Sandy• Tanner Kirk wanted to die.
Two years ago, he tied a rope around his neck and tried to hang himself in his Utah home. At 13, he was minutes away from becoming another teen suicide statistic when a relative found him. He was rushed to the hospital and survived the episode, but not without a life-altering change: He's now confined to a wheelchair and able to speak through a computer-generated voice.
The 16-year-old from Cyprus High in Magna on Tuesday traveled to Sandy to speak to peers about what he wishes he would have known before he tried to end his life on Feb. 8, 2010. Today, he tries to look past the bleakness that enveloped him when he was suicidal in order to share a message that there is hope and helpfor teens who may feel alone like he did.
Rolling his wheelchair to the front of a crowd gathered at Jordan High School, Kirk punched his computer board as an older, modulated voice echoed over the PA system. He suffers from dystonia, a result of coming out of a three-month coma, that causes his body to twist in repetitive movements beyond his control.
Kirk's brain functions on the same level as his peers, his IQ is normal, but his body seems to belong to someone else. His life has never been the same since his suicide attempt.
"I am trapped in hell," Kirk told some 300 Jordan High teens. "I can't tell you why I put the rope around my neck."
"Ask for help, do not make my mistake," he said.
Suicide-prevention expert Taryn Aiken said Jordan High is the first Utah school to host an assembly with a speaker like Kirk. The boy's talk hit close to home for students at Jordan High, who said goodbye to a classmate who died as a result of suicide last year. The topic has also gleaned new attention in the wake of the death of David Phan, a 14-year-old student at Bennion Junior High in Taylorsville who shot himself at school two weeks ago.
Utah teens commit suicide more often than their peers in other parts of the nation. Two youths are treated for suicide attempts every day in Utah, according to a 2011 report by the Utah Department of Health.
Health officials have said all suicide attempts should be taken seriously. In 2011, Utah high school students reported that: 26 percent felt sad/hopeless; 14 percent had seriously considered attempting suicide; 12 percent made a suicide plan; 7 percent attempted suicide one or more times; and 3 percent had suffered an injury because of a suicide attempt that had to be treated by seeking medical help.
Aiken, chair of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Utah Chapter, attempted suicide as a teen. She said it's time for educators and students to talk candidly about the subject. She cited a statistic that 19 Utah teens killed themselves in 2011, but noted that those were the cases reported. Many suicides may not be reported because of a stigma associated with taking one's own life, Aiken said.
She told students that when Kirk first tried to tell his junior high peers about his experience, a school administrator denied the request because it would "glamorize" suicide.
"It's OK to seek help," Aiken told the Jordan High teens.
She encouraged students to be aware of behavior exhibited by their friends that could be signs of considering suicide. An untreated mental illness, expressions of hopelessness, substance abuse, self-harming activities such as cutting and browsing the Internet for ideas on how to die are all alarming signals, she said.
Jordan High senior Ashley Knudson said her best friend attempted suicide.
"We want to make this issue important on our campus and at others," said Knudson, who chairs the school's suicide prevention committee. "I was 16 and I didn't know what to do. I couldn't imagine what was going on with her."
These days she has a better perspective, she said. She hopes her Jordan High friends will think about their actions and how permanent they can be an example also explicitly set by Kirk from his wheelchair on Tuesday.
"It's a mistake I can never take back," Kirk, who once played football, told the Jordan High audience.
Utah teen suicide prevention
Taryn Aiken, chair of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Utah Chapter, emphasized several resources for suicidal teens on Tuesday including:
•Calling the suicide-prevention hotline: 801-587-3000 or 800-273-TALK (8255)
•Checking into Salt Lake Behavioral Health, 3802A South, 700 East, which offers mental health evaluations. 801-264-6000
• Reading "The 10 Greatest Gifts I Give My Children" by Steven Vannoy