A view of the Natchez Trace Bridge from beneath, above Highway 96/ Photo by Brooke Wanser.
By BROOKE WANSER
WARNING: This article contains and discusses information about suicide.
In Tennessee, three people die of suicide every day.
In 2016, the most recent year for data, 1,110 people died from suicide; 21 of those suicides occurred in Williamson County.
Currently ranked the seventh-wealthiest county in the United States, Williamson has traits, including excellent schools and low unemployment and poverty rates, which are typically not associated with high rates of suicide. But anyone can be vulnerable to mental illness, which is the leading cause of suicide.
“I’ve certainly noticed a lot of people under an incredible amount of stress and pressure,” Dr. David Chang, a psychiatrist practicing in Williamson County, said.
Though the National Park Service said they had no record of juveniles jumping from the bridge, officers with the Williamson County Sheriff said they believed several teenagers had died by suicide there.
“Teenagers make attempts because they feel so much pressure, and demands and high expectations,” Chang said.
Trish Merelo is the mother of John Miller, 17, who died of suicide at the bridge in January 2016.
“You can have someone who is a high-functioning, smiling person, who is basically living a double life,” she said. “To me, those are the scariest victims of depression.”
Merelo, 55, said she didn’t know about her son’s depression until a year before he died. “He hid it from us,” she said. “He said he had been feeling this way since 7th grade.”
Miller was then a junior at Brentwood High School.
One evening, she walked into his room and noticed something seemed off.
“It was physical, I could see it on his face. He was so just despondent,” she said.
“I had to ask. I said, ‘I’m going to ask you something and I want you to honestly answer me. Have you had thoughts of hurting yourself?’”
“And he said, ‘Yes.’”
“Here was a kid who never wanted to cause trouble,” she said. “He was the opposite of a drama kid.”
Merelo took his response seriously; the next day, she booked him an appointment with a psychiatrist.
In January of 2015, Miller started taking Wellbutrin, classified as a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor (NDRI), as an anti-depressant. Merelo said the medication worked for a while, but stopped working around November.
His psychiatrist added on Celexa, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).
Even in the midst of his struggle with depression, Merelo said Miller went to school every day, garnering a perfect attendance record for high school.
He was a National Merit scholar, receiving a score of 35 on the ACT and a full ride to the University of Alabama, where he planned to attend college. He was also in the marching band at school, playing trumpet.
The night before Miller died, Merelo said she had noticed he had begun sleeping a lot more. After a seven-hour nap, she made him hamburgers and sat next to him, trying without success to get him to talk.
“I remember thinking … huh,” she said. “But I had seen him worse.”
After eating, at about 11 p.m., Merelo asked Miller if he had any homework. “He nodded his head. And I said, ‘OK.’”
She kissed him on the head, and went to bed.
“Around 3 a.m., apparently he left the house, drove to the bridge. Parked on the bridge. And that was it,” she said.
Merelo was awakened at 5 a.m. by Miller’s phone alarm.
Thinking he fell asleep downstairs, she looked for him. Then looked upstairs. She walked out to the garage.
“The garage door was up, and the car was gone. And that’s when I knew,” Merelo said. “I thought, something is very wrong.”
At 6:30 a.m., a ranger from the National Park Service arrived, along with a chaplain from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, to deliver the news.
“He was such a neat kid,” Merelo said, fighting back tears. “It was a sucker punch to the school, to his friends, because we kept it quiet,” she said of Miller’s depression.
If she did anything differently, she said, it would have been to be more open about his battle. “This stigma has to be dealt with,” she said.
Even Miller’s friends didn’t know. “They said they would just notice some days when he was quiet,” she said. “But no one had any idea.”
Dr. Chang, who has practiced in the county since 2000, said he believes the stigma surrounding conversations about mental health is detrimental.
“It’s surprisingly low, the amount of services that are available,” he said of the county. “Because this society does not openly lend itself to discussion and discourse and dialogue,” he said, “although it’s certainly heavily needed.”
Chang said that, unlike some characterizations of suicide victims, those who are at the highest risk for mental illness and suicide are white, middle-aged and senior males who are employed.
In Williamson County in particular, Chang said most residents want to promote an image of happiness and success.
“In most cases it’s real, but in many cases, it’s an illusion they feel they have to maintain,” he said. “A lot of people feel hopeless because they’ve achieved success and it doesn’t provide a reward.”
Chang said the best way to help someone suffering from depression is to work on changing their outlook by broadening their perspective.
“Yes, you’re in a bad situation, but it’s not hopeless,” said Chang. “It can be worked through.”
In hindsight, Merelo wishes she had done some things differently.
“I think you have to make them talk,” she said. “John was willing to in the beginning, but then he just kind of shut down. But you can’t let them shut down.”
Merelo also said she wished she had utilized more resources. “I would have had him seeing several people. A psychiatrist, a therapist, and someone who had come through it,” she said.
“A younger person, maybe somebody in their twenties, maybe a guy to say, ‘I was there, your brain is not finished. That impulsive part of the teenage brain, it’s not done.’”
She advises parents to open up to their friends and family, to seek as many resources as possible.
“If this could happen to him and to our family, I say with everything in me, this can happen to anybody,” Merelo said.
As for herself, Merelo has recently moved from Brentwood to Spring Hill. Her move gave her a distraction from the pain, but now, she said, she is ready to find a way to help.
Though Merelo doesn’t yet know what that will be, “it’s time to do something in his honor and to do some good.”
This is the second in a series of four stories on suicides in Williamson County from the Natchez Trace Bridge. Tomorrow, the Home Page will take an in-depth look at how law enforcement agencies respond to the problem.
Warning signs of suicide:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
What to do:
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you are in need of help.
It is a free, 24/7 confidential service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information, and local resources.