Grieving parents like Wendy Eastburn-Teal and Chris Locke are determined that their children’s legacies will help remove the stigma associated with thoughts of suicide

By Bob Yearick

One day after New Year’s Day — Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022 — Nolan Eugene Witman, 18, took his own life.

His legion of friends were stunned. Nolan Witman was the happiest, most popular kid they knew — a 5-2 dynamo who embraced life. Smiling, laughing, he seemed to be constantly in motion, a diminutive, unlikely alpha male who over-achieved almost everywhere — on the football field, on the track, in the weight room, in the kitchen baking award-winning cakes, and in the halls of The Charter School of Wilmington, where he knew everyone — administrators, teachers and students — and was unanimously voted senior class clown, a title he wore proudly.

Trying to make sense of it, his mother, Wendy Eastburn-Teal, says:  “Nolan loved himself. There wasn’t a mirror that wasn’t his friend. He went to the gym twice a day. He even recorded some of his workouts. He ate healthy. He would not put poison in his body. He researched his foods and cooked them himself.”

Holding a picture of Nolan, Wendy Eastburn-Teal stands next to her older son, Henry Witman, at their home in Hockessin. Photo by Butch Comegys.

He had already laid out the blueprint for his future. He was going to become an Army officer, hopefully through the ROTC program at UD, then serve 20 years in the military, get a pension, serve 20 years with the State Police, and retire at 58 with two pensions. 

Like many teens, Nolan was not without problems. He suffered from some pandemic-induced anxiety, his mother says, and he was in counseling. “But he was doing well,” she says, and was scheduled to end the counseling in January. She says his therapist told her that, among all his patients, Nolan was the “least likely” to take his own life. 

And yet, she found him — lifeless — in his bedroom that Sunday morning. “He had a good life that a mere moment of darkness stole from him,” she says, preferring not to go into details publicly about his death.

Since that day, while she and her older son, Henry, continue to grieve, she is striving to make sure that Nolan’s story helps to heal other young people who are coping with the challenges of an increasingly challenging world.  

A glance at Eastburn-Teal’s schedule makes it obvious as to where Nolan got his energy. Since Jan. 2 there have been times when she has been unable to get out of bed, or has cried uncontrollably, but on most days she is on the phone or online, or speaking to groups, or in meetings, or talking to other heart-broken parents, all in an effort to make her son’s legacy one of healing.

She is in frequent contact with Delaware House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst (D-Bear), who in February introduced three bills aimed at expanding access to mental health resources in schools and across the state.

Mandatory Insurance Coverage

Last year, Longhurst pushed through a bill that established mental health services in Delaware elementary schools. Two of her new bills will bolster those services by bringing more mental health professionals into schools and establishing statewide mental health education curriculum standards.

 Longhurst’s other bill would mandate that insurance cover an annual, deductible wellness check with a mental health clinician holding a master’s degree.

Chris Locke established Sean’s House, in Newark, in memory of his son, a popular UD student and basketball player who took his own life in 2018.

Commenting on her bills, Longhurst said: “Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 14, and I don’t think we can wait another year with this crisis.” She added that one in four children nationally reported having mental health struggles since the beginning of the pandemic.

Eastburn-Teal also has been in touch with Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, who has been a state-wide leader in suicide-prevention efforts.

 News of Nolan’s death spread quickly, and several organizations reached out to Eastburn-Teal. Among the first was Sean’s House, in Newark. Located at 136 W. Main St., it is “a safe haven” for anyone age 14 to 24 who’s dealing with mental health challenges. Chris Locke established the house in memory of his son, Sean, who committed suicide in 2018.

Sean was another who, like Nolan Witman, was “the least likely person to take his own life.” Like Nolan, he had hundreds of friends. According to the Wilmington News-Journal, the St. Mark’s High School graduate “was admired and looked up to for his easy-going manner, humor, and leadership traits. When he played basketball at the University of Delaware, Locke had his own cheering section.”

“There’s not a day that I don’t think about Sean,” says Chris Locke. “The journey of losing a loved one to suicide, let alone a child, is horrific. It goes to the core of who you are as a parent and person. You go through a range of emotions: You feel responsible, you feel anger at that person — why was my love not enough? Did you not know I would have done anything to get you the help you need?

“And you go through those emotions for rest of your life.”

No Blame

Locke, who in the last four years has made a deep dive into mental health issues, says, “It’s not the parents’ fault, and it’s not the child’s fault. There is no blame. Just like a heart attack is a byproduct of heart disease, suicide is a byproduct of a brain disease.”

But, he says, the stigma that society attaches to anyone who admits to struggling with mental illness has to change. 

“It should be as natural to talk about mental health as any other kind of illness,” he says. “The minute we see it as a disease, we can remove the stigmatization.”

The pandemic, with its attendant school closings, cancellation of sports and proms, along with social distancing, no doubt was a factor in many suicides among young people. Its residual effects may still be felt, says Scott Day, executive director of Sean’s House. 

“I think the repercussions of the pandemic are definitely a factor because many of these kids were isolated in their homes and now they are thrust back into school settings, but with new guidelines,” Day says. “And during the period of isolation, many of them went through physical changes, such as puberty. And many have anxiety now about how to build relationships and how to retain friendships because for over two years now, they’ve been confined to their phones or computers.”

 Eastburn-Teal believes parents and society in general create unrealistic standards for today’s youth. “There’s pressure on them to be perfect,” she says. “They have to make the travel baseball team, and the travel basketball team, and score high in their SATs, and even get into the right kindergarten.” 

Day agrees. “Many of these kids, both high school and college, have a level of expectations on themselves that are unprecedented,” he says. “Whether it be the social media effect of seeing what their friends or others are doing, or whether it’s how they were raised. There’s an internal level of expectations that many of these kids are feeling to be absolutely perfect and that if they don’t succeed on just one test, it’s going to affect their future job choice. So the anxiety on every little thing is extreme, which has a ripple effect on every aspect of their lives.”

Highlight Reels

Jennifer Smolowitz, project director for Suicide Prevention at the Mental Health Association in Delaware, has encountered ample evidence of this search for perfection. “We’re seeing younger and younger kids start working on their résumés,” she says. “They’re thinking, how is every decision I make going to impact my future?”

Smolowitz says social media can exact a heavy toll on teens seeking the perfect image. “Everybody wants something to put on their highlight reel, even while they’re going through struggles that they may not be posting about.“

In fact, she says, “there are some organizations that, if a person’s posts or pictures don’t generate enough likes, they will take it down.”

Appearing as attractive as possible creates false personas on social media, she says. “People use Touch Up My Appearance on Zoom and other filters to enhance the way they look. Other generations simply didn’t have to face that kind of pressure.”

Surrounded by this virtual world, young people find it difficult to discover their “true, authentic selves,” Smolowitz says. She suggests “finding a few people you can connect with and be your authentic self.”

She emphasizes that quality, not quantity, is critical when it comes to friends. 

“When we’re younger, we get this false idea that the more friends we have the better off we are, and as we get older we seem to have less and less friends, but the friends we have are more genuine. If people can discover that earlier on in life they’d be a lot better off.”

Confiding in an Adult

Jennifer Seo, deputy director of the Mental Health Association in Delaware, says kids who are feeling anxious or suicidal should seek out a trusted adult and confide in them. Most times, that person won’t be a parent, but more likely a coach, a clergyman, a teacher, a school counselor or nurse, even the parent of a friend.

Says Smolowitz: “Parents need to be comfortable with their child talking to a friend or another adult. The child may not want to talk to the parent because they would feel like they’re letting them down or disappointing them.”

Seo concedes that kids confide in other kids, but there are limitations on what they can do to help peers because they generally don’t have the resources or the experience that adults have.

She also cautions: “The first person young people go to may not be the most supportive, so they should keep trying.”

With teenagers, Seo says, it’s often hard to pinpoint factors affecting mental health. “Everyone’s so different, so what may be a trigger for one person may not affect another. For youth, you want to look at school pressures. Are there incidents of bullying, any type of relationship loss — not just romantic but even a friendship loss? Are there home life struggles, including financial issues, safety inside the home? There’s just a whole slew of factors.”

She advises parents to keep in mind the acronym FACTS: Feelings, Actions, Changes, Threats, and Situations. A child may express anxiety through her expressed feelings or actions, she may make significant changes in her routine or behavior, she may threaten to harm herself or others, and she may be thrust into challenging situations.

“These are sometimes apparent in their art or their writing,” Seo adds. 

Ask the Suicide Question

She says parents should trust their gut instincts. “If you think you see a problem, initiate a conversation. Ask the suicide question. You are not going to put the idea in their head just by asking the question. And that way, they know you won’t avoid it if they have those feelings in the future.”

Smolowitz agrees. “Parents should try to identify any changes and have an open, continuous dialogue with their child,” she says. “Make it an ongoing conversation. And keep in mind that what a child is going through may not seem that major, but to them it may be the most important thing that’s ever happened to them.”

Helping youth maintain a healthy mental attitude was the subject of a recent U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory subtitled “What Young People Can Do.” Among the suggestions in the report:

• Find ways to serve. . . Helping others when you are the one struggling can seem counterintuitive. But service is a powerful antidote to isolation, and it reminds us that we have value to add to the world.

• Learn and practice techniques to manage stress. Try to recognize situations that may be emotionally challenging . . . For example, if you find it stressful to look at COVID-related news, check the news less often, and avoid looking at negative stories before bed.

• Take care of your body and mind. Stick to a schedule, eat well, stay physically active, get quality sleep, . . . spend time outside. 

• Be intentional about your use of social media and other technologies. Is your time online taking away from healthy offline activities? Are you online because you want to be, or because you feel like you have to be?

Positive Pandemic Result?

The pandemic wasn’t all negative, Smolowitz says. One positive: People became more aware of mental health problems as well as resources to combat those problems. As a result, Sean’s House and other mental health contact points have experienced an uptick in activity. What’s more, Smolowitz says, those resources have increased. (For a listing of resources, go to the end of this article.)

 Eastburn-Teal has become a spearpoint in spreading the word about mental health problems and ways to combat them. She is working closely not only with Rep. Longhurst, but with Sean’s House, Supporting Kidds in Hockessin (a bereavement resource center), and Charter School and Red Clay School District.

She has helped to establish and is a member of the Wellness Team at Charter, which includes two students, the school nurse, an administrative-community relations representative, the president, a teacher, a guidance counselor, and one board member. 

She is working with Red Clay School District to create a student center, which she describes as “a place where students can decompress and meet privately or collectively with school counselors.”

Her interactions with Charter have at times been strained. Currently, she says, “As far as I’m concerned, my relationship with Charter is in good standing and with an optimistic outlook. Because that’s how I roll.”

Talking About It

Like Locke, Seo, and Smolowitz, Eastburn-Teal rejects the perception in parts of society that talking about suicide can increase suicidal tendencies among those exposed to that discussion. “Talking about suicide increases suicides the same way talking about cancer causes an increase in cancer cases,” she says. 

She is continuing the conversation, on podcasts, at school board meetings, at Sean’s House, at community events like mental health resource fairs, with her therapist, online, and with Nolan’s friends, who, she says, have been “amazing.” Groups of them gather at her Hockessin home often to talk about Nolan and to comfort her and Henry. 

Soon after Nolan’s death, they did more than console her emotionally. Converting their grief into practical action, they raised $36,000 through GoFundMe in just two weeks for the single parent, who has been on disability from her job as senior manager in finance at PayPal since last May.

Eastburn-Teal says that at first she was “mortified” when she learned of the fundraiser. “But they did it because kids have to do something, they have to take action,” she says. “They came and sat on my couch, and told me that Nolan said he loved me more than anything and that it was his main job to take care of me. So, now that he has passed, they will be taking care of me. “

She says the 847 donations came mostly from students and their parents. “They donated because they loved Nolan and wanted to honor his life,” she says. 

She has discussed with Charter several ways to honor her son’s memory, including a bench on the football field, a page in the yearbook, a scholarship. Tireless and relentless, Eastburn-Teal most certainly will follow through on all of those, but her primary focus — indeed, it has become her mission in life — is to remove the stigma attached to mental health problems, to bring that message to youth who may be hurting, and to assist them in managing their problems.

“Our children are crying for help, literally dying in darkness,” she says. “I’m ready to make changes.”


Where to Get Help

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental health issues or thoughts of suicide, resources are available. Here is a partial list:

• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:  (800) 273-TALK (8255) (This will change to three digits – 988 – by July 16.)

• Child Priority Response, which is operated under the Division of Prevention & Behavioral Health Services:  (800) 969-HELP (4357) 

• Crisis Text Line: Text DE to the number 741-741. This is aimed at teens, who often prefer to text.

• Crisis Line for LGBTQ Youth: (866) 488-7386

• Delaware Hope Line: (833) 9-HOPEDE or (833) 946-7333   

• Sean’s House, 136 W. Main St., Newark

• Supporting Kidds (for grieving children and their families):  (302) 235-5544

• Delaware Division of Substance Abuse & Mental Health Crisis Intervention Services

• Mobile Crisis (for those age 18 or older):
— Statewide: (800) 652-2929  
— New Castle County: (302) 577-2484   — Kent/Sussex County: (800) 345-6785
 

Bob Yearick
The copy editor of Out & About, Bob Yearick retired from DuPont in 2000 after 34 years as an editor and writer. Since “retiring,” Bob has written articles for Delaware Today, Main Line Today and other publications. His sports/suspense novel, Sawyer, was published in 2007. His grammar column, “The War on Words,” is one of the most popular features in O&A. A compilation of the columns was published in 2011. He has won the Out & About short story contest as well as many awards in the annual Delaware Press Association writing contest.

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