Jason Winebarger spoke to a silent and attentive crowd at Sisters High School last week, recounting the story of his sonís suicide. photo by Charlie Kanzig
By Charlie Kanzig
When Jason Winebarger began telling his story to an audience of about 80 last Monday night, the lecture room at Sisters High School fell silent and remained so for the duration of his 26-minute talk, which chronicled the events surrounding his son Jacob's suicide two years ago at age 12, in Bend.
Winebarger's main message to the parents in attendance: Talk to your kids directly about how they are doing. Ask them if they ever feel depressed. Ask them if they have ever thought about suicide.
While there are often many signs and symptoms leading up to a person's suicide, that is not always the case. In Jacob Winebarger's situation, nothing indicated he felt hopeless, which made his suicide a complete shock to his family and friends.
Jacob shot himself in his home and survived for a short period of time on life support until the family agreed to discontinue it once it was clear that he could never recover.
"I will never forget the moment when his heart stopped beating and mine kept going," said Winebarger.
Winebarger urged the audience to have the courage at actually speak the word "suicide" rather than be afraid of it.
"Talking about suicide directly and with purpose will not make it more likely to happen," he said. "Letting people know help and support is available is vital."
He said, "Choosing death is not rational so we need to do all we can to prevent people from getting to that point that they see no other option."
Winebarger hopes that one day the topic of suicide will have the same type of level of attention as breast cancer awareness.
"The color pink has become synonymous with cancer prevention and awareness," he said. "Imagine if we were able to raise that kind of awareness for suicide prevention."
Putting a number to the topic, there have been over 40,000 suicides each year since 2014 in the United States according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. That number is about the same as deaths due to breast cancer according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"More needs to be done," he said.
Winebarger answered questions from the audience and received words of compassion and thanks as well. One man shared how numerous members of his family had suicided and thanked Winebarger and the panel of speakers for bringing the topic to a public forum.
Following Winebarger, staff members from Sisters School District, including Heather Johnson and Brook Jackson, along with Jennifer Noble of Deschutes County Mental Health, shared warning signs, resources, and healthy self-care tips.
Johnson introduced the "Care and Connect" concept she has used at the high school for the past few years, which is now being shared at the others schools in the district as well. She teaches her students that they must look after one another and share concerns for themselves and their schoolmates with trusted adults. She has "Care and Connect" cards that students can fill out to communicate concerns with adults in support positions. The "Care and Connect" cards are being expanded throughout the school, with positive results, according to Johnson.
"Students are breaking out of the traditional 'code of silence' so common in our society," she said. "Students are beginning to understand that silence can be damaging and even deadly.
"Kids actually respond very positively when a counselor brings them in to share a concern delivered by a schoolmate," she said. "It's all about helping students access the support they need."
Plans are underway to present a "Care and Connect" assembly at both Sisters Middle School and Sisters High School as well.
"We need to be thoughtful in our approach with students, but we also owe it to them to raise awareness," said Johnson.