Editor’s Note: The following deals with the delicate subject of teen suicide. Please see the end of the story for resources if you or someone you know is contemplating self harm.
TORRINGTON – World Suicide Prevention Day is Sept. 10. So is Courtney Schwartzkopf’s birthday.
Her son, Jett Schwartzkopf died by suicide Jan. 2 at the age of 17.
For Courtney, the coincidence “hits home.
“I struggled with it, and I thought well, I can make a positive out of this,” Courtney said. “Maybe for some crazy reason, I was put in this place so that maybe I can help somebody else. Maybe Jett’s story can help somebody else.”
Her Ipad is filled with photos of a smiling Jett, some with his sister Addision, 14, and brother Cade, 20. As a senior at Torrington High School, Jett played football and wanted to try soccer. He was interested in pottery, his work is featured throughout his family’s home. The family has four dogs, partially because Jett loved animals and had a tendency of bringing them home. Jett loved his family and friends and had a contagious sense of humor, Courtney said. But when he was alone, he was in pain.
He started receiving treatment in sixth grade after he harmed himself for the first time. In high school, he dealt with stressful situations along with diagnoses of Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety and PTSD.
“He would have his ups and downs and we’d kind of get him going, but it was after high school that it really started to get worse,” Courtney said.
A need for resources
Suicide is a public health crisis, one that Wyoming struggles with.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 147 Wyomingites died by suicide in 2018, and in 2020, Wyoming ranks second in the highest number of suicides with a rate of 25.4 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people. This is well above the national rate of 14.8. Suicide is the seventh leading cause of death in the state.
The Wyoming Department of Health announced a Wyoming-based Suicide Prevention hotline on Aug. 11 after Gov. Mark Gordon announced he would allocate $400,000 to the cause in January. Before it launched at Central Wyoming Counseling Center in Casper, Wyoming was the only state in the nation without a local call center for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The national hotline has always been a resource for Wyomingites, but according to Anna Harberts, case manager at Peak Wellness Center in Torrington, local hotlines allow callers to access resources immediately.
“It’s such an amazing thing that we finally have (a hotline),” Harberts said. The counselors on the other end of the line “are going to be familiar with your location, and this gives you somebody you can call and talk to. And then if you’re wanting additional services they can also give you references and referrals to other places that can help you.”
Wyoming Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Residents can also text “WYO” to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.
“We want anyone who is experiencing feelings of crisis or potentially suicidal thoughts to reach out,” said Lindsay Martin, WDH Injury and Violence Prevention Program manager in an Aug. 11 press release. “There are people willing to listen and help, and resources available.”
Goshen County residents can also call Peak Wellness anytime at no charge, Harberts said.
“Even if you just need to vent for a minute please reach out, don’t hold those things in,” she said.
“And we can get to the help that you need.”
Torrington also has a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, though it is currently inactive due to a lack of funding, according to members Vern and Sandy Ellis.
The couple got involved 20 years ago because their daughter has bipolar disorder. They are strong advocates for those with mental illness, though it’s not something people in Goshen County like to talk about, they said.
A need for awareness
Sandy Ellis recalled a health fair she participated in with NAMI.
“People would go by the booth that we were in, and people would just say, ‘Oh, that’s the crazy booth,’ because they don’t know,” she said. “It’s not knowing that is the biggest problem.”
The stigma surrounding mental illness enables people to joke about it or mitigate its effects on those who struggle with it, which sometimes prevents people from seeking help.
Sandy and Vern Ellis, who are 82 and 88 years old, see this in the community as much as 14 year old Addison Schwartzkopf does.
“People in my grade should definitely be educated about it,” Addison said. “The boys are kind of immature. And they do make jokes just about killing yourself. They should be more educated about it because it’s not something to joke about.”
Students also throw around terms like “depression” and “anxiety” to describe how they’re feeling in a moment, Addison added.
“They’re young minds and they can hear something and try to come up with conclusions,” Courtney said.
When Jett died, Courtney said the Schwartzkopf family was met with an outpouring of support from the community. A photo on her Ipad of the service that filled seats at the Eastern Wyoming College auditorium shows that.
Jett was someone who reached out to other students who were struggling. Courtney said a parent approached her at his memorial service and told her his daughter thought about harming herself and Jett told a teacher who was able to get her help. They both attended his service.
“He was a very loving kid,” Courtney said. “He didn’t like to see anybody else down. I think he felt so bad about himself, that when he saw another kid he wanted to make sure that they were ok.”
There were conversations about whether or not honoring him too extensively would sensationalize his death, perhaps leading other young people to think about taking their own lives. But Courtney said these gestures were ways for his family and friends to heal.
Addison is a dancer, so she performed a solo at a basketball game in her brother’s honor. The song, “Cherry Hill” by Russ, might not have made much sense to everyone in the gym, but it was one of Jett’s favorites.
‘In our shoes’
Courtney said she thinks there were ways Jett could’ve received extra help.
“I am so excited that Wyoming has the hotline now,” she said. “Maybe we’re making steps towards bringing up mental health issues. There’s a lot of stigma behind it, it’s uncomfortable, people don’t want to talk about it.”
While there was no obvious indication Jett was having suicidal thoughts, Schwartzkopf said there were signs that he was struggling.
He changed his hair color drastically. He had mood swings. He went through phases where he would stay in his room. He started using alcohol more frequently.
“He was using that to help cover up the pain,” Schwartzkopf said.
Everyone copes with mental health differently, according to Harberts. Some may benefit from simple actions like listening to music or going for a walk, but others may benefit most from therapy or medication.
“The biggest thing, especially for teenagers is just to reach out,” Harberts said. “Even if it’s just asking your parents or a friend or somebody that you’re willing to talk to.”
Jett lives on in the art he created, like the white goose sculpture on his family’s dining room table, or the bowls on the kitchen shelves. He lives on in Addison’s tattoo of his signature lifted from a birthday card. In photos where his wide smile makes you want to laugh, too.
And if Courtney can help it, her son’s story will bring more awareness to mental health and suicide prevention, and he will live on in those whose lives are saved.
“If Jett’s story can help one person, then I’ll take it,” Courtney said. “Because I don’t want anybody to ever be in our shoes.”
If you or someone you know may be at risk of suicide, call the Wyoming Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). Wyoming Lifeline Operators currently answer calls from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, according to the WDH. Residents who call the Wyoming Lifeline outside of business hours will be directed to the national hotline.