NAMPA — The Burns haven’t taken the purple and turquoise bracelet off their wrists since it was made shortly after their 14-year-old son’s death.
It reads #JaceMatters #YouMatter, and provides the number to text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, since teenagers are more likely to text than call.
Their son, Jace Burns, died by suicide on Jan. 18, 2018. He was a freshman at Skyview High School, where he played the trumpet, french horn and mellophone in jazz and marching bands.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Idahoans aged 15 to 34, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
“Yet we don’t talk about it, and that’s frustrating,” Deny Burns said.
Talking about suicide is not easy. It’s taboo, scary and uncomfortable. For Deny and Aimee Burns and other parents who have lost a child to suicide, it’s painful. Without those conversations though, Deny Burns said, the perception of suicide will never change.
The couple is opening up about this issue at a time when local and national efforts to provide students with mental health resources are also gaining momentum.
At the same time, though, Idaho school districts and the State Department of Education are not consistently tracking the number of student suicides by school district, which state education policy suggests should happen.
Deny Burns remembered hearing about two or three suicides at a single Nampa school before his son’s death. The only reason he knew about them, he said, was because he was a school resource officer.
“Until you start seeing those hard numbers and facts, it’s really tough to tackle,” Aimee Burns said. “Because it’s still easy for people to say, ‘Oh, its really not that common’ — but really it’s not that uncommon.”
Since Jace’s death, Aimee Burns, a teacher at Lake Ridge Elementary in Nampa, and Deny Burns, a Nampa Police officer, have been contacted by other parents who shared their own experiences or asked about warning signs.
The Burns hope that by sharing their story, they’ll help others feel open to talk about their struggles.
“If I could prevent even one more parent from going through this, well then being a voice for this is worth it,” Deny Burns said.
LACK OF TRACKING
The Idaho Press found that school districts and the Idaho State Department of Education aren’t consistently tracking the number of suicides that occur within each school district.
The State Department of Education’s policy on youth suicide prevention and response includes a recommendation that schools report suicides to the department so necessary resources can be deployed to help students and teachers.
The challenge with school districts reporting suicides, said Eric Studebaker, state director of student engagement and safety coordination, is knowing whether a death is a suicide, and in some cases, families want to keep that information private.
“More information almost always leads to better decisions and services, but reporting an individual student’s suicide is ultimately up to the family,” Studebaker said in an email statement to the Idaho Press “We welcome any data on sudden deaths and suicides that our school districts can share, but we do not — and, I think, should not — require the reporting as to the cause of sudden deaths.”
“I do believe we should use data on youth suicides to help us determine whether any geographic trends exist or whether there are overall increases in rates across the state,” Studebaker continued. “To this end, I am working with the Idaho Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics to see what data can be compiled for the state’s regions and counties. This is just one example of using available data to improve services focused on creating safer school environments and stronger communities.”
The State Department of Education received eight reports of student suicides from Jan. 1, 2018, to Oct. 1, 2019. Four of those were reported by school districts, and four were reported by the Idaho Lives Project, a state suicide prevention effort. Historically, the education department has also received reports from coroners.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, a partner in the Idaho Lives Project, does track youth suicides, based on coroner data. It doesn’t give an overview of the issue by school district.
Between 2013 and 2017, 110 Idaho school children aged 6 to 18 died by suicide, according to a Health and Welfare fact sheet; of those, 25 were age 14 or younger. That would be about 27 deaths per year throughout the state.
The SDE surveys student well-being every two years in the Idaho Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Studebaker said, which helps educators identify risk factors related to mental health. In 2017, the survey found that 22% of Idaho students seriously considered suicide, and another 10% attempted suicide.
The department is not mandated to track suicides by schools. If it were required, department spokesman Scott Phillips said, it would collect the information.
The Nampa School District, for instance, said it tracks student suicides, but does not keep a “running list” and could not provide the number of suicides reported in the schools since Jan. 1, 2018. The West Ada School District does not track suicides, spokesman Eric Exline said. He pointed to coroners, who would report that information to the state.
Jennifer Crawford, Canyon County coroner, said her office does investigate every young person’s death. If a death is ruled a suicide, it is not reported to a specific entity at this time, Crawford said. However, she does bring that information to the meetings she attends about Idaho child mortality.
Studebaker said he’s working to create a process to track and report sudden deaths of students, which would include various deaths like car crashes or suicides. Because it can take time for a cause of death to be determined, if at all, sudden deaths is a broad enough category that he’s hopeful the department could collect better data on it.
Aimee Burns was surprised to learn that school districts and the state don’t track student suicide numbers.
“I guess I would’ve thought first and foremost as educators, as police officers, we would know what we were facing,” she said, “and we still don’t.”
TALKING ABOUT SUICIDE
When a student dies by suicide, schools are oftentimes trained to shut down conversations about it, said Shannon Decker, executive director and co-founder of The Speedy Foundation, a suicide prevention foundation. Decker has a decade of private and public teaching and administrative experience in Idaho, Nevada and California and offers training in the state to promote mental health education.
“We allow young people to grieve the loss of a friend due to cancer or a car accident. They’re able to freely express their sorrow, they’re able to memorialize them in some way,” she said. “And when it comes to suicide, there is a stigma that it just needs to be shut down, that if they do anything about it, it will create contagion.”
There’s a common belief that speaking about suicide will encourage youth to attempt it. That’s a myth, Decker said, noting that the opposite is true.
“Talking about it directly is the best way to prevent suicide,” she said.
For the Burns, it wasn’t until after Jace died that they started hearing about the numerous youth suicide deaths throughout the Treasure Valley.
“I was really shocked. How did I miss this? How did I not notice this?” said Aimee Burns, who has worked as an elementary teacher with the school district since 2003. “I felt that, how can we prevent something if we don’t know it’s happening?”
The couple didn’t think Jace showed signs of being suicidal; they believe the act was spontaneous. Had they been aware of the signs or how prevalent suicide was among youth, Aimee Burns said, “we might have had a fighting chance.”
Decker said it is common for teen suicides to be more impulsive.
Deny Burns recalled having conversations with Jace about suicide. Jace never said he struggled with those feelings. It wasn’t until after his death his parents learned he had an anxiety attack at school that only his friend knew about. Jace had told his parents, in the weeks before his death, that he was feeling anxious; they never figured out what was causing it.
Typically, Decker said, there are signs that someone may be struggling, and not everyone is going to see those signs.
“That’s why it’s so important that it’s not just one person’s responsibility. It’s not just the school, or the family or the friends. It’s everybody’s responsibility to be looking for those signs,” Decker said.
A way to start learning about those signs is through basic education and talking about it.
“If it’s talked about, if it isn’t scary, then kids won’t be afraid to reach out and talk to somebody about it,” Deny Burns said. “I couldn’t imagine (suicide) getting worse because of starting to have a conversation.”
In Deny Burns’ experience, people are so afraid of the word suicide, they do not even want to have conversations with their own children about it.
“I’ve told several people that, ‘I promise you, it’s a lot scarier where I am than saying the word,’” Deny Burns said.
Those conversations can start, Decker suggested, by telling youth about the Idaho or National Suicide Prevention hotlines. Have them put the number in their phone and explain to them that it can be used at any point and shared with a friend who might be in need down the road.
Decker said when she talks to youth about suicide, they want to know more about what to do, and they want to be heard by adults.
Since Jace’s death, Aimee Burns has noticed a growing conversation around suicide. She would like for it to reach more students, rather than just administrators and educators.
“The thought has changed about it. Now we realize that we need to talk about it,” said Kathleen Tuck, the Nampa School District’s spokeswoman. There is more mental health components in school curriculum now, and she said schools are having “age-appropriate conversations” around the topic of mental health.
The Burns family wants teens to know it’s OK to speak out for your friend if something is wrong.
“If you’re afraid for a friend, say something,” Deny Burns said. “‘Cause you’d probably rather have that friend mad at you in the hall, than not at all.”
It was part of why the family, along with Jace’s best friend, designed the bracelets. They used the suicide prevention colors — purple and turquoise, and Jace’s favorite colors — purple and lime green, in the design. They were given to a Skyview school resource officer to pass out to students.
The family knows of two instances where teenagers decided not to attempt suicide because of Jace. One teenager had the bracelet and used the hotline. The other, Deny Burns recalled, had a plan to attempt suicide while the parents were gone, but remembered how they felt when Jace died and realized they didn’t want others to go through that painful loss.
“From the very beginning we knew that Jace’s story would play a role in so many stories to come,” Aimee Burns said. “I can’t think of how many times we’ve said to each other, ‘We feel like we’ve had such a sacrifice, such a loss, just to see some change.’”
Emma Burns, Jace’s 13-year-old sister who is now in eighth grade, said she remembered seeing some posters about suicide at school, listing the signs of suicide, but she has not heard anything more about it, she said. She now is part of the Kindness Group at school, which works to shut down bullying and help organizations in the community get supplies or resources they need.
In one instance, Deny Burns was invited by a health teacher of a Nampa school to talk to students about how parents were impacted by the loss of their child by suicide. Ultimately, Burns said, he was not allowed to speak about the topic to the school.
Tuck, the district spokeswoman, did not know why Burns would not have been able to talk to the class.
“In some ways, it feels like … there’s something shameful in what you have to share,” Aimee Burns said. “It feels like a missed opportunity, because how else do we relate to one another if it’s not through human story?”
‘SUICIDE KNOWS NO BOUNDS’
It’s a myth that suicidal thoughts only impact certain types of people.
“Suicide knows no bounds,” Decker said.
It’s not just sad, depressed children, she said; it’s the valedictorian or the athlete; it is the students who are bullied and picked on; it’s the teenager who drives the nice car.
Jace was academically gifted, and because of that, he sometimes had a hard time connecting with people at school, Deny Burns said. He was sometimes picked on because of this.
For awhile he would say he took it in stride, Deny Burns said, but he felt deep down that it really bothered Jace. Jace internalized a lot of his feelings, Aimee Burns said. It was in eighth grade, following an instance where a student had been picking on Jace, that she really started to notice something was going on. She reached out to teachers looking for clues about what might be happening.
The responses were that he was always smiling, or he was doing fine. In some cases, there was no response.
“I remember after we lost him going back into some of those emails I had sent, questions to teachers if they had noticed anything about Jace, and realizing that there was never a response,” Aimee Burns said through tears. “I remember feeling that because Jace was so successful in school and because he never would show anybody that he was struggling that way socially, that it kind of went unchecked.”
WHAT IS BEING DONE?
Programs like Youth Mental Health First Aid are addressing suicide directly.
Union High School in Nampa recently was one of 35 schools around the nation to receive a grant to participate in a pilot program focused on teen mental health. The program will teach high school students to recognize and respond when friends are experiencing mental health or addiction problems.
The Nampa School District is also part of the Healthy Minds Partnership, which connects school districts with behavioral health providers, such as Terry Reilly or Pathways, who can provide counseling to students at school.
Over a dozen Nampa schools are using this model now, said Connor Sheldon-Modrow, program manager for the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health.
There are several other initiatives, like Sources of Strength and the Idaho Lives project, which focus “upstream” of suicide and aim to build resiliency in youth before the problem reaches a crises. These organizations focus on adverse childhood outcomes and how to prevent them.
On Oct. 7 and 8, teachers and first responders took part in a school safety symposium, featuring advocate Elizabeth Smart, discussing what’s missing in Idaho surrounding mental health and how the state can fill in the gaps.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra is asking the Legislature for $1 million in the upcoming 2021 fiscal year budget for social-emotional learning, which would train Idaho educators and school staff to recognize and respond to students’ emotional needs. That training could look different at each school based on students’ needs. Some districts have already implemented social-emotional training, Ybarra said.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach that is going to address this issue,” she said at the symposium, “but conferences like these help us get to the root of what we’re dealing with.”
In addition, St. Luke’s was recently awarded a $3.4 million federal grant to study suicide in Idaho and how to best prevent it. The study will begin enrolling patients in the spring or summer of 2020 and aims to work with 1,460 participants, 500 of whom will be youth. The teams will work with eight emergency departments and 21 primary care offices.
‘WHAT A GIFT HIS LIFE WAS’
Maneuvering through life without Jace is something the Burns family isn’t sure will ever get easier. Deny and Aimee Burns hope at some point in the future, they can talk about his death without crying, and share their experience so it doesn’t feel so hushed.
They moved in September, because being in the house where Jace died was too painful, Deny Burns said.
“This is the first house we’re buying without Jace. That’s the kind of stuff that hits you. We’re moving in, and he’s not coming with us,” he said.
They still have memories to hold onto of Jace. He loved the outdoors and hiking. When the family went camping, Jace would never sleep in the tent; instead he would sleep in a hammock between the trees and was the first one up to build a fire.
Aubrey, Jace’s 8-year-old sister, still holds onto her Jace Bear, one of two Build-A-Bears she and Emma made soon after their brother died. She sleeps with it at night and holds the bear when she feels sad, which cheers her up, she said.
Sometimes, they find Jace rocks in the community, part of a community movement to paint rocks and leave them throughout town to brighten others’ days. A rock that reads Jace Keoni, his middle name, is on the family’s living room mantle painted with symbols of camping, band and a Bible verse — some of the things that were important to Jace.
On Saturday, the Burns and about 100 other participants walked with the team Jace Matters at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness community walk at the Kleiner Park in Meridian. It was the second year the family had participated in the walk.
Jace would have been a junior in high school this year. His parents won’t get to talk about colleges or see him get his driver’s license. The Burns family doesn’t face this reality alone. Hundreds of parents have experienced the loss of their children to suicide. It helps knowing that Jace’s story has stopped other suicides from occurring, the Burns said.
“We hate to have had to suffer that,” Aimee Burns said. “But I also realize what a gift his life was, and that as hard as it is, I know that his death has prevented other deaths.”