The sky was dark, the air was frigid and the ground was covered in a fresh layer of snow. While they didn’t notice it immediately, the Moore family would later find footprints leading into their 10 acres of wooded land.
It was around 8 p.m. on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. Ethel and Ken Moore just returned from dinner and walked into their Clyde Township home expecting to see their youngest son Bradley.
But the 24-year-old was nowhere to be found.
Bradley’s gun safe was open.
His shotgun was gone.
Ethel and Ken frantically searched every room. They called 911. They called their two other kids. They waited. They called 911 again. They waited. But in their gut, they already knew what happened.
Bradley died by suicide.
“My oldest son got here before the police did,” Ethel recalled. “My son would not wait for them. He followed Bradley’s footsteps into the woods and found him in the hunting blind. He was already gone. I could hear my son (Jeremy) from 200 feet into the woods, I could hear him screaming when he found (Bradley).”
While tragic, this story is not unique.
St. Clair County logged 25 suicide deaths and 230 suicide attempts in 2015, according to data collected from the St. Clair County Sheriff Department and Port Huron Police Department. Those numbers do not include those who voluntarily walked into a local emergency room or those who were reported to other police departments within the county.
In Michigan more than twice as many people die by suicide than by homicide and the national suicide rate is the highest it has been in 30 years, according to 2016 statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the suicide rate continues to climb, parents such as Ethel and Ken continuously ask the same question: how could this tragedy have been prevented?
The answer is layered and hazy: better access to mental health care, more public education about suicidal symptoms, and breaking the stigma of mental illness could be a start though.
Access to health care
Bradley had a history of depression and substance abuse. While he was no longer addicted to drugs, he was never able to work through the depression. He had no health insurance, so he did not seek counseling but instead tried to overcome the mental illness on his own.
His mother said that burden became too heavy for him.
“If he was able to get help a year before he passed away, I think it would have helped a lot,” Ethel said. “He had no insurance and was turned away. If we would have known options for affordable counseling, that would have helped too.”
While receiving preventative mental health care can be a challenge, St. Clair County Community Mental Health provides guaranteed emergency care, said Amy Smith, St. Clair County Community Mental Health assistant division director.
“At Community Mental Health we are bound by the mental health code in Michigan,” Smith said. “So anyone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts, idealizations or gestures, or homicidal thoughts, CMH will serve them regardless of insurance. If someone is in crisis like that, we will serve them.”
For non-emergency care, counseling providers such as CMH, primary care physicians and counseling centers require new patients to go through the typical process of providing insurance information before setting up treatment. Many insurances will cover 20 counseling appointments annually, but that differs among insurance groups.
In addition, while it is easy to find a support group for those who have lost someone due to suicide, it is much more difficult to find a support group for those who are depressed, have had suicidal thoughts, or have attempted suicide and lived.
Smith said there are counseling options out there, but it comes down to people being willing to pick up the phone to find out.
In Bradley’s case, by the time he was teetering on the edge of suicide he was no longer in the mindset to help himself. His parents tried to call for an ambulance, but he refused service. Adults patients have to consent to care.
His father tried to wrestle with him to cooperate. But that didn’t work either.
“It has been described to me on more than one occasion, when someone is in that dark tunnel with no light, they really can’t do it on their own,” Smith said. “They need help getting services and following through and taking their medicine. When they get to that point, it’s not necessarily they want their life to end, it’s they want that emotional pain to end, and it’s hard to distinguish between the two.”
If under the age of 18, the parent or guardian has the legal right to make decisions for their child if they believe their child is suicidal, said Kari Kreger, a licensed professional counselor at Blue Water Counseling. If an adult child is refusing treatment parents can try to override that decision by petitioning their child into the hospital either by driving them there or by calling 911 if the person is not cooperative.
While not evident at the time, Ken Moore said there were predictive signs and evidence of previous suicide attempts when he looks back on the days leading up to his son’s death.
Ethel said right before Christmas her son was so happy, as if the depression had finally ceased. But the following weeks his mood dramatically changed. He pulled away, he was short tempered, he stayed locked in his bedroom.
“All we knew at the time was that he was sleeping a lot and not acting himself,” she said. “The week he passed away, he was hallucinating and he distanced himself from us. He didn’t want to talk. I asked him if he was thinking of killing himself and he said he would never do that, and the next day he was gone.”
Earlier that week Ethel opened the garage door to find Bradley inside with his four-wheeler running and exhaust fumes filling the enclosed space. In that moment she didn’t think anything of the occurrence, but now believes it was his first suicide attempt. After his death, Ethel and Ken learned in that same week Bradley took 30 Xanax pills at once, his second suicide attempt.
When neither method worked, Bradley turned to a more lethal means.
In Michigan nearly 50 percent of suicides are from firearms, followed by about 27 percent by hanging or suffocation, and 17 percent by poisoning, according to 2014 numbers by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
If someone is displaying suicidal symptoms all lethal items should be removed from the home such as guns or knives.
“Probably 85 to 90 percent of suicides have some type of substance that goes along with it,” Smith said. “Like alcohol or prescription drugs…for example, they have a drink and use a firearm.”
Smith said most suicide victims have attempted in the past.
However, contrary to belief, suicides do not happen more often in the winter months or around holidays, Smith said. She said they happen throughout the year, and impact people of every employment level, social status, income status, race, ethnicity and gender. One thing that is consistent though is the prevalence of mental health conditions in 85 percent of those who have killed themselves. Often times suicide victims are not diagnosed until after their death though.
Breaking the stigma
While the rise in suicide rates is not limited to just one type of person, it still carries with it a heavy weight. With such a stigma, some suicide victim families choose not to address the issue or say what the cause of death was.
But the Moore family gathered in their kitchen on the night of Bradley’s death and agreed it would not be kept a secret. They agreed to talk openly in hopes awareness of the issue could prevent future deaths.
St. Clair County Community Mental Health will be hosting a Walk 2 Remember, Walk 2 Prevent on Sunday to provide support to those who have lost a loved one to suicide as well as to provide community education about what people can do if they know someone who is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts.
“It’s like a taboo,” Ken said. “But after it happened, we found out how common it really is, but people don’t talk about it.”
What is most upsetting, is when people assume suicide is an “easy out.”
“People think it’s the easy way out for people, but it’s not, it’s an illness,” Ken said. “Someone once told me those who commit suicide were selfish for doing it and I said ‘no, it is an illness, a darkness with no light for them.’”
Before the depression, Bradley wasn’t one that ever seemed suicidal. He loved his nephews. He loved his job. He loved the Detroit Lions and the Red Wings. He loved to joke around and jump out from behind corners.
But now his mom longs to hear his voice. All she has left is a short video of Bradley teaching his dog, a husky named Lincoln, to roll over.
“Lincoln knows,” Ethel said. “He sleeps in Bradley’s bed every night now, the first couple months he would look for him and cry at night. If I dust the room or clean, he starts howling.”
Ken and Ethel have left Bradley’s room in tact with his clothes still folded in the drawers and hanging up in the closet. The last photo taken of Bradley sits next to his bed. It was taken on Christmas Day, a few weeks before his death. He is smiling alongside his two nephews.
While it’s been more than two years, Ethel continues to go to a support group once a month while Ken prefers not to talk about it as much. The grieving process following a suicide is very unique because it comes attached to a layer of shock, anger, questioning, stigma, blame and confusion. The Moores said the best thing to do is to find a community of support and to be open.
The Walk 2 Remember, Walk 2 Prevent will start at noon on Oct. 9 at East China Park. The walk it meant to connect loved ones of suicide victims as well as educate people on depression and suicidal indicators. All proceeds from the walk benefit the Survivors of Suicide Support Group, SOS Memorial Garden at East China Park, and suicide prevention efforts in St. Clair County. Typically, loved ones of suicide victims are referred to as survivors of suicide.