Less than a month after his 19-year-old son Foster killed himself, East Moline's Kevin Atwood struggles to understand why.
"He was just your normal kid. He had a ton of friends, was the class clown," Mr. Atwood, 47, said this week, preparing for Saturday's launch of Foster's Voice, an organization he formed to raise awareness about suicide, help those who are hurting and prevent others from taking their life.
"I owe it to my son that he is heard," he said of Foster, a 2016 UTHS grad who planned to be a police officer. "He always wanted to protect and serve, and this is still his opportunity."
"We're here to help other people, so other people don't make the same tragic mistake," Mr. Atwood (who has three other kids with his wife Jaime) said.
"It's stealing our youth," he said of suicide. "Think about the future my son could have held. It affects our communities it affects the world. That's why we're here to change it."
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Foster played baseball, football and golf in high school; was full of life and always happy on the outside, his father said. He finished his time at UT on the Homecoming Court, graduated with honors, enrolled at Black Hawk College and worked full-time at Stashu’s in Moline. Foster had a girlfriend who attends DePaul in Chicago, loved his job and apparently hid his depression well, Mr. Atwood said.
"We noticed it about six months ago, he started pulling away from the family," he said. "We would invite him to do things as a family, like the Fourth of the July parade, he declined to go. He wasn't really feeling like it...It's hard to pinpoint; there were things we picked up on."
About two months ago, Foster saw a doctor who prescribed a mild antidepressant, and talked to a counselor once, Mr. Atwood said. He killed himself two weeks later, on July 21. "I don't know what they discussed. He was very private."
"Everyone that's been through this situation, unfortunately, that's kind of common in boys after high school. You get out on your own, get a taste of the real world. It happens real quickly," he said.
"They're very good at putting on a smile; they're playing a role," Mr. Atwood said of those with depression. "We're trying to let people suffering from depression know, we're here, you don't have to hide behind a mask."
"When they make the decision to do what they do, they're not thinking straight," he said. "My life will never be the same. Hundreds of people tell me I can't blame myself, I know they're right, but there will be guilt until I'm laid next to my son."
"I wake up every morning and think, that really happened?" Mr. Atwood said. "To go along with the shock is total and complete devastation. It's very hard. You have ups and downs; I have good support at work (XPAC in Milan). They've been there with me the whole time. They were wonderful about me working my way back in. Your life is never going to be the same."
Suicide is "an epidemic"
Each year, more than 44,000 Americans die by suicide, and the rate has risen over the past decade, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In Illinois, 1,363 people took their lives in 2015 (one every six hours in the state, and the third-leading cause of death for ages 15-24), the AFSP says.
The national suicide rate for males 15 to 19 rose from 10.8 per 100,000 in 2007 to 14.2 per 100,000 in 2015, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. It reported the suicide rate among girls between 15 and 19 hit a 40-year high in 2015.
"It's an epidemic," Mr. Atwood said. "The disease of depression has really got a grip on this generation especially."
Suicide was the third-leading cause of death among children 10 to 14 in 2015, and the second-leading cause of death among people between 15 and 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were more than twice as many suicides that year (44,193) in the U.S. as homicides (17,793).
In 2011–2014, 12.7 percent of Americans aged 12 and over reported using antidepressants in the past month, according to the CDC, noting it increases with age (including just 3.4 percent of those age 12-19). Antidepressants are one of the top three most commonly used therapeutic drug classes in the country, the CDC says.
After setting up a Foster's Voice Facebook page (facebook.com/FostersVoice2) on July 30, where Mr. Atwood shares his son's story, he's been contacted by nearly 1,000 people, mainly other relatives of suicide victims. The site has over 5,460 likes.
"They shared their stories with me. It gives me strength, makes me realize this is a war," Mr. Atwood said. "Suicide, it's robbing our youth, robbing our future generations." He's coordinating efforts with other parents who've suffered loss from suicide.
"I'm trying to make a difference in the world; I'm trying to make a difference in Illinois," Mr. Atwood said. "If we pool our resources, we're gonna change the world."
"I won't quit, I won't go away," he said. "I'm gonna honor my son; they're honoring their sons. 44,000 people a year make the tragic decision to take their life. We've got to get to these kids now. They haven't even started to live their life."
New TV special and school campaign
Mr. Atwood will be part of a TV news special on teen suicide next month produced by Mike Mickle (president of a marketing and video production company, and publisher of QC Family Focus), who debuted his documentary, "If You Only Knew: The Journey through Teen Depression and Suicide," last year.
The new hour-long show (a revised version of the doc, including a high school student who's been bullied) will air on WQPT Sept. 7 at 8 p.m., part of an entire evening of programs dedicated to bullying awareness; WHBF on Sept. 10 (World Suicide Awareness Day) at 9 p.m., and the next night at the same time on the Quad Cities CW. It also will be the theme of a 10-episode podcast on WVIK starting Sept. 11.
"There's not a week that has gone by in the past four or five months, that somebody has not come up to me about the documentary, and shared a story about their struggle with depression," Mr. Mickle said this week. "It's much more common than people realize."
Both he and Mr. Atwood want to de-stigmatize depression, open up the conversation, and get help for kids and adults who need it. Depression shouldn't be treated differently than any other illness, like diabetes or cancer, and must be treated, Mr. Mickle said.
"There are lots of well-intentioned people doing whatever they can, turning grief into help for kids," he said, adding of Mr. Atwood. "I'm absolutely astonished by his strength. I've interviewed four families who have lost children, and you never fully recover from that."
"If You Only Knew" features families who have lost children to suicide, as well as a young woman
who attempted suicide several times as a teenager, but found the help she needed. The original
documentary first aired on WQPT in March 2016; was nominated for a Mid-America Emmy,
and is available on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon.
“The new prime-time television special will be different from the original documentary,” Mr. Mickle
said. “In the studio, we will have a frank discussion with experts. Plus, mental health specialists from Vera French will be standing by to take phone calls on both nights.”
Mickle Communications also is launching a related "We All Have Stuff" campaign:
● WHBF and Quad Cities CW will air 30-second videos in which kids discuss the “stuff” that
holds them back. Topics include sexual identity, diabetes, loss of a loved one, poverty, anxiety, and depression, and more.
● WQPT will feature the videos on its website, while local radio stations will air the audio.
● A seven-minute video, aimed at students who may suffer from depression, will be shown to area schools. Q&A sessions will follow. The Q&A guide was developed by members of the Scott County Suicide Awareness Task Force in conjunction with area education agencies.
● A traveling mural will visit schools in the area. A ribbon-cutting for the mural will be held on Sept. 11. Students can write or draw on the mural to show the “stuff” that holds them back.
● The September 2017 issue of the community magazine QC Family Focus, published by Mickle Communications, will feature articles related to this topic.
"If You Only Knew: The Journey Through Teen Depression and Suicide" is the first of eight documentaries, which will form a series called "The Dangers They Face Movement," Mr. Mickle said.
“Young people face multiple under-the-radar concerns in today’s world. Many parents do not realize how prevalent these dangers have become, and so the community must be informed,”
If kids understand how common depression is, that others are going through something similar, they're more likely to talk and seek help, Mr. Mickle said.
"You have to reach out to your child, but don't push them," Mr. Atwood said. "Calmly try to talk to them, try to educate them. Let them know you're worried. If they won't get help, you need to reach out to professionals. Do everything in your power. Some — like my son — are going to slip through the cracks.
"Foster's Voice is there, to console them. We're there to let them know we can help them in any way or manner we can," he said.
Foster's Voice plans Saturday event in EM
Foster's Voice will meet at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at The Quarter in East Moline off 13th Avenue and the Mississippi River to release 1,000 balloons. From there, the group will walk to the new bandshell on 15th Avenue in East Moline as part of Freedom Fest. T-shirts and wristbands sales will support the organization.
The group also is planning a scholarship fundraiser on Nov. 4, three days after what would have been Foster's 20th birthday.
For more help with suicide, call the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit afsp.org.