Carolyn Brown remembers coming home that night, hearing her daughter’s favorite Sarah McLachlan album turned up extra loud.
But Kari Jorgensen, a Fresno State student staying at her family home in Visalia for Christmas break, wasn’t in her room listening to music. Her stereo’s speakers had been turned toward the bedroom’s open windows, casting the sound outside to the backyard.
Brown followed the music, finding more clues about her daughter’s whereabouts: an empty bottle of wine on the gazebo, a phone. The last place Brown looked for her daughter was the shed where they kept pool equipment and tools.
Kari, 22, had hung herself with a chain from the building’s beams that January night in 1996.
“After she died, people wouldn’t even look me in the eye. How do you address not only the loss of a child, but someone who takes their own life?” Brown said.
“Looking back on those last months, she was absolutely suffering from clinical depression, and she was changing, but I made excuses for those changes. The whole time I was thinking, ‘I wonder who made her do this?’ Because to me, only crazy people at the mental hospital did this – not my daughter.”
Brown, a member of Fresno Survivors of Suicide Loss, told the chilling story of her daughter’s death last Monday at Clovis High School. Starting this Monday, Clovis High will host a mental health awareness week for the first time, after a string of student suicides in the Clovis Unified School District last year.
At Clovis West High School, three students committed suicide between August and December. In 2016, there were 11 teen suicides in Fresno County – up from previous years.
Clovis High’s mental health awareness week, with the theme of “break the stigma,” aims to teach students about anxiety, depression and other topics, and is being considered as a pilot program for a potentially districtwide effort. The idea was brought on by Clovis High students concerned about the need for more mental health knowledge.
“Everything that’s been happening in the community, and in our district especially, it’s really affected us, so we thought it had to have affected others as well,” said Maddie Murray, a Clovis High student behind the plan.
Clovis High student Ronnie Lee said students are regularly dealing with stress, but many don’t know how to handle it or fear that it’s something to be ashamed of.
“We have to give kids’ outlets and ways to understand,” she said. “A lot of students deal with anxiety even if they don’t know they’re dealing with it. It’s something we need to talk about to make sure it doesn’t become a bigger thing.”
Last Monday’s Clovis High event prepped parents for the upcoming lessons their children will learn, and included mental health advocates, psychologists and the Clovis Police Department’s youth services division.
“Our officers are specially trained to evaluate your children if you call in saying that they just made the statement that a lot of us don’t want to hear: I want to die or kill myself,” said Gloria Bradford, a juvenile hearing officer. “There’s no fee for you calling our police department, and we are there to help our community.”
Clovis High Principal Denver Stairs said that the school’s counselors have helped plan lessons on self-love and the misuse of social media, which can contribute to bullying and self-harm.
The school is reaching out to both parents and students about the warning signs of a mental health problem, which include being withdrawn, overwhelming fear or extreme difficulty concentrating.
“The students felt this was something that needs to be talked about because of recent events in our community. It’s OK not to be OK. We want kids to know that, and we want family members to know that,” Stairs said. “We are not going to try to diagnose students or anything like that. I hope that through this process, we create self-awareness.”
Christine Roup, of The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Fresno, shared her own stories of mental health issues, and urged parents to teach their children that these problems should be treated like any other ailment.
“I didn’t reach out for help. I didn’t ask anybody what I should do. I didn’t want anybody to know, and the real reason is because I didn’t want anybody to think I was crazy,” she said.
“It’s a very lonely place to be, and I found out that I didn’t have to be there. There is help, and there’s no shame in reaching out.”