DC grad shares her story of loss in an effort to break the stigma of mental illness; raise awareness of suicide prevention
By Kristen Miller
Jaydene Ferrell, a 2013 Dassel-Cokato High School graduate, was just 10 years old when she received the news that her father had shot himself after suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness.
Now, seven years later, the recently crowned Cokato princess is sharing her story in hopes it may save at least one life, and to shed light on the subject of mental illness.
“I didn’t know my dad was struggling, but he was hanging on by a thread,” Ferrell said.
Her father, Gerald, was a professional welder, who frequently traveled throughout the state for his job.
What most people remember about him, Ferrell said, was his good heart and “contagious belly laugh.”
She also noted that he would go out of his way to help others, yet he wouldn’t ask for help himself.
After her parents separated in 2001, Ferrell’s relationship with her dad became tumultuous.
Because he was a “workaholic” and living in southern Minnesota, Ferrell’s dad would often cancel on his weekends to have her and her younger brother, Eli.
“I remember looking out the window, waiting for him,” she said. She ended up resenting him and avoiding their relationship.
It was later on, when he moved to St. Cloud that they started spending more time together.
The first weekend in June, 2006, is one she won’t forget.
Ferrell, who was in fifth grade at the time, remembers spending the weekend with her dad and brother.
“My dad was so full of energy,” she said, adding that he took them to parks, playing and having a fun time together. Before this, Ferrell said her dad was typically tired from work. She remembers him sleeping a lot.
“He was acting unusual, but it was so cool because he wanted to do stuff with us,” she commented.
When her mom picked them up on Sunday, she remembers hugging him really tight and saying goodbye. However, she forgot to tell him “I love you,” something she regrets to this day.
The following day, Ferrell remembers playing outside in the sandbox when a police car drove up the driveway looking for her mother, who was at work at the time.
When her mother came home, Ferrell was told her father had shot himself.
“I instantly broke down, crying,” Ferrell said.
Though the rest of the day was much of a blur, she remembers seeking comfort from her grandfather as he sang to her “Oh, my Lord knows the way through the wilderness, all I do is follow.”
“That helped me a lot,” she said.
Ferrell also doesn’t remember much about the funeral, although she remembers feeling as if her stomach was being dragged behind her as she walked down the aisle. She also remembers seeing her basketball team, who came for support.
After an autopsy was conducted and more research done in the wake of her father’s death, it was determined that he suffered from bipolar disorder and depression.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder is also known as manic-depressive illness, and is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
Left untreated, bipolar disorder can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide.
It is believed that in her father’s case, his condition was brought on by a traumatic incident as a boy when his 10-year-old sister was killed by a drunk driver. Not only did he witness the accident, but he also lost his best friend, Ferrell noted.
“He lost half of himself when he lost her,” she said.
Ferrell remembers her father as one who would always hold his feelings inside, and he didn’t talk about that tragic experience.
Because of this, Ferrell said she knows how critical it is for people to seek help if they’re struggling and to know they are not alone in what they are going through.
“You have to talk about it or it’s just going to sit inside you, just like what happened with Dad,” Ferrell said, who also went through counseling to work through the tragic death of her father.
“There is hope,” she said of people who are struggling with depression, adding, “You can’t give up and you can’t stop fighting.”
Shedding light on mental illness
Mental illness, in its various forms, affects one in four adults approximately 61.5 million Americans in any given year, according to the National Institute of Health. In addition, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US (more common than homicide), and the third leading cause of death in ages 15 to 24.
To help shed light and raise awareness, Oct. 6-12 is Mental Illness Awareness Week, established by Congress in 1990, to recognize the work being done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI advocates for “access to services, treatment, support, and research and is steadfast in its commitment to raise awareness and build a community for hope for all of those in need.”
“I can’t say enough good things about NAMI,” said Beth Peterson, licensed clinical social worker at Prairie’s Edge Counseling Center in Hutchinson.
After the community was struck by recent tragedies, Peterson, a Dassel resident, presented on the topic of suicide and mental health as a way to educate the public on mental illness by not only showing what it can look like, but also to lessen the stigma surrounding it.
“It’s not an easy topic to talk about,” Peterson said.
Unlike patients with cancer and other diseases, people suffering from mental illness don’t get the same help and support in most cases, Peterson commented.
“That needs to change,” she said.
Society, as a whole, must recognize mental illness as a disease rather than a character flaw, so that people who may be experiencing symptoms don’t feel ashamed and feel more comfortable seeking help, Peterson explained.
It’s also important that people not ignore signs of depression. Instead, make that person talk about it and report any threats of suicide, Peterson noted.
When it comes to young people, Peterson said, “It’s your job to protect your friend, not the disease.”
“A friend who is suicidal, is not healthy,” she said, adding that a healthy brain functions much differently than a person who has a mental illness. Particularly, a person suffering cannot rationalize decisions, she noted.
Peterson also noted that mental illness is not an easy topic for parents to talk to their children about either. However, it’s important to note any changes in behavior and comment on them. For example, something could be wrong if a person is no longer interested in their favorite sports or activities.
Other warning signs include: irritability, tearfulness, change in sleeping and eating, self-harm behaviors, and talk/thoughts of death or suicide.
It’s also important to not make suicide “easy for them,” Peterson said and urges parents to limit access to firearms and prescription drugs in the home.
In 2011, firearms remained the most common mechanism used for suicide, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. More than half of male suicides (55 percent) were by firearm, and nearly half (47 percent) of female suicides were by poisoning (e.g. prescription drugs).
Schools are also at the front lines when it comes to recognizing key warning signs of early-onset mental illness in children and adolescents, a condition for teaching-license renewals.
Each of the Dassel-Cokato schools within the district also have social workers on staff, and part of their role is directing families to resources available to them.
“We can help [parents] navigate that world,” said Dassel-Cokato High School social worker Anne Mahoney.
Also, if parents are seeing a change in their son or daughter, they can request the respective social worker do a basic “check-in” with the student to determine the level of seriousness and if further resources should be sought.
As a way to shed light on the issue of mental illness, particularly suicide prevention, the Dasssel-Cokato High School recognized National Suicide Prevention Day Sept. 10 by wearing green, Mahoney noted. Members of the student council also read public service announcements, and suicide hotlines were posted throughout the school.
The purpose was also to create an atmosphere with less stigma for mental health issues and open the door for communication if a student or someone they know are depressed. “It’s important they find a trusting adult [to report concerns],” Mahoney said.
Resources for treatment
When it comes to seeking treatment for mental illness, Peterson suggests starting with the family physician in order to rule out any other medical condition that may be causing the symptoms.
The physician can then make referrals as necessary.
“It is treatable,” Peterson said, noting that medication and talk therapy have shown to be the most successful when it comes to treating mental illness and depression.
However, when in crisis, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. There are also a number of crisis lines to call (see sidebar). Peterson said it’s important to note that calling in crisis does NOT automatically mean that the person will be admitted to a hospital. “Lots of people use it to help themselves use healthy coping skills and to create a plan for themselves to stay safe until they can see a therapist or get other assistance,” she said.
Watch for further articles regarding the lack of mental health facilities within the state.
Where to call for help
In an emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest ER
Crisis phone lines:
Central Minnesota MHC 800-635-8008
Hutchinson Health (320) 484-4585
Woodland Centers 800-992-1716
Suicide Crisis Hotline 800-635-8008
Crisis connection 612-379-6363
National Suicide Prevention Line 800-273-Talk
Support and other resources
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of MN (651) 645- 2948 or 1-888-NAMI-Helps.