In suicide loss, a Johnstown family finds ways to help
June 19, 2016
LOVELAND, Colo. — AJ Black, by all accounts, seemed happy.
The Berthoud High School junior was making plans and packing for trips right up until the moment he took his life with a self-inflicted gunshot in the early hours of April 1, the Loveland Reporter-Herald reported.
His mother, Shay Black, said she talked with her 17-year-old son often — especially when difficult life obstacles presented themselves — but AJ never expressed emotions out of the ordinary.
"People don't typically have advanced warnings," Shay said. "AJ was completely happy on the outside. But, there was obviously something he was keeping hold of deep down that we don't know about."
She said AJ came home the night of March 31 from his job at a Berthoud pizza restaurant around 10:30 p.m. He chatted with his dad, Alan Black, about the watch he was saving up for and went to his bedroom for the evening.
After AJ's death, Shay said, they discovered the teen woke up and logged into the school district's website to do homework at 2:19 a.m. He also turned in a project he had been working on.
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"My 911 call was at 3:01 a.m.," Shay said. "Oddly enough, it was a 12-gauge shotgun, but we didn't hear it — our bedroom is right next to his. I'm a Christian, and I believe that God blocked our ears, I really do. But I think our dog … heard it. I think that's why (Alan got up)."
She said AJ and his two adult sisters grew up around guns — the family hunted often — and they had no reason to be worried about AJ having access to them.
His shotgun was in his room because he was packing for a family turkey hunt they were going to take the following week during spring break.
"Alan just looked at me and said, 'He's gone,'" Shay said.
Within minutes, there were three Weld County Sheriff's Office deputies at her Johnstown residence. They performed an investigation, the coroner took the body, an advocate handed them information and then they all left.
"When a suicide happens, there's really no help," Shay said.
Shay said she is in contact with the Thompson School District to spark improvements in the organization's suicide prevention and response resources.
She said shortly after AJ's death, she attended a regularly-scheduled, four-hour mental health workshop for district parents.
After being told the training was full at first, she worked with officials to provide additional workshop dates, so anyone wanting to take the course could.
"It's great training because it teaches you not to just ask the questions we ask all the time," she said. "Because, trust me: I sat down with my son numerous times when anything would happen — just anything — and say 'Hey, you know, you OK? Do you need to talk about this?' But I never said to him 'Are you having thoughts about killing yourself?'"
Those are the questions, Shay said, the workshop stressed need to be asked.
Kim Redd, the executive director for the Alliance for Suicide Prevention, said it is important to dispel myths surrounding suicide, especially with young people.
"I think there's been a myth that if you bring it up, you are putting that thought into their mind," she said "The reality is if they've been thinking about suicide, then they have been thinking of it on their own — and, if they have a plan, they will usually let you know."
Shay also noted that district staff — teachers, coaches and other personnel — are not required to take the mental-health workshop she took.
"I thought that was really interesting because that's what our teachers and coaches need," she said. "They are around our kids more than we are."
Redd's organization reached 4,800 Larimer County students last year through prevention and awareness programs in the schools.
"We try to give both kids and adults tools to recognize depression and warning signs of suicide and then how to really listen to someone and ask if they have a plan," Redd said.
She said students are told during the program they can make referrals for themselves or someone they think is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts. The school's counselor is then directed to respond immediately.
Shay noted a major problem right now is the stigma associated with mental-health problems — teenagers do not to talk to their parents about mental-health problems because they do not want to disappoint them or anger them.
Charlie Carter, the executive director of Thompson School District's exceptional student services department, said the district is working hard to provide prevention and education programs for students and parents through several grants they have received.
"Through one of (the grants), we have been able to do a lot of training — a very specific training called Youth Mental Health First Aid," he said. "And that's for staff members and community members — and parents."
When the death of student happens, he said, a volunteer Psychological Response Team of mental-health professionals within the district responds to provide grief and mental health resources for students and staff who are affected.
"So one thing I have found is that I can never predict how an event is going to unfold," Carter said. "When I think it's going to be a small response … sometimes I am surprised, and it really blows up and becomes much larger than I anticipated. And in those cases — we are constantly assessing the situation."
When AJ died, Shay said, school officials were able to help the family.
"Berthoud High School worked with us really well," she said. "It was important to us to get the word out properly to the kids."
Carter said controlling how information is disseminated about a student's death is important to do but can also be challenging.
"Rumors fly very quickly, so we try to dispel the rumors the best we can," he said. "Social media has really introduced a real challenge for us because, while we try to get ahead of the response, it's very difficult now because the news just flies. And it's not just contained within the building or even within the district."
That was one of things Shay wanted to make sure happened — that they beat the social media discourse and had the proper resources in the school for the students.
"AJ was a huge presence in (Berthoud High School) — he was a class clown, he was funny," she said.
According to information from the Larimer County Coroner's Office, three Thompson School District students committed suicide in the 2015-2016 school year.
Last year, 1,058 people died by suicide in Colorado — the highest number in the state's recorded history. Colorado's suicide rate is at 19.4 per 100,000 residents for 2015, making it the seventh-highest in the country.
Carter said Shay is more than welcome to participate in future prevention efforts within the school district. She recognizes the emotional toll this year's three suicides and one accidental overdose death has had on the district — from students to the Psychological Response Team who she said "soak these things up like a sponge."
"Every time we lose a member of our community, we are diminished," Carter said. "That person's life had meaning, and it's just a reminder of the urgency in which we need to figure out better ways to respond and support our kids."