Parents’ foundation fights suicide

> Tom and Ellen Harris launched the group in memory of their daughter.

By Susan Schrock sschrock@star-telegram.com

FORT WORTH — Jordan Elizabeth Harris was confident, fun-loving and driven, first a high school valedictorian and then a scholarship student at the University of Michigan who loved to travel and volunteer.

So her sudden spiral into darkness, self-doubt and hopelessness as a college senior was shocking to friends and family. Her parents, Tom and Ellen Harris, had no idea how grim things had become for their oldest child until they received a late-night phone call from her worried roommate.

After coming back home to North Richland Hills and starting antidepressants, Harris appeared to bounce back. Outwardly, she seemed happy. She worked out with her mom, volunteered with Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, went on a family vacation and said she was determined to graduate on time. The night before she took her life, Harris even searched online for therapists near her college campus.

“She was happy and fun and completely herself. So we thought she was fine,” Ellen Harris said.

“We had no idea how dark of a place she was at because she worked so hard at pretending nothing was wrong. From what I understand, that is

very common.”

Harris, the oldest of three children, committed suicide on March 27, 2012. She was 22.

In her memory, Tom and Ellen Harris launched the Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation (www.JordanHarrisFoundation.org) this year to raise awareness about youth depression and suicide, offer resources to families and individuals struggling with mental illness and raise funding for research dedicated to treating depression. The foundation held its inaugural fundraising luncheon, “Bring the Conversation to Light,” on Friday at Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth.

“We didn’t understand what it was like for our own daughter. People don’t know what it’s like when you are suffering. Clinical depression is so severe that people who are affected by it have no interest in life,” Ellen Harris said. “We want people to understand what this illness is.”

Staggering numbers

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24 and the 10th-leading cause of death for all Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, about 40,000 people in the United States take their own lives.

“It’s a huge issue in our country,” Tom Harris said. “The conversation and the attention on depression and suicide has to be risen above where it is today to the level of some of the other major diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and AIDS. It deserves a whole lot more attention. There are way too many people suffering.”

To help start those conversations locally, the foundation awarded $25,000 to Mental Health America of Greater Tarrant County to fund a full-time suicide awareness and education director to work with students and staff at area middle and high schools. That gift was matched by MHMR of Tarrant County.

Funding research into more effective treatments for depression is another top priority.

On Friday, the foundation awarded a $50,000 grant to Dr. Lisa Monteggia, a neuroscience professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas whose research includes studying how to make antidepressant medications work faster without serious side effects.

“There are 30 different antidepressant medications, and it’s all trial and error. It can take up to six weeks for medication to take effect. Some people don’t have six weeks,” Ellen Harris said. “Jordan took medication for at least six weeks and it didn’t do anything for her. Who knows what would have happened if she could have taken something that could have helped her right away.”

Recognizing the signs of depression quickly is critical, said Julie Hersh, an author and mental health awareness advocate who was the keynote speaker at the luncheon.

“Like any disease, depression can be handled if it is caught early enough in the cycle,” said Hersh, a mother of two who wrote the book Struck by Living: From Depression to Hope after trying to kill herself in 2001.

Better tools

Besides teaching people how to keep their brains healthy, whether through adequate sleep, stress-relief techniques or exercise and nutrition, Hersh said physicians need better diagnostic tools to get people into the right treatment for their mental illness.

“In the U.S., we are losing as many people to suicide as we do to breast cancer,” she said. “Yet where is our mammogram for mental health? Where is that thing that is going to detect the disease at the beginning? We need tools to detect the illness early.”

In early 2001, Hersh said, she went to her family practitioner complaining of fatigue, weight loss and insomnia. Her doctor found nothing wrong. Nine months later, Hersh climbed into her vehicle, turned on the ignition and tried to kill herself by carbon monoxide poisoning.

“We are always quick to find a villain for depression. Many times there isn’t a villain for people like me,” Hersh said. “I didn’t have a good excuse for my depression, which made it seem all the more unbelievable.”

Fortunately, the garage was well ventilated and Hersh found the right combination of mental health treatment.

Even when their life seems perfect from the outside, mental illness can prevent people from seeing the good around them, she said.

“Suicide is not about selfishness. It’s not about weakness. It about a brain stuck in an endless loop where death seems like a moral option or even the only option,” Hersh said.

“I didn’t try to take my life because I didn’t love my family. I attempted suicide because I loved them so much I didn’t want to destroy their lives. Depression took me down and I didn’t want to take them with me.”

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639 Twitter: @susanschrock