Letter to the Editor: 3 seconds
Editor’s note: The Press rarely publishes anonymous letters. In this case, we felt it was important to make an exception.
3 seconds is all it takes for a person who has made the decision to end one’s life to hastily cross over the guard rail and jump off the Veterans Memorial Bridge.
3 seconds isn’t enough time to allow anyone the possibility to intervene. It is a completely helpless, heartbreaking, and life-changing experience.
As a registered nurse, I want to be able to help people; as a passing motorist (on the opposite side) I knew exactly what was going on when the subject exited the vehicle rapidly, and my only solution was to call 911. At this point, I called 911, flashed my hazards and slowed down, but knew that it was too late. Prior to hanging up with the 911 dispatcher, she kindly stated, ”I am sorry you had to witness it.”
I am sorry. I am sorry for the loss of innocence for the boys I had with me that day. I am sorry for the subject who had to have experienced fear, panic and pain. I am sorry for the first responders who are called in to care for people who have completed suicide, and ultimately, I am sorry for the families that are left behind.
Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I have read news releases that state the subject had been battling a serious illness. But how do I explain this to the three boys that I had traveling with me, two of whom saw what happened and are old enough to comprehend, one who says he can still see the subject crossing over and falling through the air?
These mental pictures will forever be ingrained in our brains and our hearts. The family who is left behind will now have an empty place in their heart. The community will continue to reel.
This is the second experience I have had with this specific bridge as a family member completed suicide a couple years ago by jumping off the bridge. There is talk about the difficulties/stigma of mental illness, the lack of funding, the lack of providers, education about how to intervene, what to ask, and the list can continue on, but what can be done to prevent another death due to jumping off the bridge?
There should be safety barriers along the bridge that a suicidal person would have to truly climb, and there would then be enough time to allow for intervention versus the 3 seconds it currently takes to jump to one’s death off the bridge. There are safety barriers that align the walking bridges that cross the freeway in Spokane. I am not an engineer, but there has to be a safety intervention that can be installed. I understand it would be an elaborate cost, but how much is a human life worth? This is the ultimate question.
A concerned citizen
As viewers of the legendary film and TV franchise M*A*S*H might remember, lyrics of the series theme song suggested: “Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes.”
While the latter half of that phrase is true, suicide is never painless. Jamie and Kaya Sedlmayer of Coeur d’Alene can attest to that.
“Suicide is not this beautiful tragedy,” Jamie said. “It sounds almost beautiful and poetic, but what it is, really, is death.”
In December 2014, Dustin Eldred — Kaya’s father and Jamie’s ex-husband — took his own life at age 39. The Sedlmayers said they are still dealing with his death.
“Even after a couple years of knowing, I still haven’t processed it all the way,” Kaya said.
Jamie said she knew what had happened as soon as she received the call.
“I knew, because it was something we had dealt with for years,” she said. “He used to tell me he resented us because, for the first time in his life, Kaya and I gave him reason to live.”
Jamie said she and Eldred separated when Kaya — now 19 and attending North Idaho College — was 8. Kaya last saw him at the age of 10. He died when Kaya was 16.
In the immediate aftermath, Kaya admitted she was affected in ways she didn’t realize, most notably in her decline in attendance and motivation for school.
“I didn’t realize it at the time,” she said. “I just figured I didn’t like school. I assumed that [the suicide] didn’t affect me, which I now know is very incorrect.”
Kaya added that she eventually began to notice emotional triggers, including one instance when a friend complained about a parent, even wishing for their death.
“I had a very poor reaction to that,” she said. “Obviously I wouldn’t want to wish that upon anyone. They don’t understand it, and I don’t want them to.”
Jamie said that when Eldred entered a depressive spiral, he would routinely quit jobs without so much as saying a word to his employer, leaving her to clean up the mess.
“He would detach from work when he would go into bouts of depression,” she said. “He would not go back to work or call, and of course I would try to talk to his boss and fix it. In his mind, it kept up the appearance that he was OK.”
According to Jamie, Eldred attended private high school Bishop Kelly in Boise before earning his degree at the University of Idaho in 1998. She said he held several management positions throughout his career.
Dr. Eric Heidenreich, a psychiatrist and director of behavioral health at Kootenai Health, said people who are accustomed to positions of status often struggle asking for help.
“Caregivers don’t want to be a burden on their loved ones,” Heidenreich said. “But by entering into a relationship with someone, you’re agreeing to be a burden. The question is: Are you going to be a healthy burden, or an unhealthy burden?”
He added that the tendency to avoid emotional vulnerability dissuades people dealing with suicidal thoughts from speaking up.
“We have the tendency to not want to appear vulnerable, but vulnerability actually brings people closer together,” Heidenreich said. “People think they’re protecting themselves, but they’re actually doing just the opposite.”
Kaya and Jamie agreed that one emotion they both still experience frequently is anger.
“Anger is part of it,” Kaya said. “It’s kind of like, ‘You got to go away, and I’m the one who has to live with that decision.’”
“We’ve gone through the stages of grief, and I don’t know if we’re done,” Jamie added. “Anger sort of provided us a way to take control back of the situation.”
According to Jamie, Eldred experienced a pair of traumatic instances during his childhood that he rarely spoke about.
Heidenreich said repeated traumatic experiences as a child actually change the central nervous system, and make someone more susceptible to an adverse reaction to future trauma.
Judge John Mitchell, who presides over the First Judicial District in Kootenai County, said he routinely sees childhood trauma victims in his courtroom.
“In the criminal justice system, we see so much untreated past trauma,” Mitchell said. “It’s not surprising that they’re addressing these problems in dysfunctional ways.”
For the past 14 years, Mitchell has overseen a mental health court, which serves 50 people in the criminal justice system who are dealing with mental health disorders and/or addiction.
The 18-month program includes meetings every Thursday. It pairs individuals with mentors and sponsors whom they must call every day.
According to Mitchell, three participants of the program have completed suicide over the course of 14 years.
“Our goal is to not just prevent suicide, but also to help them deal with trauma in a functional way,” Mitchell said. “It’s more cost-effective, and it’s more humane.”
In addition to her ex-husband’s suicide, Jamie Sedlmayer once battled suicidal thoughts herself. At the age of 16, she attempted to end her life.
“I think every day how foolish that was,” she said.
Jamie added that she worries about how people perceive suicide, and believes society perpetuates several misconceptions about it.
Heidenreich noted that the concept of a “copycat effect” or “contagion factor” is very real.
“Many people starving for attention may unfortunately see suicide as a way to get that,” he said. “So for our vulnerable population, that’s definitely a concern.”
Mitchell shared a story told to him by a woman who used to teach on a Native American reservation.
The woman said that after one student completed suicide, 13 others followed suit over the next several months.
Although people commonly say that those who end their own lives find peace in death, the Sedlmayers know that is not the case for those left behind.
“In some interpretation, yeah, at least he got what he wanted,” Kaya said. “But I have to deal with the consequences forever.”
“You learn to cope and to deal and to become a new person, because it definitely changes who you are,” Jamie said. “He found his peace, but he took ours.”
Suicide calls to Kootenai County’s two 911 centers
• From Feb. 11 to March 11:
(before there were two highly publicized suicides in the county)
Suicide threats - 43
Suicide attempts - 12
Completed suicides - 1
• From March 11 to April 11:
(during this time there were two highly publicized suicides in the county)
Suicide threats - 66
Suicide attempts - 7
Completed suicides - 7
• Total calls over 60 days from Feb. 11 to April 11:
Suicide threats - 109
Suicide attempts - 19
Completed suicides - 8
Information provided by the Post Falls Police Department Records Office and Lt. Stuart Miller of the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office.