Finding Meaning Again After Losing Isaiah: From Loss to Advocacy

“We became involved with The Jed Foundation (JED) in the worst way for the worst reason,” says Cindy Carpenter. She and her husband Jesse Winch suffered an unimaginable tragedy when they lost their son Isaiah to suicide three years ago, while he was at college.

The morning after Cindy and Jesse learned of Isaiah’s death, they drove out to his college, in complete shock and desperately trying to understand what had happened. “We just needed to do something,” says Jesse. After packing up his dorm room, they met with a group of distraught students. They cried together and shared stories about Isaiah. More than three years later, the couple remembers these conversations like they were yesterday.

Isaiah at a family celebration (November, 2016)

The next day, Cindy and Jesse learned about The Jed Foundation. “When somebody dies in the Jewish tradition, it is customary not to give flowers, but to make a donation in honor and memory of the person who died. We were barely functioning, so we asked a friend to figure out where to direct donations, and he found JED. We looked at the [JED] website, and said yes, this is the obvious place where we should be directing donations,” says Cindy.

A few months later, Cindy and Jesse met with the JED team in New York City, and that’s when they learned about JED’s Comprehensive Approach to Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention for Colleges and Universities. This evidence-based model can be used to assess and guide mental health and suicide prevention efforts being made on college and university campuses, identifying existing strengths and areas for improvement. The Comprehensive Approach includes seven strategic areas that should be addressed in any community-wide effort to support mental health, reduce substance misuse, and prevent suicide. Within each strategic area, there are multiple tactical activities and efforts that colleges can implement to support student mental health.

At the time of Isaiah’s death, Cindy and Jesse had no idea that suicide is the second leading cause of death in this age group, just after accidents. “We, as parents, pour tremendous amounts of energy into reducing accidental deaths; you would never let your kid get in a car without a seat belt or on a bus without an inspection. So why do we let our kids go to college without doing the basics of suicide prevention?” says Cindy.

You would never let your kid get in a car without a seat belt or on a bus without an inspection. So why do we let our kids go to college without doing the basics of suicide prevention?

After learning more about Isaiah’s suicide risk factors, Cindy and Jesse shared what they had learned with his college and worked with JED and the college to strengthen their suicide prevention approach. “We were looking to do something positive,” says Cindy. However, they also stressed that, while it is up to high schools and colleges to ensure that suicide prevention is a priority and a comprehensive effort, it is also important that parents educate themselves about the signs and risk factors associated with suicide.

“College students are at an age when mental illness really appears and anxiety is soaring, and that anxiety can lead to suicide,” says Cindy. “We knew Isaiah had some anxiety, it never would have occurred to us in a million years that it might be a fatal condition. And it can be.”

Today, Cindy and Jesse have made it their mission to share what they’ve learned about mental health and suicide among young people, and do everything they can to prevent another family from experiencing the devastating loss of a child. They emphasize the importance of viewing suicide prevention as a comprehensive, collaborative effort, where schools, families, community leaders, and young adults are all involved. “We send those messages out to our friends who are parents of high school or college students,” says Cindy.

Aside from learning about the risk factors associated with suicide, Cindy and Jesse believe it is crucial that parents know about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

FERPA is a federal law that affords parents the right to have access to their children’s education records. However, when a student turns 18 years old and enters a postsecondary institution at any age, those rights transfer from the parents to the student. Many parents don’t realize that the college may not contact them if their child is experiencing difficulties, citing the FERPA law. HIPAA is a different federal law that requires the protection and confidential handling of protected health information. Unless a student signs a FERPA and HIPAA release, their college is not permitted to disclose their education records or health information to a parent or guardian.

Parents/guardians should look into whether the student’s school has waiver forms and they can learn much more about this issue by reviewing the JED/NAMI Starting the Conversation Guide. The FERPA and HIPAA waivers (see pages 17, 18, & 22) “…should be in every college’s registration packet and, if the student has a concern about giving this access to their parents, make it easy for the student to go and instead write in somebody else. Write in your closest friend or your sister or your uncle or somebody,” says Cindy. Cindy and Jesse believe that signing waivers is crucial so that the college may contact a loved one if the student is at risk of suicide, suffering mental health issues, or simply needs some extra help. “Looking back, I worry that our son needed help and didn’t know how to reach out,” says Jesse.

Reaching out and seeking help is a protective factor that can reduce risk for suicide. Nearly 80% of studentswho later die by suicide are never seen by counseling services. However, there are effective treatments available for those suffering from mental health issues, such as medication and therapy.

Cindy and Jesse continue to support JED’s programs to support mental health and reduce suicides among young people. “We really feel so deeply the wound of losing our 19 year-old. I don’t have so much energy since he died and so I asked for help with that, and that’s where JED came in. JED is a place that holds some meaning in life for us.” Cindy adds “We want the high school where all three of our kids went to utilize JED’s high school resources.  If I were going to send another kid to college, I would definitely say, ‘Where’s The Jed Foundation on this particular college?’”

By supporting JED and sharing what they’ve learned from losing Isaiah, Cindy and Jesse hope that they are able to reduce suicide among students, and help other families avoid the terrible tragedy of losing a child.

For more tools and information, check out the following JED resources:

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Find more ways to get help & feel better in our RESOURCE CENTER.

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