A Silent Struggle: Fighting to make a difference in mental health and suicide prevention

Published 3:40 pm Monday, September 25, 2023

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The subject and content of this story is sensitive and involves personal depictions. Those interviewed wanted an authentic story to help show the seriousness of this issue, spark conversation and help with suicide prevention. 

By DONALD MOTTERN | Staff Writer

On the night of Monday, July 10, Brandi Logan returned home from the community pool and immediately went upstairs to talk with her daughter, Dori. To Logan’s surprise, she was met with an empty bedroom and no sign of her daughter. Immediately, she began checking every room of the house but found nothing. Left with no other options, Logan called for help, which quickly arrived in the form of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. Although Logan did not fully know it at the time, an event she had long feared had already occurred.

Only 45 minutes earlier, Dori and her mother, were involved in what many would identify as a common mother and daughter disagreement that began around inconsistencies in Dori’s need for the money that would be used to pay for a barrel racing event scheduled to take place the next night. In trying to avoid a potential argument, Logan withdrew from the conversation for a time, asked Dori to go upstairs, then went to complete tasks at the pool, which she cared for at the time.

After what Logan said was an hour-long period of searching, one of Dori’s friends, who was a close neighbor and had come to the home after noticing the commotion, went inside to check again. After a short time, Logan heard her scream and knew instantly that her life had changed forever.

“Her closet door was open, (and visibly obscured) where the chair was in that corner,” Logan said. “She had taken the chair—taken one of her ropes she used with roping cattle—and she hung herself from the frame of that chair. That’s how she did it.”

Police deputies and Cahaba Valley paramedics immediately raced upstairs to render aid, but it was already too late. That night became yet another addition to the statistic that represents a too often silent epidemic that has steadily been on the rise in the United States for the past 20 years.

Dori was just 27 days short of her 15th birthday. Even at such an early age, she had been heavily involved in her church, where she had taken on the role of an organizer, acted as secretary of the Chelsea High School Key Club and was involved in the school’s band and the color guard. She never knew about her selection as student of the week, which appeared in print just the day before, and she never realized just how loved and admired she truly was.

To nearly everyone who knew her, her loss came as a heartbreaking shock. Although she had openly spoken about her struggles in the past, was currently medicated for depression and regularly spoke with a counselor, she had always been the one to encourage others to seek help. Although she was often outspoken regarding her struggles, for many, it was easy to overlook this when faced with the outgoing and smiling inspiration that Dori was.

“That I believe, is what has made a huge impact in not only the Chelsea community, but also down in Chilton County, because everybody saw her as confident,” Logan said. “Everybody thought she had everything just all in a line, but as she stated in her own words, her whole life, she struggled with things. She just couldn’t keep up with her struggles. She thought she was doing best by taking her own life that night.”

Although Dori was unable to see her great impact on the world, her loss was felt immediately and led to more than 650 individuals to attending her funeral, with many of her friends traveling for more than an hour to attend the services in Clanton. Online, an even larger outpouring of support could be seen both on social media and on her memorial page. Person after person told stories of how such a young individual helped them through some of their darkest times.

“I realized during the funeral that so many people would meet Dori (outside of class) and she would talk to them, and she would give them advice, and talk about depression and anxiety,” Logan said. “She would say, ‘Suicide is not the answer.’ She helped so many people at Chelsea High School, she wanted to make sure that everybody else was happy even though she was struggling deep on the inside.”

Dori’s story is one of at least 32 so far in Shelby County this year that plead for the community to never give up, and never relent, in the fight against mental illness. Her story shows well enough by itself that suicide awareness and suicide prevention is of paramount importance not just in Shelby County, but everywhere. In a fight where even one more loss is one loss too many, there exist those in the community that stand to inform and help anyone who calls for help.


Identifying the types and causes of suicide

Dori’s passing was the second suicide to rock the community of Chelsea in as many months, with another 14-year-old also taking his life just 33 days prior to Dori’s own act. In the aftermath of these two events, the Chelsea community began to rally together to identify and address the issue in whatever ways they could find.

This included the presentation of a seminar organized by Compact, Central Alabama Wellness and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that was held at Morningstar Methodist Church on Tuesday, Aug. 15.

Among the speakers that were present was Gabrielle Pybus of Central Alabama Wellness, who herself is a survivor of two suicide attempts. During her presentation, Pybus identified the four common classifications of suicide. Those classifications are:

  • Egoistic: Which are suicides that occur when an individual suffers from a prolonged sense of not belonging or not being integrated into a community.
  • Altruistic: Which are suicides that occur when a person feels that they are sacrificing themselves for the betterment of the group.
  • Anomic: Which are suicides that take place when someone feels trapped or are under intense stress. These types of suicides are commonly linked to dramatic social and economic upheavals.
  • Fatalistic: Which are suicides that occur when someone is placed under extreme expectations or has, or feels that there is, no way out.

In Dori’s case, there is little doubt to Logan that her daughter could be classified into the first of these categories.

“Honestly, I know in her heart that she felt like no one really cared,” Logan said. “That’s the sad part about somebody that’s in that deep black stage of their life, or in the moment, they think that nobody cares, that nobody loves them—that it would be for the better (for them to take their own life). They do not realize how much of an impact they have made on the world.”

Dori, who made the determination in a video testimony at her church, attached the origins of her depression to the fact that she had never been able to have a positive relationship with her father.

“Sometimes when you want one person to love you so much, and they don’t, you feel like no one else does,” Logan said. “Dori would often feel that no one cared about her, wanted her or would miss her when she was gone. It was the thought that eventually led her to take her own life.”

Knowing the classifications for the types of suicides can not only help in assigning reasoning to what many see as an illogical action, but it can create awareness that serves individuals to better recognize the warning signs that might be generated and might aid them in knowing what situations others might be going through that can present advanced warning.

The Alabama Department of Public Health cites the following as major factors that can indicate an individual’s likelihood to experience suicidal behavior:

  • A history of depression, bipolar disorder or other mental illness diagnoses
  • A serious personal loss or number of losses and defeats that are taken personally
  • Low self-esteem and self-loathing
  • Social isolation
  • Believing there is no hope for feeling better
  • Chronic alcohol or other drug use
  • Easy access to the means for dying, such as guns

“There are a lot of resources out there for someone that’s dealing with someone going through this,” Logan said. “There are not just resources for the person that’s having those thoughts or going through that situation, but it’s for the people around them that are supporting them. I think (NAMI) is a great organization.”


Reading the warning signs and opening conversations

Individuals who are suffering from such catalysts, and others, can exhibit multiple common warning signs that can be easily overlooked and must be watched out for with attentive vigilance.

Shelby County Schools’ current awareness program titled, Shelby Cares, lists the following warning signs that can indicate someone may be experiencing problems affecting their mental health.

Those warning signs may include:

  • Often feeling anxious or worried
  • Having very frequent tantrums or being intensely irritable much of the time
  • Having frequent stomach aches or headaches with no physical explanation
  • Being in constant motion and unable to sit quietly for any length of time
  • Having trouble sleeping and potentially experiencing frequent nightmares
  • Losing interest in things he or she used to enjoy
  • Avoiding spending time with friends
  • Having trouble doing well in school or their grades suddenly decline
  • Developing a fear of gaining weight or exercising or dieting obsessively
  • Having low or no energy
  • Having spells of intense, inexhaustible activity
  • Harming herself/himself, which may include cutting or burning her/his skin
  • Engaging in risky or destructive behavior
  • Harming themselves or others
  • Smoking, drinking or using drugs underage
  • Openly having thoughts of suicide
  • Expressing a belief that their mind is controlled or out of control and/or hearing voices

Alice Farricker, a representative of NAMI Montgomery, also stipulates that even with these warning signs being common indicators, they are not a catch-all, and every case and individual is unique.

While it is important to know the warning signs and common indicators, it is potentially even more important to encourage an open dialogue that makes mental health common in daily discussion.

This was indeed something that was done in Dori’s case. Dori and her mom talked about the issues she faced. Dori was often open about her inner struggles, but could also return to holding them internally. At several times, her depression had led her mom to fear that the worst was inevitable.

“I can’t lie, as a mother, sometimes I would get so frustrated with her and I’m like, ‘You’ve just got to talk.’ And she wouldn’t,” Logan said. “In the last 8-9 months, it just kind of got worse. I thought we were just getting through the hormonal teenage stuff and the emotions around that. Since then, things that I have found and read, she truly was struggling more but, on the outside, she always put up a front.”

This frustration is not an uncommon occurrence in those that seek to help those suffering from mental illness and suicidal tendencies.

“It’s very easy for parents to get overwhelmed because they don’t know how to help their kids in that moment, and they’re panicking themselves sometimes,” Pybus said. “And so, what is coming across for them as worry, may come across as anger for the child, and then the child’s not going to want to reach out for help.”

However, at the time of her death, Dori had finally connected with a counselor that she enjoyed and felt comfortable with, had medications in place and balanced by her lifelong pediatrician and was settling into high school life better than she had before. Despite the normal disagreements that occur between a daughter and mother during adolescence, Logan and Dori’s relationship was also as solid as it had ever been. On all accounts, Logan believed the hard times in Dori’s story to be on the mend and trending toward improvement.

Logan has heard from several in law enforcement and the community that have reached out to say that it is a similar feeling many parents have in the aftermath of tragedies like this.

“I think that is what scares me and motivates me to be a bigger advocate now for mental health, because between me saying I thought we were passed it, even though I still had the doubt, and hearing other families say that, it is just heartbreaking,” Logan said. “I don’t have the words to describe it. As a community, the numbers are way too high and it is absolutely tragic.”

Farricker, like Logan, is also the mother of a child who has been lost to suicide.

“What I have found, is that our kids today are holding so much in and they are not talking,” Farricker said. “We’ve got to get rid of the stigma and get our kids to talk because they’re holding in and they’re not telling us and obviously that’s what she (her daughter) was doing.”


The Local Response

The National Center for Health Statistics finds that the suicide rate among young people ages 10-24 increased 62 percent from 2007 through 2021, from 6.8 deaths to 11 per every 100,000. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. for the entire population, and young adults ages 10-34, it is the second leading cause of death. In 2021, Alabama reported a total of 821 total suicides.

Regardless of any federal focus, the national fight against the suicide epidemic is one that must be fought on the local level, in every home and in every school in the nation. In Shelby County, it is being addressed in a variety of ways, but many believe more needs to be done and quickly.

According to Lina Evans, the Shelby County coroner, there has been a total of 32 suicides so far this year in Shelby County, with three of them being under the age of 18.

“We usually have about 30-35 per year (total),” Evans said. “We’re expecting more, this isn’t going to be the end of it.”

In Chelsea specifically, individuals like Cody Sumners, who serves on the Chelsea City Council and as a Lt. with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, are looking to create change.

“Throughout 25 years of law enforcement, one of the things that has always bothered me more than any other call are the suicides,” Sumners said. “The fact that you’re dealing with a family that is distraught—that’s left behind—and just coming to grips with the fact of how sad it was. How disheartening it was that this person felt like they were in such a deep dark place and couldn’t get out and were in such a state that they thought, ‘This is the only answer.’ That has always bothered me.”

Sumners has worked to provide mental health and crisis intervention team (CIT) training to law enforcement officers since 2016 and was placed on the NAMI Shelby board of directors in 2022.

The morning after Dori’s passing, Sumners received multiple texts, emails and messages from members of the community who felt that something had to be done in Chelsea. Their first meeting was one week after Dori’s death.

“I think we had 15 people that showed up,” Sumners said. “It was parents and we had a couple of teachers and coaches from the middle and high school and we just started spit-balling—throwing out ideas—of what we could do to bring awareness to suicide but really more specifically mental health and how important it is. It’s no different than physical health, mental illness is no different from heart disease, cancer or diabetes it’s just a sickness that’s affecting the brain. We are trying to get rid of the stigma.”

Calling themselves the Chelsea Mental Health Action Committee, the group is focusing on three different aspects that they hope will affect positive change where mental health is concerned in the community.

The first of which is having a presence during community events and having a message that can be presented during these gatherings that will raise awareness. In doing so, they intend to get the names and locations of resources out into the community and let those in need know that help is available.

They also intend to reach out to churches and those within the faith community. Already, the group has made noticeable progress in this category. In several churches, they are now providing youth mental health first aid training that is intended to help pastors, youth pastors and adults in the church who help with the youth on how to correctly handle and react when those in need come to them for help. In these trainings they are also taught how to identify those that may need help. Moving forward, the committee is looking to incorporate teen mental health first aid programs, which would be taught directly to the youth groups.

“Those students are going to go into the schools and look out for each other—and that’s the thing (we need),” Sumners said. “We can train every teacher in the school, every coach in the school and all the adults in these churches, but they only see the kids an hour, or a couple of hours, a day. The kids see each other 24 hours a day, especially when considering social media. They always know what’s going on in everybody’s life. We really want to focus on the kids and teaching them how to look out for each other.”

It is there where the third aspect of focus rests for the committee, the schools. It is their current hope to take on a mental health campaign within the schools that will help students realize they are not alone and that there are resources available to them.

“The ultimate goal is to grow this effort in Chelsea and then expand it throughout the rest of Shelby County,” Sumners said.

Currently, the committee is actively partnered with NAMI Shelby, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, the Shelby County Commission, the city of Chelsea, Central Alabama Wellness, the Shelby County Board of Education and multiple area churches.

This effort in Chelsea is not the only front in this fight either, with school systems already taking the matter of student mental health very seriously.


Raising awareness in schools

The Shelby County School System also offers similar youth mental first aid training to all staff members as they seek to make the distance between a student and the help they need as short as possible.

“Our school counselors are valuable team members that use state guidelines to help ensure all of our students receive suicide prevention education at an age appropriate level,” said Emily Littrell, the mental health coordinator for SCS.

They have also activated Shelby Cares, which is an all-encompassing program throughout the school district aimed at making mental health a common topic that is discussed openly, safely and responsibly. It seeks to promote a community focused on caring for each other’s stability and mental health.

“Shelby cares is a movement to create a culture of connecting, communicating and caring for one another,” said Dr. Lewis Brooks, superintendent of Shelby County Schools. “It is our effort to work with school personnel and students to increase awareness and emphasize the importance of emotional wellness, teach resilience and build confidence for the journey of life.

In bringing this awareness, it is a chief goal of the program to rid the topic of its stigma and generate positive discussion and awareness that can affect a lasting change in the community.

“I think it is important as we continue to talk about the impact of mental health to continue to have the dialogue,” Brooks said. “We certainly can’t continue to not talk about it. It’s important (that we talk about it).  I don’t want to have to attend any more funerals.”

Similar initiatives, even if they lack branding or specific titles, are also in place and underway in both Pelham and Alabaster city schools.

At Pelham City Schools, Mental Health Coordinator Anna Nicholson works on a daily basis to coordinate mental health services for the students and their families. Examples of these initiatives can be seen in Pelham Park Middle School’s Wall of Hope, where students were invited to write their personal answers to the question “What keeps you moving?” and share it for all to see on the wall. Students also participated in the Steps Towards Healing Walk during PE classes on Friday, Sept. 15. Each of these exercises were all intent on establishing opportunities for reflection and open discussion on the topic of student mental health as well as providing sources of hope and support.

In Alabaster City Schools, the administration also offers free parenting classes for parents in the district that cover parenting strategies and how best to address situations if their kids bring up topics surrounding mental health. They also have openly available counselors and through their website offer a mental health referral form that students are encouraged to use.

“All of our counselors have an open-door policy for students,” said Sherrita Drake, the mental health coordinator for Alabaster City Schools. “In the event that they are feeling suicidal—or they have fears that their friends are suicidal—or are in a crisis, they can always come to the counseling suite. They will talk to the peer, occasionally they will call me in too and I can come in and talk to them. We can assist in that way.”

Drake, who is a social worker and former child and adolescent therapist, is also part of the school’s crisis team which includes counselors and bi-lingual counselors for ESL (English as a second language) students. She also publishes and sends out a mental health newsletter each month that is distributed to parents and staff at the school. The school resource officers are also trained to undergo risk assessments.

“We try to make it a real team effort, and we have a large team at our disposal for our students who are facing any kind of crisis,” Drake said.

This past May, as part of mental health awareness month, students at ACS were also given silicone bracelets emboldened with the phrase “Mental health matters, Warriors break the stigma.” On the reverse side of the band, these bracelets also included hotline numbers and resources so that every student would be made aware of them.

“Our students know if they need help, or need any kind of mental health assistance, they know who they can go to and they know it is multiple people at each school they can go to,” Drake said.


Shrinking the statistic

When it comes to a matter like mental health and suicide, it is important to remember that even with every resource, even with a steadfast awareness, it sometimes isn’t enough to overcome what someone may be facing internally.

“She had all of the resources, but the scary part is that not every child has that or has a supportive family member, no matter who it is, that can get them help,” Logan said. “I want to make that change and get her story out there.”

Dori’s story is a sad reminder that even when the catalysts, warning signs and symptoms are identified and actively being treated, it sometimes still isn’t enough. But that doesn’t mean attempts can ever be lessened or attention ever faltered in trying to ensure that more aren’t added to a rising and troubling statistic.

“We see that youth suicide ideation, attempt and completion have been steadily going on the rise amongst all age groups,” Pybus said. “We’ve also seen an uptick in individuals wanting to get mental health treatment—which we love. We want them to get that mental health treatment. We want them to get that before there’s the thoughts of suicide.”

Brandi Logan chooses to view the loss of Dori as her fulfilling her ultimate purpose, a purpose that, through education and awareness, helps countless others who are also combatting darkness within themselves and their own lives. She also views this as her new mission, to take part in making that change.

“If her story changes one person, if they can think about Dori while they are in that deep dark moment, or something that I have said, something they’ve read and realize that it’s not the end of their story, that just gives me hope,” Logan said. “Every kid matters, and we’ve got to make a change. Dori is still moving mountains. Her story is not over, because she has made a huge impact and I continue her story and her fight.”