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Speaker addresses suicide prevention at MSU


Slim Smith/Dispatch Correspondent



In September of 2008, 18-year-old high school senior Jason Burnham sat on his bed, listening to his mother pound on his door and thought, "I just don't want to be here anymore."  


He stood up, walked a few steps across his bedroom and calmly removed the screen on his ninth-story window.  


"I don't remember thinking, 'I'm going to jump,' " Burnham recalled. "I just went out." 


Traveling one hundred feet at 60 miles per hour, the 2.1 second fall was the beginning of a journey, which brought him to the Mississippi State University campus Tuesday. 


For three years now, Burnham has been traveling the country, talking to high school and college students about the events leading up to his decision to take his own life. 


"I've been to 29 states, plus Canada and Mexico," said Burnham, who has suspended his college studies to work full-time as a member of the speaker's bureau for Active Minds, a national organization devoted to addressing mental health issues on college campuses. 


Burnham told his story to a group of roughly 300 students at McCool Hall on Tuesday, emphasizing the importance of talking openly about feelings which, for too many, remain a taboo topic. 


"If you will notice, I never say I tried to commit suicide," said Burnham, now 22. "You "commit" a crime. I tried to take my own life. Words matter. I think it goes to show that there's a lot of shame associated with suicide. That has to change." 


Burnham's address was one of two events held on the MSU campus to call attention to the grim reality of suicide among students. Each year, more than 1000 college students take their own lives. 


Earlier in the day, the MSU chapter of Active Minds staged a "Send Silence Packing" backpack display. The backpacks of 300 students, who took their own lives were placed on the ground, with a printed account of the student's story. 


Burnham's backpack could have been part of the display. Instead, he survived to tell the story of his own struggles with depression, substance abuse and the shame which prevented him from expressing his feelings of inadequacy, failure and hopelessness. 


In a 45-minute account of the events leading to his decision to take his own life, Burnham painted to portrait of a young man struggling with depression. 


"If I could go back to a critical moment, it would be when I was first diagnosed with depression," he said. "You know, if you are diagnosed with say, diabetes, somebody sits you down and tells you how to cope with it, the things you have to do. You accept it as a part of your life. But depression isn't like that, or at least it wasn't for me. For me, it was something to get rid of. I did not want depression to define who I was. That's the way I looked at it, which was totally wrong." 


Burnham said he never took his treatment very seriously. Instead, he turned to alcohol as a teenager, masking the pain and uncertainty he felt, but could not share with friends and family. 


His decision to jump out his window -- he calls it more of an impulse than a decision -- was not the first time he had thought of death. 


"I can remember playing it out in my mind," he explained. "Should I take pills? No, maybe they wouldn't work. Someone might find me before I died. I couldn't hang myself, because I didn't want my parents to find me like that. I couldn't shoot myself, because I can't even stand the thought of blood. I remember looking out that window one day. I thought, when you get to the bottom, it's over." 


A year earlier, when he threatened to kill himself with an overdose of pills, he was placed in a mental hospital. During mandatory group therapy sessions, Burnham was able to talk candidly about his thought of "just not wanting to be here anymore." 


But when he left the hospital, he found its impossible to reveal those deep, disturbing thoughts to his friends and family. 


In retrospect, Burnham said, having someone with whom to talk about those feelings is of critical importance. 


"I had always worn this mask" Burnham said. "I was a good athlete, a good student, I loved to laugh. I can talk and the girls thought I was all-right. But inside, I felt numb. I felt like I was a disappointment to everybody I loved. I began to think everybody would be better off, if I just wasn't there." 


In his long recovery from the injuries sustained from the fall -- he broke both bones in his left lower leg, left femur, pelvis, left wrist and jaw and suffered internal bleeding in his abdomen and brain -- Burnham began to believe his life was spared, so he could tell his story to others. 


"Since I've been doing this, there are two things that I see on college campuses that are accepted, but never talked about," he said. "First, is sleep deprivation. Sixty percent of students are sleep deprived. You go to a campus, nobody's sleeping.  


"The second thing is alcohol and substance abuse. Seven in 10 student who abuse alcohol or substances have some sort of serious mental health issue. That's a dangerous combination. I know because I was one of those seven." 


Burnham encouraged students to have candid, open conversations about their feelings. He said it's important to create a climate where the fears, insecurities and inadequacies he felt can be shared, without fear of judgment. 


"I still have depression," he said. "The difference now is that I have a healthy approach to it. I have a strong support system, and that means there are people I can talk to. I can't tell you how important that is. It makes all the difference."




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