“You should know the warning signs that a person is seriously considering taking his life, as readily as you know the signs of an oncoming cold.”
Grant Halliburton was a bolt of energy. From an early age, he was the kid who woke up smiling and lit up a room when he walked in, his mother Vanita said.
But then Vanita got a call from Grant’s eighth-grade counselor – Grant was cutting.
“We were shocked,” she said. “You can’t always tell what’s going on inside of a person by looking at the outside. Happy-go-lucky, the clown, the comic, made everybody laugh — he was suffering from something deep inside.”
Grant was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and chronic depression. He would spend the next five years in and out of therapy on various medications. In November 2005, 19-year-old Grant died from his disorders by jumping off a 10-story building.
Vanita hasn’t let his story end with his death. Through the Grant Halliburton Foundation, she aims to educate parents, schools, organizations, students, and anyone who will listen about the realities of mental illnesses and how to prevent suicide.
“We have to make it OK for people to ask us for help,” she said. “In other words, being willing to talk about it [mental illness] is one thing, but being willing to listen without judgment, without being shocked, or angry.”
Put the pieces together when you suspect someone may be suffering, Vanita said. In Grant’s case, nobody did and so nobody suspected he wasn’t just depressed, but suicidal.
“Tenth grade was a perfect picture of all the pieces of a puzzle that painted the picture of a kid who has had a crisis,” she said.
On the outside it looked like a golden year. He had the car, the girl, and the band. A call from the attendance office early in the fall semester told a different story. Grant was one day away from truancy. He was going in the front door and out the back to cry in the woods, she said.
“He was writing all these lyrics, and one of the songs was ‘Into the Forest,’ which now I put together with this,” she said. “He wrote a ton of poetry. ‘Decision Not So Fateful,’ one was called. ‘Two ways out, If I jump, It’s easy, I’ll run away and hide. If I stay, I die; I die more than if I jump.’ That was prophetic.’”
None of his teachers gave her a heads-up, she said.
“The art teacher told me later that he had been concerned, sometimes,” she said. “But he just thought, ‘people, they go to deep moody places when they do art.’”
When Vanita tells that story, she asks: “Who was in a position to see the pieces of that puzzle I just talked about?”
And she says people answer: the art teacher, the band members, the girlfriend, the creative writing teacher, and the parents.
“All these people were in a position to see something, but people don’t put those pieces together — they only saw their own piece,” Vanita said. “So I encourage people to share what they know. If you see something, if you see the grades drop in a student that you know is smart kid, and usually a good student, go talk to the counselor.”
Take it seriously.
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The Halliburton Foundation actively works with school districts to train staff, students, and parents on how to respond to a person experiencing psychological distress or suicidal crisis, and how to help.
“I love the schools that have training for the whole staff, down to the janitorial and lunchroom staff,” she said.
To educate students, the foundation has #SAFE, which focuses on building healthy mental and physical habits. They prefer to teach class by class, Vanita said. They have worked with Highland Park Middle School’s health classes for two years.
“We talk about stress. We talk about coping skills. We talk about how to keep your brain healthy … and what happens if things aren’t going so well,” Vanita said.
For adults, the hashtag is dropped for SAFE! The program is much the same, but it also goes into how to really talk to your kids, Vanita said.
The program gives parents a list of conversation starters such as: “What would you do if someone handed you $1,000? What would you do with it right now?”
Questions about mental health are mingled in, said Lee Michaels, chair of the foundation’s auxiliary group and a HPISD school board member.
The aim: to get kids talking before something goes wrong and teach parents what kinds of responses may be hurtful and unhelpful in those situations — the difference between “get over it” and “how can I help you?”
“It’s hard, I’m just getting better at that and my kids are in college,” Michaels said. “And I read every parenting book.”
For parents who have reached the point of needing professional support for their child, the Foundation runs HereForYouth.com — a comprehensive database of vetted mental health providers and resources in North Texas.
For the past seven years, the foundation has also hosted Coffee Days, a peer-support group for moms. They added a Dad2Dad group in 2012.
“Mostly [the parents] say: ‘Nobody knows what it’s like in a household where there is a young person with bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder,’” Vanita said. “They can talk about it in that room and nobody will judge them and all heads are nodding. … The power of the words ‘me too’ is just huge.”
Michaels said she regularly referred people to the moms group and invited them to the foundation’s Beacon of Hope Luncheon every February.
“And they’ll meet some new people, and [maybe] that’s all they need – someone else,” she said. “I usually get a table and invite people who have never, they may not even have the issues, but I’m hoping next year when it comes around they’ll think about it at least.”
know what to look for
- Sense of hopelessness about the future
- Drastic changes in behavior or personality
- Uncharacteristic impulsiveness, recklessness, or risk-taking
- Expressions of rage, uncontrolled anger, aggressive behavior
- Preoccupation with death, dying, or suicide through writing, talking, or artwork
- Giving away prized possessions
- Loss of interest in personal appearance
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and society
- Extreme anxiety or agitation; inability to sleep or sleeping all the time
- A recent severe stressor, such as real or anticipated loss of a relationship, unplanned pregnancy, victim of bullying, or family conflict.
- A previous suicide attempt or exposure to another’s suicidal behavior
- Verbal signs such as:
- “I’m so tired. I don’t feel like I can take this any longer.”
- “I don’t want to be a bother anymore.”
- “I want you to know something, in case something happens to me.”
BE THE CHANGE
Vanita and Michaels hope this generation of kids will be the first that doesn’t live with the stigma of mental illnesses, they said. They agree ending stigma has to be a grassroots movement, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving was in the beginning.
“And this might be the generation,” Michaels said. “It’s still a long road, but it might be.”
What can you do to help erase stigma?
“Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide as suicide,” Michaels said. “Don’t be afraid to talk about mental health like you would talk about terminal cancer or childhood diabetes. If we can just educate the parents to realize that mental health is not any different from heart disease, from liver disease, or cancer, then I think we wouldn’t be having these conversations [about suicide].”