Mom shares story of son’s suicide, encourages WDC students to seek help
Hoping to "shatter the silence” surrounding suicide, Maria Willits spoke to Wadena-Deer Creek High School students Wednesday about the heartbreaking loss of her teen-aged son, as well as breaking down the stigma of mental illness and depression.
“My son’s name is Ricky, and it was his senior year. He was 18 and one month from graduation,” Willits told Wadena-Deer Creek students.
“He was an honor-roll student, who played basketball and baseball at Barnesville, but his passion was baseball. He was charismatic, wore a big smile on his face, and loved the simple things in life – a bonfire, board games and a good home-cooked meal,” she said.
"Ricky was a very humble young man. At the same time, he was outgoing. He was witty, he was the life-of-the-party-kind of kid."
That’s why it is confusing and heartbreaking to hear Willits’ share her story of her 18-year-old son, Ricky, who committed suicide in 2009.
But what so many people did not see, including his parents, was the depression and anxiety Ricky was fighting with daily.
"He masked his pain so well, we didn’t see the signs of depression," Willits said. "After he died, we found out he had been battling depression his whole senior year. He was afraid of the unknowns after graduation -- this triggered a major depressive episode."
It was after Ricky was gone that his family and friends began to put the pieces together. Willits said the most devastating piece of information she found out was that her son had reached out to two close friends, but they didn’t know what to do with the information or where to turn.
Willits has taken her family's tragedy and turned it into an educational opportunity, sharing her story with schools and youth groups, and sponsoring events that raise money for scholarships so schools focus on the issue.
Willits is the founder of “Shatter the Silence.” She is also connected with Janet Benz and Dan Peterson (organizer of the Highway 10 Baseball Tourney), through the Otter Tail County Children’s Local Mental Health Advisory Council and the Christopher Benz Foundation.
In 2010, she began speaking to youth, trying to give them the tools to help others who may be struggling with depression, or to help themselves.
On Wednesday, Willits shared with Wadena-Deer Creek High School students a suicide prevention training called QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer). Through this program, Willits shared with students how to recognize the signs that someone may be at risk for suicide, learn what to do or say if they think someone is at risk, and learn where and how to refer that person for help.
“QPR is like basic CPR for mental health,” Willits said. “It teaches a person how to ask the question, ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’ They get an idea on what to say to persuade someone in getting help or allowing them to get help for them,” she said.
Furthermore, QPR stresses the importance of referring that person on to someone who can help them. It gives them examples of adults who they can turn to.
“Risk the friendship, don’t risk the life,” Willits stressed to students, adding, “Lives can be saved if you seek help. Reach out to a trusted adult – a parent, teacher, coach, a church leader.”
“When you apply QPR, you plant the seeds of hope,” Willits said.
Wadena-Deer Creek sophomore Emily Benson said Willits’ talk was “very good.” She said the QPR presentation was “definitely information she could use and won’t forget.”
Every WDC student received a small laminated card listing “suicide warning signs” and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Over the past few years, Wadena-Deer Creek School District has seen a dramatic increase in the number of mental health issues facing students, said Tyler Church, principal at WDC Middle/High School.
“Suicide is not an easy topic to discuss, but unfortunately it is a reality our students have had to face. With continued pressures, our students need to learn about healthy and safe ways to deal with suicide and mental health issues. Programs like QPR give our students tools they can use to seek help or get help for others that need it,” Church said.