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A Mother Joins Others Breaking The Silence On Teen Suicide

By Gracie Bonds Staples, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)

ATLANTA — Kelly Wittes begins slowly, wondering out loud if she’s about to do the right thing.

If she tells Joshua’s story will it help or just make things worse? What if talking about Joshua’s struggle encourages other kids to take their lives, too?

“I always have that fear,” she says.

More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide. But Kelly Wittes is convinced silence can, too.

Not many are talking now. While it robs us of our children, suicide is still considered a private matter, something to be shared only among family. Maybe we ought to rethink that.

Between 2007 and 2013, the rate among adolescents ages 10 to 19 increased 34 percent, from 3.77 to 5.05 per 100,000 population. In 2013, suicide surpassed homicide to become the second leading cause of death among children and teens.

Just weeks after his 16th birthday, Joshua hanged himself in his hospital room.

That was four years ago but for Wittes, talking about it hasn’t gotten any easier.

There’s a stigma associated with suicide; no matter how many people are lured into its grip we’d rather pretend it doesn’t happen. Too many still wrongly believe suicide is an indication that you’re weak, bad, or both. And if you’re the parent like Wittes, people believe you failed miserably.

It’s true we’ve become a more open society. The revolution that has occurred in the gay community alone is worth noting. People who wouldn’t dare come out of the closet five years ago are now getting married. We’re far less homophobic than we used to be.

Why? Because familiarity begets acceptance. It can be the same way with suicide if we put our judgment aside and listen.

I did that one morning last week when Kelly Wittes opened her life to me, and I get it. Even engaged parents can sometimes feel lost and helpless. They struggle with who to trust, and are constantly searching for that one thing that will help their kid get better. Sometimes, no matter what they do or how hard they try it isn’t enough.

And when that happens, for the sake of other children, they try some more, as Wittes has done. Win or lose, they continue to bring suicide out in the open so there’s no longer a stigma attached to it. Ninety percent of people who take their lives have a mental disorder like depression. The good news is depression can be treated. The bad news is most of us don’t know the warning signs.

Joshua was one of the brightest, sweetest kids you could ever meet. He was a star athlete who excelled at tennis and lacrosse. And when he smiled, revealing the dimples in his cheeks, you melted like an ice cube in summer.

“Everybody loved him,” his mother said.

But he felt alone and confused.

Wittes can’t explain why. It’s just one more question for which she’ll never have an answer.

Here’s what she does know. She and her husband, Rob, were the happiest they’d ever been when Joshua and his twin brother came into their lives 20 years ago. They did their best to be good parents, to be present in their sons’ lives.

Not in an overbearing way but just enough to recognize mood swings, to see to their needs. That’s why it didn’t take long for her to see Joshua was in trouble.

“Something was off,” Wittes said.

He would have outbursts of anger, and when she confronted him he was very apologetic. He just needed something to calm down. Eventually he didn’t care, so he didn’t apologize for anything. The angry outbursts. His violent, disrespectful behaviour.

“That’s when I really got scared,” his mother said.

She and Rob eventually forced him to see a psychologist, and he was admitted into a psychiatric hospital.

When they thought things were getting better, they were getting worse. No doctor helped. No hospital. No amount of love and understanding.

She and Rob were out for dinner the night they got the call.

Joshua had tried to take his life and was en route from the psychiatric hospital, where he was on suicide watch a second time in six months, to a local children’s hospital.

It was March 10, 2011. Joshua was 16. A sophomore in high school, and just like that, he was gone

So now, over a toasted bagel and a cup of coffee, his mother shares his short life, hoping it’ll force the subject out into the open once and for all and somehow make a difference in the lives of others.

It’s been nearly four years since that night and people still ask for one of the bracelets a friend made to help defray the family’s hospital costs, Wittes says, pulling the blue plastic from her wrist. Kids still visit his Facebook page, she says with tears rolling down her cheek. Look at all the stones people have placed on his grave, she says whipping out her cell phone.

“It’s heartbreaking to think that he thought that no one loved him, that they thought he was weird,” Wittes said.

Her honesty floors you. In talking about Joshua’s pain, Wittes has done what no amount of statistics can ever do.

(c)2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: Anel Rosas, Flickr

Sold Illegally From A Clinic, Adoptees Use DNA To Seek Birth Families

By Gracie Bonds Staples, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

DUCKTOWN, Tenn. — At a small inn tucked behind a Chevron gas station just off U.S. 64, men and women in their 50s and 60s trickled into room 109 Saturday morning. A teacher, a former newspaper editor, and a hairdresser were among the first to arrive. They came from Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee to have their cheeks swabbed, hoping their DNA might help them find their birth families and the missing link to their medical histories.

Even if the tests turn up just one match, said organizer Melinda Elkins Dawson, of Akron, Ohio, their efforts will have been worth it.
Like many of those who gathered here Saturday, Dawson is one of about 200 co-called Hicks babies, infants given up by their birth mothers and sold in the 1950s and 1960s from Dr. Thomas Hicks’ clinic in McCaysville, a sleepy Georgia town, just across the state border.

In all, 30 people — some Hicks babies, some potential relatives and their supporters — turned out for the testing, performed free by Ohio-based DNA Diagnostic Center. It could take up to three months to test all the participants’ samples, but what’s 90 days compared to the lifetime these baby boomers have been waiting to find their birth families?

Dawson began searching in earnest in the late ’90s until a family tragedy stalled her efforts. When she turned 51 in February, she decided the time was right to resume her search. Hicks babies are getting older, after all.

“We really needed to step up our efforts,” she said.

Many of them have been here before, their hopes ignited then dashed after another Hicks baby, Jane Blasio, spearheaded a similar DNA testing effort in 1997. Blasio’s search, aided by Judge Linda Davis of the Fannin County probate court, turned a spotlight on the town and the doctor who sold them.

With few exceptions, the search for a match has come up empty or led to disappointments.

When the news first broke, Paul Payne, 61, of Hixon, Tenn., said his former baby sitter contacted him. She gave him the name of a woman she believed was his mother, where she went to college, what her father did.

“I started researching that and everything she told me matched, but I still have not been able to prove anything,” he said.

Payne tracked the woman down at a nursing home in Florida. He called her, but when she answered, he couldn’t speak.

“I hung up,” he said. He had second thoughts about disrupting her life.

Two weeks later, he learned she’d died. Her son refused to test her DNA.

“I’m being optimistic, but I’m a realist,” said Payne, as the testing drew to a close. “Unless I can find some relative who is close enough to who I believe is my mother to give DNA, I’ll probably never know for sure.”

Hicks baby Diane Conrad learned she had a sister — also a Hicks baby — after that first go-round of DNA testing.

“She was three years younger than me,” Conrad said. “She grew up in West Akron, a 20-minute drive from my neighborhood.”

The women met once at Conrad’s home, comparing noses and foreheads. Over the next six years, they remained in frequent contact, but when her sister divorced, that was the end of it.

“She dropped off the face of the earth,” Conrad said. “I tried calling, but she didn’t return calls. After a year or two, I just gave it up.”

Provided her birth parents are still around, she’s hoping the test will help her connect with them.

“I don’t want to drop into anybody’s life, destroy anybody’s relationships,” Conrad said. “I just want medical history. That’s my priority.”

In the late ’90s, Dawson and her adopted mother, Judith Johnson, shared their story on television talk shows like “The Maury Show.” But she aborted her search in 1998, when her husband, Clarence Elkins, was falsely convicted of murdering Johnson.

Instead of searching for her birth mother, Dawson would spend the next seven years trying to prove her husband’s innocence. Elkins was exonerated through DNA testing and the true killer was convicted.

Dawson has known since age 7 her parents got her from the McCaysville clinic run by Hicks, who died in 1972. According to Dawson’s adopted parents, Hicks said her birth mother had two other children and “had been involved with someone very prominent who couldn’t afford the scandal.”

“Dr. Hicks and his nurse told lots of stories, so who knows if that’s true,” Dawson said, as if still half-believing all these years later.

Indeed no one knows for sure whether Hicks, generally beloved by the townspeople of McCaysville, sold the babies for profit or simply recouped the cost of caring for the mothers.

And that’s perhaps the most troubling thing in all this, Payne said. Nobody knows anything for certain. Complicating matters, Hicks provided fake birth certificates that listed the buyers as the birth parents, erasing any evidence of the babies’ real mothers.

AFP Photo/File

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