'I felt like I was being broken apart' - B'ville woman donates $10K for mental health education
Baldwinsville Messenger - 1/3/2018
Eric Green died by suicide at the age of 18 in November 2013. His mother, Michelle Green, has donated $10,000 to the Baldwinsville Central School District for its mental health initiatives. (Submitted photo)
By Ashley M. Casey
When Michelle Green read in the Messenger about the death of 15-year-old Paige Bird in the spring of 2016, she decided enough was enough.
"We have a child in this community who's taken her own life, and I know how her family feels. I can't live here in a cocoon and not try to do something," Green recalled saying to herself.
Green and Paige Bird's family share the same heartbreaking connection: losing their children to suicide. On Nov. 18, 2013 - just 12 days before his 19th birthday - Michelle's son, Eric Green, died by suicide. He was a freshman at Alfred State College, where his mother was a professor.
Four years after Eric's death, Michelle Green has given back to her newfound home of Baldwinsville by donating $10,000 to mental health education initiatives in the Baldwinsville Central School District. In particular, Green wants to see her donation go toward training district staff - custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers - in identifying students who are at risk of attempting suicide.
"I'm talking about the entire spectrum of staff at the school," she said. "It's one thing to be able to budget for your school psychologist and training of the teachers because they're on the front lines of the classroom. It's another thing to be able to immerse every single level of staff in a school system in this kind of training."
"Ms. Green's generosity is an example of how, as a community, we are collaborating to put our students' mental wellbeing on par with their physical health so that they may achieve their full potential," BCSD Superintendent Matt McDonald said in the December 2017 edition of the school newsletter, the Hive.
Kids, Green said, interact differently with the lunch lady than they do with their teachers or parents. If all levels of the community learn to spot the signs that point to a suicide risk, then each individual with whom a troubled student interacts can put the puzzle pieces together and help that student access the mental health treatment they need.
If someone had put the puzzle pieces together for Eric, things may have turned out differently.
"We were very honest with each other," Michelle Green recalled, "but when it came time to be totally honest with me, he wasn't."
According to his mother, Eric was a "tender soul" who had gone through a turbulent time in the months leading up to his death. His grandfather, with whom he lived for a time after his parents' divorce, passed away from cancer. He got his license and then lost it after totaling a car. He graduated high school and he went off to college.
The first semester of college was tough for Eric. He ended up disliking his major and was having trouble meeting people. Discouraged by his grades, he stopped going to all of his classes except English, where he excelled and connected with the instructor. His mother counseled him that he didn't have to be perfect; he could always retake a class or change his major.
"We don't all figure out what we want to be in the first semester, and we don't always pass everything that we're taking the first semester; we repeat courses, we change curriculums," Green said. "I tried to make sure he understood this was not a big deal. This was okay. ? You're not expected to make a lifetime decision at age 18. You have to grow and mature and figure out what you want to be."
Green said the systems in place meant to look out for her son failed. His instructors did not report his absences from class and his adviser did not meet with him. Green said Eric lacked support from his residence hall staff as well. He even began to withdraw from the regular contact he had with his mom.
"Are you okay? Is there anything going on that I should be aware of?" Green recalled asking her son the Thursday before he died.
Eric brushed her off and ignored her texts for the next couple of days, only responding when she called the resident adviser to see if he was all right. After that, Green only received more radio silence from her son.
The following Wednesday, Eric's father reported him missing. Friends and family, state and local police and the college searched the area. On Friday, Nov. 22, Green answered the door to find the vice president of students and the chief of the university police force. She looked up, hoping to see her tall son, but he wasn't there. She shut the door in her visitors' faces, but they followed her inside.
"I said, 'You can leave. You're not welcome in my house. I don't want to hear this,'" she said. "And then they started telling me how sorry they were."
They informed her that her son's body was found in a nearby park, and that he likely had died Monday, Nov. 18, two days before his father reported him missing.
"I didn't know I could ever sound like that," Green said of her wails of grief. "I felt like I was being broken apart."
Green remained at Alfred State for two years after Eric's death, but it became more than she could bear to stay in the town where her son grew up, went to school and passed away.
"It wasn't the place for me to be anymore," she said. "It was just too sad to be there anymore."
Green moved in with her brother in Clay for eight months and then moved into Radisson in January 2016. She believes she ended up in Baldwinsville for a reason.
"I wanted to do good, so I asked God to put me where I can do good," she said.
When Green read about the school district's goal to improve mental health services and education, she reached out to see what she could do to help. Superintendent McDonald invited her to tell Eric's story to the mental health committee he had put together.
Green's approach in reducing the risk of suicide among her new community's young people is multi-pronged:
1. Teach people how to talk to someone who has lost a child to suicide.
In the wake of Eric's death, Green said the hardest thing is that people don't talk to her about her son anymore. She said she would love to hear other people's anecdotes and memories of him.
"Talking about their child is not going to hurt them," she said of interacting with a parent who has lost a child. "There isn't anything that anybody's able to do to me that will hurt me as much as my child's death."
In their book "There Is No Good Card for This," Emily McDowell and Kelsey Crowe offer tips on what to say to grieving loved ones. Instead of "Time heals" or "You should move on" - both statements Green has heard from other people - McDowell and Crowe suggest, "People grieve in their own time, in their own way." They also encourage people to ask about the lost loved one: "What was she like?"
2. Educate the community on the warning signs and risk factors for suicide.
According to SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), the following are signs that someone may be having suicidal thoughts:
Direct verbal signs: Talking about wanting to die or wanting to harm or kill oneself
Indirect verbal signs: Talking about being a burden to others, expressing feelings of unbearable pain, hopelessness or feeling trapped
Having access to lethal weapons or medications, or seeking out means of killing oneself
Disruptions in sleep patterns: Oversleeping or not sleeping enough
Increased alcohol or drug use
Extreme mood swings, anxiety and anger
Withdrawing from social situations and isolating oneself
Risk factors for suicide include a major loss or stressful life event, pre-existing mental illness or substance abuse, chronic physical illness, abuse or knowing someone who died by suicide.
3. Teach young people about mental health and how to help.
After Eric died, his friends told his mother that he had tried heroin for the first time the Friday before he died. When asked why they didn't tell anyone, his friends replied, "We didn't want him to be mad at us."
Green said young people should not bear the burden of their peers' mental health difficulties, but should reach out to a parent, teacher or another trusted authority figure who can help their friend seek treatment.
"It would be a relief to young people to know 'All I have to do is tell someone,'" Green said.
Green said two of the school-aged kids in her neighborhood confided in her that a friend had expressed thoughts about harming herself. She advised them to let their parents know so they could tell their friend's parents and get her help. Later on, the girls reported to Green that their friend was doing better.
If you think someone is in immediate danger, call 911. Refer the person to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or direct them to crisischat.org to talk with a trained Lifeline Crisis Chat specialist.
4. Promote kindness.
"He could not stand for people to be in pain," Green said of her son. "I think he was just such a sensitive soul, and our world is so harsh. How do people who have such goodness in them live in our society?"
Green said the push in the last few years to reduce bullying is key in combating suicide among young people.
"If you can read, you can understand that your words have impact," she said.
Since Eric's death, Green has made an effort to be a kinder person. She misses Eric's companionship and compassion, so she is paying it forward by radiating kindness to others.