Justin Jones was captain of the football team at Cyprus High. He had a 3.5 GPA. He had good friends and a girlfriend.
That's why his parents never expected to find him as they did one night in October 2009 dying in their home after shooting himself in the chest. Justin killed himself after his parents and girlfriend got upset with him for ditching a class to drink. He died in his stepfather's arms.
"We were those parents saying, 'Not our kid,' " said Justin's stepfather, Darren Lewis.
Now, Lewis and other Utah suicide survivors want to help keep others from going through what they did. Lewis will be among those participating in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk for Utah in Sugar House Park on Aug. 27. Organizers' goal this year is to raise $40,000, half of which would go to the national organization and half of which would be used to buy hundreds of DVD sets for Utah high schools about suicide prevention.
"What it shows is there is help. There is hope. There are things you can do to better yourself," said Taryn Aiken, chair of the Utah Chapter for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which is organizing the 5K walk. "There are medicines that work if you can persist and find the right one."
She noted that someone dies by suicide every 15 minutes, and 90 percent of people who do have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
"What we're just trying to do is get the awareness out. It is an issue," Lewis said. "Nobody wants to talk about suicide being a problem, but it really is a problem."
It's a topic Lewis has spoken about at Cyprus High assemblies. And his group, the Fallen Brothers foundation, also has been holding events for years to raise awareness and money for scholarships. He formed the group after losing several close friends to suicide years before his own son succumbed.
At high school assemblies, Lewis tries to help students understand that suicide is a "permanent fix to a temporary problem."
"They don't understand that tomorrow's another day," Lewis said.
It's something Shelsee Kirk's son Tanner Kirk knows all too well. The Magna teen attempted to hang himself last year when he was 13 years old. Luckily, his family found him quickly and he survived, though he now must use a wheelchair and has trouble speaking because of damage caused in the attempt.
He plans to talk at the walk, using a device that speaks the words he types.
Shelsee Kirk said she hopes the walk and her son's experience raise awareness.
"People don't want to talk about mental illness. They don't want to admit they might be mentally ill. People don't tell diabetics, 'Just snap out of it,' and mental illness is the same," Shelsee Kirk said. "Sometimes you need help. Sometimes you need medication.
"I hope people start to feel more comfortable talking about it and more comfortable asking for help because if Tanner would have told me he was at that point that night, I would have dropped everything."
Aiken said her group's aims are to prevent suicide, help survivors remember and honor their loved ones, and raise awareness so more people seek help.
She said she believes the DVDs one for teens about other teens' struggles with mental illness and suicide and another to help train school personnel can make a difference.
Aiken said her group is hoping the walk draws at least 1,000 participants. Last year, they had about 600. Aiken started working with others to organize the walks after she lost her own father to suicide in 2002.
"It just devastated my life," Aiken said. "Being involved in this, for me, has just been very healing to feel like you're doing something productive in a bad situation and helping other people who are experiencing it."
Out of the Darkness walk
P The annual Out of the Darkness Community Walk for Utah will be held at Sugar House Park on Aug. 27 starting at 10 a.m. to raise money for suicide prevention and awareness. Participants in the 5K walk can register in person starting at 9 a.m. at the park or online before noon on Aug. 26. Donations are encouraged. To register or get more information go to http://tinyurl.com/3msolde or call or e-mail Taryn Aiken at 801-836-0958 or firstname.lastname@example.org.