Suicide: A personal account from Klamath Falls to Vista Bridge

From the Klamath Herald, August 25, 2013

This is the final article in a series by the Klamath Health on suicide and suicide prevention in the basin.

Scott Himelwright

Scott Himelwright

Obituary for Scott Himelwright, DOD July 16, 2013 Scott Himelwright’s Celebration of Life Potluck will be Saturday, August 31st, 12:30 PM at Klamath Odd Fellow Lodge No. 137, 2209 Gary St, Klamath Falls, OR 97603. Bring a dish, bring some pics, bring a story, see you there!

Before her son leapt to his death from a Portland bridge, Carol Jackson knew something was wrong.

It was Scott Himelwright’s second suicide attempt in as many months. His first involved an attempted overdose on pills that ended with a police officer tapping on the glass of Himelwright’s parked car, trying to rouse the passed-out occupant.

An ambulance took him to a hospital, where he stayed for a week.

That was May 9. After the attempt, Himelwright, a graduate of Mazama High School, called his mother to assure her that he was all right. Jackson told him never to do it again. She told him that no parent should outlive their children.

He continued to call, checking in nearly every day.

On Tuesday, June 16, Jackson called her son and got his voicemail. She left a message, figuring the phone tag would begin. But her son never returned her call.

She tried again the next day, and the voicemail inbox was full.

“That’s when I started worrying,” Jackson said.

On Thursday, she called the Portland Police Department and filed a missing person report. An hour later, a car pulled up to her house off Wocus Road in Klamath Falls.

Her two daughters and her step-daughter stepped out. The youngest, Shirley, approached, saying, “Mom, we have some bad news.”

It’s been two months since her son’s passing, and Jackson is still struggling with the loss. She is seeing a grief counselor. She sometimes forgets to eat and “lives off” her anti-anxiety medications.

But another emotion teems in Jackson’s mind: anger — anger at the mental health system that allowed her son to slip through the cracks.

Mental health

521994fe6b3aa.image

Before her son committed suicide, Jackson knew he was struggling. He had quit his job and was dealing with money issues, as well as persistent back pain. He was feeling inadequate, unemployable. Slowly, he was distancing himself from his friends.

After his first suicide attempt, Himelwright’s physicians tried to get him on medication, but he refused, fearing the stigma that he felt followed those with perceived mental health issues, Jackson said.

He also had trouble opening up in group therapy, but couldn’t afford one-on-one counseling because he lacked health insurance.

In the end, Himelwright saw no alternative. Fearing life as an elderly cripple, dreading the feeling of an intellectually unfulfilled life, he jumped from the Vista Bridge, also known as the “Suicide Bridge.”

“Scott did it because he was overwhelmed and saw this as his only way to end the pain,” Jackson said. “If we had a system in place that was correct, we wouldn’t lose these people. They wouldn’t feel the need to kill themselves.”

Himelwright wasn’t able to find proper, affordable care. Are there sufficient resources for people struggling with suicidal thoughts in the Klamath Basin?

“Absolutely not,” said Sharon Melnick, a Klamath Falls psychiatrist. “We don’t have many providers for a population our size. For people who are completely uninsured, there’s very little resource, and if you have poor insurance, you might not be able to afford the co-pay. All the things that are wrong with health care in general directly affect those with suicide issues.”

State help lacking

Sky Lakes Medical Center sends patients in need of acute mental health care to Medford or Roseburg up to three times a week due to a lack of facilities in the Klamath Basin, said Ron Woita, director of emergency services.

But it’s not an issue relegated only to Klamath County, Woita said. It’s a problem state-wide. Finding acute care facilities is difficult across the state, and the state mental health hospitals are often backed up with patients.

About 70 percent of Oregon suicide victims had a diagnosed mental disorder, alcohol and/or substance abuse problems, according to the Oregon Health Authority. But less than one-third of male victims and 60 percent of female victims were receiving treatment for mental health problems at the time of death.

Funding source

5219961a938d2.image

Part of the problem has been funding. The budget for the Oregon Health Plan was cut repeatedly in the early 2000s.

The situation is improving. Since 2009, Oregon has increased mental health spending by 23 percent, amounting to an additional $71 million.

But there is still a disconnect between the availability of care and those who need it, said Stan Gilbert, executive director of the Klamath Youth Development Center.

“Somebody who is really depressed and really sees suicide as an option isn’t really seeking help,” Gilbert said. “They’re convinced there is no help.”

For those entrenched in the throes of depression or other issues, Gilbert has some simple advice.

“If you’re having those thoughts, if you’re thinking suicide is the only way out, it’s not. There are other ways out,” Gilbert said. “Help is available. You can get better and get control over those feelings. Seek help. You don’t have to live like that. Life can change for you, even if you don’t believe it’s possible.”

And the good news is that Gilbert, and other local health care officials, think the landscape for those seeking help is improving.

Available help

KFalls 8 25 2013

Part of the change is due to KYDC assuming the role of the Klamath County Mental Health department and becoming the county’s new mental health provider, Woita said.

By bringing coordinated care into the hands of a local organization, it will allow greater cooperation between health care providers and increase the efficiency and accessibility of services, Woita said.

“Mental health is still evolving in Klamath County,” Woita said. “Further down the road, we’re going to have a more robust mental health system than Klamath has ever seen.”

And at KYDC, there will be no cases like Himelwright. The organization accepts virtually every payment system and has a sliding payment scale for those without insurance or who cannot afford their co-pay.

“Individuals that seek help will find it,” Gilbert said. “We just don’t turn folks away.”

For Jackson, it could be a start, and it’s one of the reasons why she shared her story.

“I know I can’t bring Scott back, but maybe I can stop someone else from doing this and stop the grief that their families go through,” Jackson said. “You can’t let these people fall through the cracks. It kills them in the end and it breaks the family’s hearts.”

Remembering the good

In the end, Jackson will remember her son not from his suicide, but as the 7-year-old who knew the names of every dinosaur, as the amateur astronomer who could point his telescope at any constellation in the sky, as the imaginative intellect that dreamed of inventing flying cars.

She will look at one of her son’s favorite paintings — a forest scene featuring a quaint bridge spanning a small creek — and picture him there at peace, sheltered from the pressures of the world. With a fishing pole dangling a line into the clear water, his feet will swing from that bridge, free.