To his parents’ surprise and devastation, Jason Flatt committed suicide in 1997. Sixteen years later, Jason’s father has turned his life’s work into educating both children and adults about suicide, the warning signs, and how you can help save a life through his national non-profit, The Jason Foundation. Here, Clark Flatt speaks candidly about losing his son, what he’s learned since Jason took his life, and what other parents need to know about the “silent epidemic” of youth suicide.
The Greatest Tragedy
“Up until July 16, 1997, I owned a small insurance business and was really having the middle income, American type of life, with a house overlooking the lake and the cars and the boat and wave runners, two great kids. Life was good—it was one like so many people are enjoying now. That was until July 16.
“On July 16, after receiving a phone call from one of Jason’s friends—and the phone call was not a call of emergency or one of crisis, it was simply a phone call to ask if I had heard from Jason that day. It was his day off from his summer job, and I thought it was kind of odd to get the phone call, but it wasn’t really concerning till after I hung up. It was one of those calls that you just couldn’t get out of your head as a parent. Why would one of Jason’s friends call to basically see how I was doing and if I had seen Jason?
“Finally curiosity got to me and I started trying to contact Jason. Of course in 1997, cell phones were not like we have today, and so first I tried at home and didn’t get an answer. I did put pagers on both my boys, and so I tried to page him and he didn’t answer it. It wasn’t that unusual for him to sometimes not answer the page because, like all young men, sometimes he was doing things that he thought were more important than returning a phone call. So I had put a special code in the message, which meant that whatever you’re doing, no matter how important you think it is, Mom or Dad needs you, so call this number. When I did that and he didn’t call back, I really wasn’t concerned with his safety because we hadn’t had any issues that had made me alarmed. It was because of my lack of information that I didn’t have this awareness. So I left my office to go look for him simply because he hadn’t returned the phone calls.
“I went to where he worked, and they hadn’t seen him. I went to the lake, where he was supposed to be with his friends, and they hadn’t seen him. I went home and saw that his car was there. He was 16 years old and three months, and he’d just had the car for a month-and-a-half—it was an old hand-me-down—but I knew that wherever that car was, he was. So when I saw the car, I assumed—it sort of just came to me as a revelation—that Jason might have had an interpersonal relationship problem and that’s why I got the phone call earlier in the day from one of his friends, and then, if that was the case, he’d probably be in the house listening to his stereo, he’d put his headphones on and if he had his headphones on he wouldn’t hear the phone ring, and if he hadn’t left the house he wouldn’t put his pager on, so it made sense. And so I went into the house thinking it was time for me to get him—I’d surprise him listening to his music, and we would have what we called tailgate parties. I had a truck sitting outside under a tree, and I’d let the tailgate down, we’d get a Coke, and I’d sit out there with either one or both of my boys and talk about girls, life, sports, just anything. I thought it might be time for one of those.
“When I went in the house and I saw his light on, I started down the hall—I wanted to make those three or four steps from his bedroom door to his bed so I could surprise him. As I turned to go into his room, I fell on top of my son, his body. He had taken my .38-caliber pistol, which I had locked up until he was 14 years old. I knew the dangers, because I had been in insurance, of a young person playing with a gun, maybe showing a friend or accidentally discharging, so I locked it up till he was 14. After he turned 14, he didn’t like to hunt, he didn’t fool with guns, so I stopped locking it up. He had taken my .38-caliber, stood in front of his bed and placed it behind his right ear, thinking that he would fall back on his bed, but the force of the bullet was so great that it spun him around, and he fell across the threshold of his bedroom door.”
How the Jason Foundation Began
“[Starting the foundation] helped me put some kind of rationale, some kind of ‘something good can come from something so very, very terrible as losing a young person’s life for any reason, but specifically because of suicide.’ And it gave me something into which I could funnel my grief and my confusion and my need to make something sensible out of something so un-sensible.
“I was lucky enough to have some people continue to encourage me to try to find out what happened to Jason. He was your solid B student, good athlete, well-liked, no drug or alcohol problems, a lot of friends. How could this thing…suicide…happen to such a young man as Jason? In September of 1997, I went to the computer and just typed in ‘youth suicide,’ and the first thing that came up was that it was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24 years old at that time.
“That’s when the Jason Foundation was started—it started when I read that sentence, because as a parent I had gone to every PTO, PTA, church meeting—about drugs, alcohol, sexual diseases, even a form of bullying in the mid-90s. I had gone to all these things to protect my two kids from the dangers that could be out there, and to give them the best life I could give them. But no one had ever offered a seminar, not that I hadn’t gone, but no one ever offered a seminar—from the church, from the school system, or from the community—about awareness of youth suicide, the dangers of youth suicide, how to recognize the warning signs and not just to work through that, but how to act, what resources were there for you, and that it was the third most likely thing to take my son’s life—and, in fact, did, in my case.
“We started our first program in October 1997, which was just for parents, providing them with the information, tools and resources to help identify and then, not only identify, but be able to respond correctly to possible suicidal ideation in their kids. Out of that parent program came the student program for grades 7-12. And then, one of the things I’m most proud of is our in-service training for teachers. It’s not to make them counselors, but to teach them to recognize the warning signs and how to talk with a student who might be struggling with suicidal ideation.
[The in-service training for teachers led to the Jason Flatt Act, sponsored first in Tennessee by state representative Dianne Black in 2007. The law, requiring two hours of mandatory training for teachers, has been passed in 11 states.]
“For every year after [passage of the Jason Flatt Act], beginning in 2009, we’ve seen a decrease in youth suicide rates in Tennessee, while most of the nation’s seen an increase. In the last two years, as reported by the State of Tennessee, youth suicide rates have gone down 28 percent. By recognizing emotional stressors and early warning signs, teachers are now identifying students who are struggling even before suicide becomes an option.”
Untreated Depression Can Lead to Suicidal Ideation
“Today, suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24. Even though we are advancing our medical techniques and understanding more about depression, the second most likely thing to impact a family with a child in that age group as far as fatality is suicide.
“Not only is youth suicide a leading cause of death for our young people, but it’s also been dubbed by the Department of Health and Human Services as the leading cause of preventable death. That’s the key. Some people think suicide’s just an impulsive act, and therefore there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s one of the most harmful myths that’s out there, that it’s just totally impulsive. Four out of five young people who will attempt suicide will give clear warning signs before they attempt, and that can be days, it can be weeks, months leading up to that. Eighty percent of the time, if we know what to look for and how to respond, we have an opportunity to stop suicide attempts.”
One of the Toughest Parts of the Job
“I get between two and three phone calls a week from somebody who’s been handed my card and told, ‘This guy’s not a counselor, and he’s not a doctor, but he’s a dad who knows what you’re feeling right now because you’ve just lost a son or daughter, and you’re trying to understand whether the sun’s going to come up tomorrow. This gentleman will talk to you.’ When I get those calls, I go back to that day that I lost Jason, and I know how painful it is for a parent for that to happen, or to lose a child in any way, especially through suicide.”
The Most Important Thing for Parents to Know
“It could happen to someone like your kid.”
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
“A tremendous number of people have helped make us who we are over the past 16 years. I tell people [during presentations], I should thank you, because not only am I giving you information that’s going to help prevent this possibly from happening to your family or to your school or to your community, but you’re helping me on an ongoing basis deal with this pain. I always tell people, suicide puts a hole in your heart, and that hole will never go away, but you can learn to live with that hole in a different way.”
To learn more about Jason’s story, Clark Flatt or the Jason Foundation, visit JasonFoundation.com.