Originally published in the Dec. 20, 2017 print edition of the West Sacramento News-Ledger
Dillon Weatherly and Felicia Greenwood Weatherly.
For the families of those who decide to take their own lives, suicide rates aren’t just a set of data, but a real reminder of the devastation and life changing effects self-inflicted deaths have on those left behind.
Yolo County resident and 21-year River City High School music teacher Felicia Weatherly’s son Dillon, who was 14 at the time, died by suicide last year during a camping trip when he was left by himself at the family’s campsite after he got into an argument with his parents.
Weatherly said she and her husband along with their other children went on a hike and when they returned, they could not find Dillon.
Weatherly discovered Dillon just inside the door of the family trailer. He had shot himself in the head with a hand gun the family kept for safety, she said.
“When I walked in, I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at,” Weatherly said. “It was such a shock. I couldn’t understand. And then I did. And I started screaming. I always assumed there would be at least a hint of warning.”
Weatherly and her husband adopted Dillon in 2011, but they had taken care of him from the age of two, she said. His biological mother, Weatherly’s step-sister, suffered from bi-polar disorder, so the family got Dillon regular psychological exams. But Weatherly said even Dillon’s psychologist was surprised because there were no signs he was suicidal.
According to data from California Health and Human Services, the Weatherly’s story isn’t too uncommon as suicide rates in California have been on the rise over the past 16 years.
Suicide rates across Yolo County’s 17 zip codes between 1999 and 2015 totaled out to 297, with the highest being in Woodland at 95, followed by West Sacramento at 94 and Davis at 82.
Between 1999 and 2005, suicide rates were fairly stagnant, even decreasing to a low of just nine before jumping back up to 21 in 2006. From there, rates have steadily bounced up and down throughout the years, with a slight spike over the last two years on record.
In 2015, there were 4,175 self-inflicted deaths in the state. That’s an increase of 1,128 suicides over 1999 which saw 3,047 deaths by suicide.
Though numbers have fluctuated slightly up and down over the years, the statewide suicide rate has steadily increased since 1999. Overall, in that time, more than 61,000 people in California have taken their own lives and that includes those who died in the state that did not have a home residency at the time of their deaths.
The California Department of Public Health, which provides the data that is presented on the CHHS web portal, said that data collected from various sources like coroners, doctors, funeral directors and hospitals is considered to be quite accurate because the department uses a variety of checks and systems to cut down on any errors in its reporting.
When it comes to reasons why people commit suicide, Diane Sommers, the executive director for Suicide Prevention of Yolo County— which has operated for 51 years and runs the county’s suicide hotline, does outreach at local schools and provides other prevention resources—said it can be a real challenge to track why people take their own lives.
“Is there any real true fact? Probably not,” Sommers said. “But is there speculation? Yes. As we’re seeing kids today and younger people, suicide is now the second leading cause of death between 15 and 24-year-olds.”
Sommers said among men and women, men are also more likely to commit suicide, but that it’s becoming more common to see women do it as well.
“We’re seeing much more with people and the prevalence of, with this whole cell phone age, the usage of bullying,” she said. “Boys are more likely to attempt suicide than girls, but those things are changing.”
Another factor Sommers suggested could play into increases in suicide is seasonal change. Despite popular belief that gloomy winter weather and the craziness of the holiday season causes more people to take their own lives, more suicides actually occur in the spring, Sommers said.
Sommers, who has worked with Suicide Prevention for 30 years, stressed once again that this is based on anecdotal evidence more than actual research.
“During the winter, the days are shorter, it’s darker, we get those long periods of rain, many people are stressed out,” Sommers said. “So, when people are feeling stressed out, the person who might be feeling suicidal kind of fits in with everybody else because they see other people are feeling kind of crummy too.
“And then spring time comes; now you’ve got a bright sunny day. Our moods will start to lift, but the person who has been feeling very depressed – all of a sudden, they become even more isolated.”
Sommers said suicide prevention hotlines such as the one her organization runs demonstrate the importance of listening to others and providing support whenever possible.
“We see that there is a decline [in suicidal thoughts] in people after being able to talk to someone,” Sommers said. “And if you think about it, it’s kind of common sense that to have somebody to listen to us. I think we all feel a little better because then what happens for a person who is feeling very depressed, by calling someone, being able to have someone hear them, many times a person will feel, ‘finally someone understands.’ ”
To honor the life of her son, Weatherly now holds a yearly music benefit for Dillon. The family is trying to get a scholarship in his name endowed so that it can help future students pay for their continued education. To reach that goal, $2,000 is needed, she said.
Weatherly said she believes having an open conversation about suicide is something she’d like to see happen a lot more. She said she has been open about her experience because she says it’s the last gift she can give Dillon.
“I think that there’s such a huge stigma around suicide and mental illness that even us, we briefly had a moment where we thought maybe we’d just say it was an accident because of that kind of shame that goes along with suicide,” Weatherly said. “But then my husband said, ‘Felicia, you’re a teacher and you have an opportunity to help people with this.’ ”
Weatherly explained that because of the way Dillon died, the family was unable to donate his organs, so she felt helpless in terms of being able to see some good come out of her son’s death.
“We weren’t given that opportunity,” she said. “We wish we could have donated his heart or whatever, so this is really all that we have left to give. I think that talking about it – telling kids that everyone feels helpless sometimes – I really think because we’re afraid to talk about it that when they hit that point they think they’re the only ones who have ever felt this way.”
Anyone who is feeling suicidal or who knows someone who may be dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts is encouraged to contact Suicide Prevention of Yolo County at 1-888-233-0228 or visit http://www.suicidepreventionyolocounty.org.