Daniel Dudgeon attempted suicide during the height of lockdowns in Georgia from the COVID-19 pandemic, so his parents Mike and Lori could not visit him in the hospital or have visitors at their home.
Instead, the Dudgeons received a flood of phone calls from others who had been impacted by suicide.
“It was like being surrounded by these people who just came out of the woodwork,” Mike Dudgeon said, “but nobody was talking about it.”
On Thursday, Sept. 10, the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council hosted “Let’s Talk Openly About Suicide,” a panel discussion with local leaders held at Mountain Lake Church and streamed online to the community.
Forsyth County District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills served as the meeting’s moderator and the panel was made up of Dudgeon, a former state representative; John Trautwein with the Will to Live Foundation; District 9 state Rep. Kevin Tanner; Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman; and Nathan Castleberry, associate pastor of Mountain Lake Church.
Mills said parents who have lost children to suicide are told not to dwell too much on the ‘why’ of losing their loved one but that the community should still look into what causes members of the community, especially younger people, to contemplate suicide.
“If we keep saying ‘well we can’t do anything about it, we can’t fix it,’ then how is the problem ever going to get better?” Mills said.
Dudgeon and Trautwein were unique among the panelists as both have lost sons to suicide.
Dudgeon, who serves as policy director for Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s office and preciously a state lawmaker representing south Forsyth County, lost Daniel, a 20-year-old University of Georgia student, in April.
After Daniel had spent the night before doing a jigsaw puzzle with his parents, playing pool and working on a group assignment with his classmates, Dudgeon said his family was blindsided when they were called at 5 a.m. and told Daniel was at North Fulton Hospital in critical condition from a gunshot wound to the head.
“It’s impossible to say how devastating that was,” Dudgeon said, “and how incredibly difficult that journey that I’m still on and my wife and my other boys and many other of Daniel's friend group.”
Dudgeon and his wife, Lori, started documenting Daniel’s condition on Caring Bridge, a public, online journal, page giving updates on Daniel’s condition, his surgeries and procedures, what the family was hearing from doctors and experts and ultimately Daniel’s death and decided to be open and honest about what the family was going through.
Dudgeon said an anonymous survey recently published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 25% of Americans ages 16-25 had seriously considered in recent months, and he worried that stress from the pandemic could make that number worse.
“Now, COVID has spiked that number up quite a bit because it has caused a massive mental health crisis across the country,” he said. “So, the people out there watching this, again, who are like John and I of thinking, ‘Oh yeah, it’s not going to happen,’ one in four young people thought about it this spring? That’s a lot of people, and those people need to be reached.”
Following Daniel’s death, the family set up a GoFundMe drive that quickly raised $50,000, with another $50,000 being raised in the following months to go toward depression research through theD3 Research Foundation in Daniel’s memory.
“My hope is that maybe I’ll be able to raise some money and give to some young professor somewhere who’s got a wild idea that might be a little bit out of the mainstream that turns out to be a revolutionary new way that we can help these people,” Dudgeon said.
Trautwein, who joined the meeting by video call, said his family is approaching a tough anniversary as October will mark 10 years since his son, Will, died by suicide.
Trautwein said Will was big, strong, popular, a great musician and “perfect, as far I was concerned. He was the happiest boy I knew, and he died.”
The family, Trautwein said, had no idea what Will was going through or that he was struggling and never thought they would be impacted by suicide.
“I never mentioned the words suicide or depression until I learned that it caused my son to die,” Trautwein said.
Trautwein said that nationally, every day there are 15 suicides in America and 95% of those come from diagnosable mental illnesses, but largely, no one wants to talk about it.
“I remember if Will would have just talked about it or if Will would have felt comfortable talking about it, if anyone had ever said to him, ‘Hey, it’s okay to not be okay,’ then maybe a culture could be created and we could share and we can express that we’re not doing well, and it’s okay to be that way,” he said.
Another often overlooked factor, Trautwein and other speakers noted, is the pressures teenagers are facing today that might not have been around in the past. Trautwein said looking back he wishes he had been able to talk more openly to Will about those pressures.
“Will didn’t think I understood that if Will makes a mistake today, every person he ever met will read about it on Instagram and Facebook and social media by dinner,” he said. “Will didn’t think I understood that in order for him to play a varsity sport, he needed to make a travel team when he was 10. Will didn’t think that I understood that in order to get into the University of Georgia, you have to get straight As in AP classes.
“I didn’t have to do any of that. I went to one of the finest academic institutions in the country, Northwestern University, and I never even took an AP class and certainly didn’t get straight As.”
Tanner, who serves as chair of the state’s behavioral health reform and innovation commission, said he had personally dealt with suicide and mental health issues in his career in law enforcement and that the area has a high level of suicide deaths for teens.
“I live in Dawson County, and we rank among the highest per population in the state of kids dying from suicide, high-school-aged children dying from suicide,” Tanner said, “and there has to be more that we can do.”
When help is hard to find, many times law enforcement takes on the burden of dealing with mental health crises. Freeman said his office averages 1.3 suicide calls a day and spends “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for inmate mental health care” in the Forsyth County Jail.
To avoid bad outcomes, Freeman said Sheriff’s Office officers are specially trained to see the signs of mental illness.
“We realized that it’s become such a prevalent thing and we respond to it because, again, in crisis, we get called,” Freeman said. “So we’re putting all of our deputies through crisis intervention training, a week-long training dealing with de-escalation, recognizing mental illness, how to talk to someone in a crisis, how to recognize signs and symptoms that someone may be suffering from a mental health break and having some time of crisis, some type of issue that’s going on.”
As a pastor, Castleberry said the church needed to move on from past stigmas surrounding those with mental health issues, where seeking help was seen as crisis management instead of a preventative measure.
“We also historically in the church as sort of an indicator of a weak faith or immaturity, and it’s just so shameful that that’s been the response of pastors and clergy in the past,” Castleberry said. “So, what you guys [on the panel] are doing, I’m hoping that we’re following suit in the faith circles, where we’re trying to mainstream the conversation, trying to normalize the fact that this can happen to anybody anywhere.”