Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Tacoma conference on youth suicide is technical — and personal

Marny Lombard came to Tacoma from Spokane to talk about her son, Sam.

Graham and Cathy Thomas flew in from Yardley, Pennsylvania, with a slideshow and the story of their son, Alexander.

They all brought their own pain, hoping that something they might say or do would help others recognize and deal with the warning signs of a suicidal child.

They visited the University of Puget Sound campus Monday as part of the Washington State Suicide Prevention in Higher Education Conference, the first of five annual gatherings at UPS to deal with the subject.

Many of the seminars during the two-day conference were technical, such as “Conducting a Campus Needs Assessment.”

Lombard’s and the Thomases’ accounts were personal.

“Suicide blows lives apart,” Lombard said.

Sam Lombard was a senior at Montana State University in Bozeman, popular and eccentric. He didn’t drink beer, took Popsicles to parties instead. He drove a 1981 truck with a bison skull on the hood and a pirate flag flying from his antenna.

“Sam dealt with depression and was open about suicidal thoughts,” his mother said. “He was in so much pain. He’d say, ‘If this doesn’t get better, I’m not going to stick around.’”

Marny Lombard flew to see her son four times in Montana, got him into counseling, saw him start a regimen of antidepressants.

“I tried to get him all the help I could,” she said. “It wasn’t enough.”

In April 2013, Sam Lombard took his own life.

Donn Marshall, the UPS assistant dean of students and director of counseling, knows the story could have happened on his campus. It’s among the reasons the conference is being held there.

“This is the beginning of a conversation that moves beyond our counseling centers and goes institution-wide,” Marshall said. “Someone considering ending their life will tell a peer, a family member. Telling a psychologist is way down the list.

“The conference is aimed at faculty and staff.”

Still, about half the 15 or so attendees of the Thomases’ seminar were parents or family members of someone who committed suicide.

Alexander Thomas was a high school senior, trying to get a hockey scholarship to college. Over the years, he’d had his share of on-the-ice collisions, but had never had a diagnosed condition until two years ago.

“We’d never heard of traumatic brain injuries, but the more we learned the more we understood. Last year, there were 3.8 million youth concussions,” Graham Thomas said. “Only one in six concussions is reported.”

There were signs, the Thomases said, that they did not see.

“Alexander had headaches the last few years of his life, took a lot of Motrin,” Graham Thomas said. “I thought he was just a teenager dealing with the stress of life, working hard. He told me he’d blacked out on the ice twice, but I didn’t think he understood the term. I’d been at those games, and he’d stayed on his skates the whole time …”

Cathy wasn’t sure what to do about her son’s final days.

“Alexander would always come in and ask me to scratch his back, and tell me about his day,” she said. “The last week, he’d come in and ask for a backscratch, but he kept saying, ‘Mom, check my head …’. I would. There was nothing to see.”

Three weeks after his concussion, Alexander Thomas drove some 70 miles from his girlfriend’s house to the George Washington Bridge in New York parked his car and jumped. His body was found two weeks later, but he texted his family before jumping.

“After Alexander’s death, we learned about post-concussion syndrome. It comes on about a week after the concussion — and it can last for years,” Graham Thomas said. “People think you don’t lose much from a concussion, but doctors know now that the brain can rewire responses, find new ways to do the old things, but that the injured part of the brain never recovers.

“We want the culture of sports to change,” he said.

How?

“It’s okay to sit out. You don’t have to get back to the sport right away. You need to take time to heal your body,” Cathy Alexander said.

Marshall said UPS has been aggressive in trying to help students with suicidal thoughts.

“We have a clear protocol. Once someone on staff hears about an issue, we try to reach that person within 36 hours,” Marshall said.

“If someone has attempted to take their life, our concern is what is it going to take for you to return and be successful? We’ve had 74 percent graduation rate among students who at some point try to take their lives. How good is that? Our overall graduation is 75 percent.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638

larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

@LarryLaRue

For more information

Resources for families dealing with youth at risk of suicide are available online: The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, National Association of School Psychologists, HealthyChildren.org

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