it,” she said, holding a painting of the mountains peeking through the clouds.

A glimpse of heaven through her son’s eyes.

Along with her support group, Karen said they are pleased with Oklahoma’s new law requiring mental health training in schools, which they hope will give teachers the resources and knowledge to identify students in crises.

Our efforts continue at 2 News and at the Frontier to provide children with the help they need. The latest legislative bill is just one step toward lowering teen suicide rates.

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