Hastings alum continues his fight to raise suicide awarenessArea News
-- Every few years, Chris Caulkins stands before members of the Hastings Fire Department to deliver an unbelievable story to them.
By: Chad Richardson, Pierce County Herald
Every few years, Chris Caulkins stands before members of the Hastings Fire Department to deliver an unbelievable story to them.
It’s a story Caulkins can’t believe he finds himself telling and retelling, but he’s doing so, he said, so that the life and death of two people very dear to him can prove useful.
He tells the department about how his wife died in 2003 from suicide.
He then tells the department about how his brother died in 2008 from suicide.
And at that point, he has their attention.
The 1987 Hastings High School graduate has become all too familiar with mental health crises. Whether or not Hastings has a problem any more severe than any other city isn’t a debate Caulkins spends his time focusing on – he simply knows that mental health is a problem here, as it is everywhere.
The problem is nothing new to the Hastings Police Department. Just this week, officers assisted two families that were experiencing mental health crises with their teenagers.
On Nov. 28 at 9:30 p.m., officers responded to a residence here after a 17-year-old threatened suicide and was reported to have grabbed a gun. That teen was transported to Fairview Riverside Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
On Dec. 1 at 5:30 p.m., officers responded to another Hastings address to assist a family with a juvenile male who wasn’t acting like himself, who was agitated and who was crying.
Calls like this are on the rise in Hastings, according to the police department. In a typical month, the department now responds to approximately 100 crisis-related calls. Nationwide, meanwhile, the death rate for suicides has increased almost 9 percent since 2000.
Still, a stigma is attached to the very mental illnesses that many times lead to suicide. During the presentation he gave in Hastings, Caulkins drew a parallel between mental illness and heart disease and addressed why people can’t just “snap out of it,” as he put it.
“Mental illness is an illness,” he said. “The problem is that it affects your brain. Like people with heart disease, they can’t control how their heart works. You can’t will your heart to be a different way. You can’t will your chest pain to go away, just like you can’t will being depressed to go away.”
Most times, medication and therapy can help people with a mental illness, and they can lead normal lives without harming themselves. But with Caulkins’ wife Mary, that wasn’t the case.
“She was the rare case,” he said. “The train was coming down the tracks, and we just couldn’t get off.”
Mental illness has shown to be hereditary, and Mary had it, Caulkins said. She sought therapy, got it, and was prescribed an effective mix of medications. She went off her medication so that she and Chris could try to have children, only to learn that they couldn’t.
That further depressed her, and the right mix of medication couldn’t be found again. She and Chris then adopted a child and while that was a very positive event for them, it was stressful, too.
“It’s usually never just one thing,” Caulkins said.
On March 5, 2003, she died.
As for Jeremy Caulkins, Chris’ younger brother, he had a promising career going as an executive sous chef at the Hastings Country Club, and he was a law enforcement student at Century College. Jeremy had graduated from HHS in 2000 and appeared to have things pretty well figured out. His diary, though, would show otherwise.
“I think I could have helped Jeremy, but he hid it,” Chris said. “For him, it was the stigma – he thought this was a character flaw. He had a journal and he would write these things. You see it after he dies – he isn’t going to show you that while he is alive.”
Normally, warning signs present themselves, Caulkins said.
“I didn’t see them with Jeremy,” he said. “I feel horrible about that. It happened to my own wife, and I didn’t see it with my brother. But what do you do? You can beat yourself silly about it. But he hid it. He was good at it. I’m sure he didn’t want to worry me.
“I questioned him on it. I had hints and glimpses, but he’d tell me he was on meds, and that he was doing fine. He’d give me a good answer. An answer I wanted to hear, but his diary reflects he was falling apart.”
Caulkins said that Jeremy had anxiety issues, and that he struggled with some depression. He had some financial problems and began to consume too much alcohol.
All that, again, added up and it proved to be too much for the 27-year-old Hastings man to take. On Oct. 16, 2008, he died.
Nowadays, Caulkins talks about Mary and Jeremy as often as he can. He even facilitates a support group in Woodbury for those who have lost someone to suicide.
“Life changed for me when Mary died,” he said. “When Jeremy died … it just magnified the first tragedy. A piece of me died with each of them. Things don’t taste the same. They don’t look the same, and my priorities aren’t the same.
“Making a difference is a big deal to me now. I have to make a difference somehow. I don’t know what the difference is going to be, but life has to have meaning. Their lives mean something. I need to use that so that their lives aren’t wasted.
“If I can educate an ambulance service, or a hospital, to pick up on something faster, or I can help one person identify that their son has depression ...”
Day to day
Many days on the job, Caulkins encounters suicide.
After graduating from Hastings High School in 1997, he went to college in Indiana and eventually became an EMT there. He came back to the Twin Cities and studied at Century College to become a paramedic. He’s been a paramedic for several different agencies, including the City of Woodbury, for which he is still the emergency medical coordinator. He now teaches the paramedic program at Century College, too.
Seeing and responding to suicides is one of the most challenging aspects of his job as a paramedic.
“It’s hard to see it over and over again,” he said. “I’m going to these calls, and it’s frustrating. I’m just trying to raise awareness that it’s not a character flaw or a moral misgiving.”
Many times, Caulkins hears from families about how suicides are selfish. They are anything but, he said.
“These people don’t want to be a burden on the people they love,” he said. “Suicide is the opposite of being selfish.”
And it’s not just a matter of not having something to live for. During his presentations, Caulkins puts up a list of famous people, with conceivably everything going for them, who have died by suicide.
One of the tools Caulkins uses during his speeches is to ask those in attendance to picture a hammer. Caulkins says he’s going to walk around the room and strike each person there right on the top of the head with the hammer. Once he’s done hitting everyone the first time, he’s going to walk around and do it again. And again. And again.
“Are you thinking about your family?” Caulkins asks them. “Or your nice house? No. You’re thinking of me hitting you with the hammer, and you just want the pain to go away.
“That’s why people suicide. When your brain is diseased, you can’t fathom or perceive that there is a way out that’s not lethal.”
Chad Richardson is editor for the Hastings Star Gazette.