Boy's death puts focus on mental health care
Elyejah Dean Hauff, 9, called "Bubba" by his friends and family, loved being outdoors — from fishing, crabbing and exploring the beach to camping and stargazing. Family members said one of his greatest thrills during their most recent annual camping trip was saving a worm from an angry group of ants.
He was a seemingly happy kid.
So, when people hear that this fourth grader at Holcomb Elementary School in Oregon City took his life on Dec. 10, they immediately want to know how — and why.
Experts warn against providing details about suicides or pinning the blame on any one cause, pointing out that suicides usually are the result of various factors.
Phillesha Bradford, Elyejah's mom, said several factors that experts say can increase the risk of child suicide were in play for her son in the months leading up to his death.
She said, for example, that Elyejah — who is biracial — had talked about feeling discrimination due to the color of his skin.
He complained about a lack of support from classmates and administrators at school, she said, and was struggling with classwork. Bradford said she was having trouble getting a therapist for Elyejah.
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Suicides present several challenges for schools, which need to respect a family's desire for privacy, students' questions and the trauma of losing a member of the school community.
On the day following Elyejah's suicide, Oregon City Superintendent Larry Didway sent out a letter to parents to report the death and remind parents of district resources.
"It's really important to reach out for help, if you or your child is not feeling well," Didway wrote. "Suicide should not be an option. We have people on staff that can help families who are worried about suicidal ideation of a child or family member."
Bradford said she felt the district was implying that her family did not reach out to school staff for help, saying in fact, she and Elyejah had met with school officials about his struggles, including a meeting earlier on the day he died in which he talked about wanting to kill himself.
"They had the nerve to tell me that my son's death was my fault because I didn't get my son the help that he needed," Bradford said.
District officials say their letter to parents was not intended to comment on Elyejah's case, and certainly not to blame his mom. Rather, they said, they wanted to report the cause of Elyejah's death, with his family's permission, and give general advice to parents about the mental health of children.
"In the letter sent to parents, we're reporting something, but we're also directing people where they can go for help," said Oregon City's Assistant Superintendent Kyle Laier, who leads the district's suicide prevention efforts. "We're not saying 'Go through us' by any means, but rather we're trying to shift the culture so that people reach out."
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Clackamas County-based Neurotherapeutic Pediatric Therapies Inc., works to end suicides across the community. We spoke with Executive Director Karen Brelje who says the resource can be free for many families
• National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
• Lines for Life YouthLine: 877-968-8491
• Text: 'Hello' to 741741.
• Chat online: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/
• Clackamas County's 24-hour crisis line: 503-655-8585
Oregon City parent Jeana Gannon-Gonzales, a chapter volunteer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said no one should blame the district or Elyejah's family his suicide.
"Talking about suicide is very difficult, and we want to put a blame on it, but there never is one blame," she said. "I hope that this story shows that the district will take some accountability and take a stand to make sure this never happens again."
More to the story
Parents attending the Oregon City School District's Family Focus Forum this weekend can attend an array of presentations from experts, including several workshops focusing on various aspects of suicide prevention. Click here for more.
District officials said every staff member receives training to stop whatever they're doing and respond to a student suspected of contemplating suicide. Staff learn about a Question Persuade Refer (QPR) protocol for potentially suicidal people that officials hope will one day become as well-known as hands-on CPR, which bystanders can use for people experiencing a cardiac arrest until professional help arrives.
According to family members, at least the first portion of the district's QPR protocol was followed, in that Elyejah was questioned further about his suicidal intentions.
Elyejah and his mother met with Holcomb Elementary Behavior Intervention Specialist Elizabeth Mogil and Principal Kelli Rhea on Dec. 10, on the same day he took his life. During that meeting, according to Bradford, he told all present that he planned to kill himself.
When asked why, his mother said, he responded with a whole list of factors for contemplating suicide: "Because my teacher don't like me, I'm always getting picked on … and every time I try to do something, I get in trouble."
Bradford said those statements should have prompted the staff to follow the rest of the district's suicide intervention protocol and make sure that Elyejah immediately received a full mental health evaluation from a professional.
"When a child comes to you with any problem, stop whatever you're doing and do something to help him," she said.
Indeed, the district protocol calls for taking potentially suicidal children to an emergency room if a therapist cannot be found that day.
Elyejah's family members say school officials never should have allowed him to go home that day.
District officials, citing privacy issues, said they couldn't comment on how Elyejah's case was handled but while Laier said he was unable to comment on the specifics of Elyjah's case, he agreed there often are missed chances to save lives.
"With every suicide, there were probably many opportunities to intervene and get someone the support they need, and that's why we need as many people as possible trained in how to support others," he said.
Although feeling the district shouldn't be held responsible for any suicide, Gannon-Gonzales hopes that Elyejah's death serves as a "wakeup call" for district officials and local families considering mental health treatment for their children.
"When suicide occurs, we know that a crisis point has been reached, and there's never any one cause," she said.
"This child was not given what he needed, and as adults, that's our job to support the kids we're responsible for, whether at home or at school."
Editor, Clackamas Review/Oregon City News
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