Mental illness does not wear any bandages. There are no slings or crutches. That makes it difficult to recognize the despair of those who battle depression. Without any indication of the magnitude of their inner struggle, and often without sharing their anguish, an alarming number of teens and young adults in the United States and Canada are ending their lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens and young adults in both Canada and the United States.
Young people in CRC churches and communities are not immune. We need to start talking about it. It is the hope and prayer of the people who tell their stories in this feature that such conversation will lead to greater awareness, reduce the stigma attached to mental illness, dispel some of the myths around suicide, and increase the possibility of prevention.
Ever since September 23, 2016, the day 17-year-old Jordan Hiemstra died by suicide, his parents, Chris and Christy, have been intentional about sharing their son’s story with as many people as they can. “If we can help create awareness of mental illness, get families to talk at the dinner table about depression, or maybe help one person, then sharing this tragedy is worth it,” said Jordan’s mother.
Outwardly, Jordan appeared happy. He was creative, thoughtful, a good friend, and a contributor to his London District Christian Secondary School community. At church he played keyboard, trumpet, and accordion. Inwardly, it was a different story. “He didn’t really share his struggle with any of his friends or tell people what he was feeling,” said his father. “I often wonder—if depression wasn’t such a touchy or taboo subject, would he have told others what he was actually feeling?”
Martin Saunders, 16, was loving and kind. He cared about social justice, loved animals, and always had a joke to tell. He was a talented photographer. The evening of January 30, 2013, was a mild one with no snow when Martin packed his camera and went out to take some time exposures. He ended his life later that night.
Although his parents, Paul and Wendy, knew things had not been going well for their son about six months before his death, he only shared his feelings deeply with one close friend six weeks before he died. The Saunders want to tell their story for the same reason as the Hiemstras. They requested memorial donations for the Anti-Stigma Campaign of Pathstone, a child and youth mental health agency in the Niagara region. Many people mentioned after the funeral that they also had a family member die by suicide and had never talked about it.
At age 15, Andrew Kerkhof was diagnosed with depression. Intelligent, compassionate, and gentle, he lit up a room with his smile. When he was 19, Andrew came out as a gay man. Although his family told him they loved him unconditionally, they believe that for many reasons he did not feel worthy of God’s love. The entire family was affected by Andrew’s mental illness. “We became dependent upon his health and happiness. It consumed us. While trying to support him, we offered everything within our means.” On May 30, 2013, at the age of 26, Andrew died by suicide.
“From the beginning, we decided we would not hide anything,” said his mother, Ida. The Kerkhofs established the Andrew Jacob Memorial Foundation, a registered charity. “The tragedy of losing Andrew to depression and suicide has ignited a passion within us to create change in a broken world,” they explained. “We recognize the urgency to destroy the barricades caused by the stigmatization surrounding LGBTQ individuals, mental illness, and suicide. . . . We hope that . . . we may chip away at the walls.”
Vivian Yvonne Pennock
Vivian, a Grand Rapids (Mich.) Christian High student with an infectious laugh, was a devoted friend and an excellent listener, a wonderful photographer and poet. She shared many outdoor adventures with her mother, Terri Rozema—whitewater rafting, rappelling, digging for clams, and hiking the Appalachian Trail. Following a suicide attempt, Vivian was hospitalized at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services for depression and anxiety.
Afterward, family members thought she was significantly better. But Vivian died by suicide on December 4, 2015. She was 17. “Vivian’s friends and I all knew she had depression,” reflected her best friend and classmate, Christina Bouma. “We knew she was sad and dealing with it, but never did we think she’d attempt suicide.”
His family and friends had no idea of the pain Kyle Vanderkooi was struggling with because he shared it with none of them. Following his graduation from Edmonton Christian High School, he lacked the motivation and energy to look for a job. After Kyle refused multiple invitations from his friends to go out with them, they eventually stopped calling. At the root of Kyle’s depression and despair, his parents suspect, was sexual and emotional abuse sometime during his high school years by a male in a position of trust, and a subsequent struggle with sexual identity and shame. While his parents sought counseling to learn how to help their son, he refused to go. Kyle died by suicide on August 21, 2007, at age 20.
Paul Saunders, Martin’s dad, raises a conundrum. “The trouble is, as parents of teenagers, we don’t know if this is normal teenage angst and moodiness or whether it’s something we should be worried about. It didn’t come home to us until a couple of months before Martin died when we learned that he had tried once to take his life. We tried to do everything we could to help him. We contacted a doctor and talked to the school. We got in touch with a counselor and Martin started seeing her, and they thought things were starting to level out a bit. He was on some antidepressants, but they didn’t seem to help him much.” His sister, Emma, who was 18 when Martin died, believes his friends knew about Martin’s struggle but didn’t realize the extent of it.
According to the website of Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids, Mich., “most people who end their lives exhibit warning signs.” These include, but are not limited to, talking or writing about wanting to die, feeling hopeless or trapped, being in unbearable pain, or fearing they are a burden to others.
Changes in behavior may include searching for a way to end their life, such as stockpiling pills; increased use of alcohol or drugs; giving away prized possessions, and withdrawing from friends and family. (A longer list of warning signs is available at pinerest.org/resource/suicide).
Among the factors that increase the risk of suicide are family history; mental illness, especially depression; a previous suicide attempt; a struggle with sexual orientation in an unsupportive environment; bullying; and serious loss.
“Being able, as a parent, to ask the difficult questions: Are you okay? Is something going on? Being able to have open communication with your children, that is something that could change someone’s life one day,” according to an expert from Forest View Psychiatric Hospital in Grand Rapids.
After a Death by Suicide
All the families spoke about how much they appreciated the support from church and community, including cards, Facebook messages, meals, flowers, and prayers. Collectively, they also said this:
We realize it takes a lot of courage to visit. We encourage people to take on that courage. Don’t avoid us. You don’t have to say anything. Don’t try to fix anything. Just be there. Treat the suicide as any other death. Say the person’s name. It’s comforting. Don’t worry about causing us pain. We are already in pain. Continue to reach out months and years later, even if it’s just a card. It’s important for us to know that you haven’t forgotten about our child. What does not help is trying to give a reason why the suicide happened.
“It’s infuriating when people come up with reasons, said one mother. “Mental illness is not about a lack of faith or of the devil.”
“Grand Rapids Christian High went above and beyond for me and Vivian’s friends,” added her friend, Christina. “They sang with us, prayed for us. My counselor was there when I needed to sit and cry, when the days were too hard and I couldn’t do my classes. My teachers helped me with homework that I missed. . . . They asked how I was doing and gave me hugs. I am so grateful for their patience and kindness.”
Faith and Hope
“We have confidence that Jordan is not maybe ‘resting’ with Jesus,” said Chris Hiemstra, “but he is enjoying Jesus and the joys and thrills of heaven. . . . [T]hrough it all we can still say the Lord is good! We question why. Our perspective is human and we can’t see clearly the bigger picture. We have been comforted and blessed with the ability to notice the good that has come from sharing the story of mental illness.”
“I know we could not have gotten through this without our Lord holding us up,” added Jordan’s mother. “Even though this tragedy is so hard to understand, God has let us see some good that can come out of this. . . . We know there is evil in this world. This was not God’s doing. He can allow evil to happen . . . but he does not cause it. God has blessed us . . . with an amazing church family, our friends, new friends, and our community. We are so thankful.”
“We are very grateful that we have our faith,” said Paul and Wendy Saunders, “because it would be very difficult to get through this without it. Not to sound trite, but we know Martin’s gone to a better place. There is more than our earthly existence and that gives us comfort, but it doesn’t help the pain of losing him.”
“Ultimately I know that God rescued Andrew from all the pain he was in,” said Ida Kerkhof. “God has shown me heavenly things, such as visions. In those moments, I have felt comfort, joy, and peace.” Her husband, John, added, “My relationship with Jesus is very real. Heaven is real now. Andrew is there and I wonder, what’s he doing now?”
“I know for certain Vivian is with Jesus,” said her mother, Terri, who finds comfort in her belief that the way a life ends does not determine one’s eternal destination. “Once in Christ, always in Christ. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. God is faithful, and he will never let us go.”
The Vanderkoois find joy and a focus for the future in the new lives that have come into their family in the way of grandchildren.
A Message for Parents (and Young Readers)
“Talk about the tough subject of anxiety and depression with your kids at the dinner table,” said the Hiemstras. “This may help those suffering to open up, to realize that depression and anxiety is a disease and something that needs to be shared. Discuss what to do if a friend is in pain. They should tell an adult. It could save a life.” A video made in memory of Jordan a few days after his death could be a good discussion starter (see Celebrating Jordan's Beautiful Life Ceremony).
“You’ve got to communicate,” said the Saunders. “It’s hard to talk about it, but it’s worse if you don’t. Talk about the death of your child. We have to tell each other how hurt we are, how we feel, and how much we loved him. If you keep it inside, you can get bitter and it’s unbearable— marriages get destroyed.” Emma Saunders added, “Talk as a family. Tell your family how you feel.”
Terri Rozema said, “If you were the first responder after the suicide, try not to blame or judge yourself if you can't seem to move on with life or heal within the same timeframe as others. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a real possibility.”
“If you are going through a hard time,” said Christina Bouma, “confide in someone and please stay. You have a purpose here and I wish I could make you see it. You are loved. You are worth so much.”
“Make sure to interfere immediately and seek professional help and guidance from whatever sources are available,” said the Vanderkoois. “Parents, pay attention to what you say at home. Overheard judgmental comments about others may keep your child from sharing their feelings with you.”
“Take your children seriously, show unconditional love, know as much about them as you can—about their friends and where they are going,” said the Kerkhofs. “Don’t be afraid to ask a loved one if he or she is suicidal. Ask if they have a plan. Pay attention to their behavior. They need an advocate because they are unable to find the energy and effort to make the choices they need to get better.” Andrew’s sister, Laura, said, “Please believe that your family will not be better off without you. Despite how you may feel, you are not a burden.”
In the U.S.
- Crisis Text Line, inspired by teenagers’ affection for texting, but open to people of all ages, provides free assistance to anyone who texts CONNECT to 741741.
- To talk to a professional around the clock, phone the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
- For immediate help in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area, you can also call Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services at 800-678-5500.
- The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention offers a list of Crisis Centres and Distress Lines for every province.
- Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868.
In both countries, if you are in immediate crisis, dial the local emergency telephone number (often 911) in your area.
Further resources on suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention curated by Disability Concerns ministry are available here.
A year and a half after Kyle’s death, his father, Andrew, wrote the following poem that reveals from where his hope comes.
What consolation then do I seek
To get me through my life
Something solid and concrete
To relieve me from my strife
I have no answer on this day
But I’ll tell you how I cope
I ask God’s guidance every day
And it’s him that gives me hope