'I felt like there were no options': Groups reach out to those suffering from depression, contemplating suicide

Mark Welchert looks out on his land from his bedroom window this week in Quincy. Welchert still has bullet fragments in his heart and lungs from when he attempted suicide more than 10 years ago by shooting himself in the chest. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Sep. 13, 2013 9:15 pm Updated: Sep. 27, 2013 11:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Mark Welchert still has bullet fragments lodged in his heart and lungs.

More than 10 years later, he thanks God every day the bullet didn't do its job.

The Quincy man had placed an older bullet in a gun he had stolen from his father. He planned for it to travel into his heart, ending a 30-year struggle with alcoholism and depression.

"For me, there was no future, and that's why I pulled the trigger," he said.

While Welchert felt alone in his life, he wasn't alone in his problem.

Nationally, 713,000 people were rushed to emergency rooms for self-inflicted injuries in 2010, the last year statistics are available, and 38,364 were successful in their suicide attempts. The American Association of Suicidology estimates that one in seven suicide attempts ends in death.

Welchert's life didn't end. Eventually, his depression did.

"I had no idea life would ever be like it is now," he said. "My life is great."


Hitting the bottom

Welchert woke up in the intensive care unit angry with God, eager to leave the hospital and desperate to attempt suicide again. He had never felt at home in this world and remembers having suicidal thoughts as early as age 10. He once rode his bike to the drug store, bought several boxes of sleeping pills and planned for an overdose. He never took the pills, but he certainly thought about it.

As time went on, he took comfort in alcohol. His addiction cost him his 25-year marriage as well as relationships with numerous family members. Eventually, the addiction caused trouble at his maintenance job.

Those losses loaded the gun.

"I felt like there were no options," Welchert said. "My mindset was, ‘You'll be better off without me.' "

Chuck Johnson, coordinator for psychiatric services at Blessing Hospital, said few people with suicidal thoughts actually want to die. Many just don't how to improve their situations or access services. He estimated that psychiatric services will admit more than 2,000 patients this year. Often within a week of treatment, life begins looking less bleak for the individual. Counseling and medication ease the anxiety and depression, and families start coming together to support their loved ones.

"More people recover from depression and suicide than a heart attack," Johnson said. "We have a much better track record of people getting better."

Johnson believes viewing depression as a treatable disease is a relatively new concept. Many still fear that discussing the topic might influence dangerous ideas, which Johnson believes deprives suicidal individuals of a necessary outlet.

"Then they're able to verbalize it rather than keeping all those feelings inside and ruminating on them and acting on them," Johnson said.

Often times suicidal individuals don't realize friends and family members would do anything to keep a loved one from ending their life. Welchert said, even today, he can see a glimmer of the hurt in his sister's eyes. At the time, he never considered how his actions impacted his family.

"I was thinking, ‘I'm not doing it to you, I'm doing it to me,' " Welchert said. "The loved ones go through more hell."


The afterlife


Sharon Tenhouse has been to that hell. Recently, she found it tucked away in a closet.

Her son's favorite T-shirt had been buried in there, and she had buried him seven years earlier.

The young man had committed suicide, and he would never wear that shirt again. Since his death, Tenhouse has filled her life with faith, family and friends as she's tried to cope with the loss. She had seen him smile while wearing that shirt, and seven years later, she cried into it.

"I don't want it happening to any one else," Tenhouse said. "I don't want another family to go through what we've been through."

Too many families already have.

Tenhouse isn't alone in her grief. More than 10,600 people in Illinois committed suicide between 1999 and 2008, and 71 of those deaths occurred in Adams County. National Suicide Prevention Week comes each year during the week of Sept. 10, and each year, more heartbroken families honor it. Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in 2010.

Jan Poulter's brother had been a joker and known as the life of the party. She said the pain of losing her brother to suicide spread through her muscles, into her bones and physically consumed her. She had experienced loss before, but nothing compared to the guilt she felt from her brother's suicide.

"It doesn't matter, it's there every day of your life," Poulter said.

Patrick Cramsey's brother had lived life as a family man and an enthusiastic farmer, but he hadn't lived to see his own son's wedding. These deaths gravely impact the families and friends who knew the individuals for more than their disease.

"You've been robbed of sharing your life with someone," Cramsey said.

Cramsey remembered standing in the receiving line at his brother's funeral. He had known his brother had struggled wi th stress, but he never expected he would take this extreme. Several people in the line had stopped, shaken his hand and encouraged him not to focus on what could have prevented it.

"You can't do the what ifs," Cramsey said. "It'll bring you down."

Tenhouse also has learned to remember her son based on his earlier, happier memories. While his life ended much sooner than it ever should have, she treasures the 21 years she had with him.

"They're not healthy when they make that decision, and I have to believe that," Tenhouse said. "You tend to think of them when they're struggling at the end, and that's not fair to their memory."


Stopping the cycle


Johnson aims to stop the progression of depression before it turns a person into a memory.

Transitions of Western Illinois, Blessing Health System and WGEM have used this week to encourage the community to begin difficult conversations with at-risk friends and family members. Johnson hopes to reach people throughout the community in the places they're most likely to go.

The campaign began with public service announcements and asking local businesses to use their electronic boards to showcase suicide prevention messages, including the hotline number, (217) 222-1166.

Johnson sent letters to more than 200 churches asking pastors to preach about suicide and how to find help. He also intends to educate medical providers outside of the mental health field about how to recognize symptoms of depression.

Barb Chapin, director of development at Transition of Western Illinois, said statically, senior citizens are most at risk for suicide. The ongoing loss of loved ones, employment and independence can create an extreme feeling of hopelessness and increase likelihood of self harm.

"People who commit suicide, it often has to do with losses," Chapin said. "And older people have felt a number of losses."

The statistics for young people aren't much more encouraging. The CDC listed suicide as the second leading cause of death for those ages 10-24, which is second only to accidental injury.

For the past eight years Johnson has worked in schools in Quincy hoping to reduce that number. This year, he'll work to expand his suicide prevention program to rural schools as well.

"The goal is to help kids understand that it's not a secret to be kept," Johnson said. "It's better to share that information with an adult than lose a friend."


Coming back from the bottom


Welchert knows how easily he could have become one of those losses.

He fired the gun into his heart in February 2000 and kept drinking until 2001. He planned another suicide attempt for late November that year.

He phoned his family on Thanksgiving Day and learned his sister had finally had enough of his addiction. She had always supported him, and he had lost his last true ally.

"I got on my knees in the kitchen, and I asked God to take (the addiction) away," Welchert said. "Before, I would have gotten off my knees and gone to the liquor store."

He drank his way through the next couple days, but soon after, he lost that ever-present itch for a drink. He had been in and out of addiction recovery programs for years, but he believes that Thanksgiving Day prayer made all the difference.

He built a relationship with God as well as other recovering addicts, and he managed to rebuild relationships with his two daughters and his sister.

As his sobriety increased, his depression diminished.

He began doing activities drunkenness had always prevented. Sobriety and happiness allowed for more travel, so he began taking scuba diving trips. He had always loved skydiving, but without an addiction, now he could be an instructor and he conducts his jumps out of Hannibal, Mo.

An 80-year-old woman came from her senior community one afternoon to make her first jump with Welchert. She told him she had lived a good life and was willing to risk death for the experience.

A decade after his suicide attempt, Welchert wasn't up for that risk. He told her that her chute was going to open because whatever happened to her would happen to him.

He knew he still had plenty of life left to live.

"I never know what's coming, today or next year, but I'm not afraid of it now," Welchert said. "You have no idea what's ahead."