Talon Owens talks teen suicide prevention
At 11:30 Wednesday night, April 6, Talon Owens, a 15-year-old sophomore at Borah High School, turned off the pass code on his cellphone, placed the phone conspicuously on the center of his bed, and quietly climbed out his first-story window.
He hit the yard of his family’s house on South Owyhee Street, near South Junior High School, and started running.
His legs carried him left along Rose Hill Street, left up Vista Avenue and then down Capitol Boulevard into Downtown Boise — “to that familiar building,” an eight-story parking garage.
He noticed, with only a passing interest, two police officers who had closed two lanes of traffic. He punched the up arrow on the parking garage elevator and pushed the button for the eighth floor. All the way up.
Talon, now 16 and a junior, says he had started fixating on death two weeks earlier.
He was not picked on at school, he says. He felt loved and supported by both parents, who are divorced. Life at home with his mother, her boyfriend and his three sisters was mostly good, other than hearing “Let it Go,” the song from Disney’s “Frozen,” blare from speakers too many times.
But he had been “overthinking,” feeling helpless to change things in his life, feeling darkness enveloped by darkness. Raised Mormon, Talon felt judged by others in the church. He had switched to a non-Mormon Christian church, but he soon doubted that the Book of Mormon, the Bible or any other text was divinely inspired. He said he was promised religious epiphanies. None came.
“It wasn’t even that I was depressed. I was indifferent,” he said. “I was happy. I just felt like there was somewhere else I could be where I wasn’t being judged, where I didn’t feel looked down upon. That was at the bottom of an eight-story building.”
He was not the only person with suicidal thoughts at the parking garage that night.
The woman on the ledge
At 12:22 a.m. April 7, about the time Talon arrived, Boise police officers were dispatched to the garage after a report that a women in her 30s with dark hair was preparing to jump.
Officers arriving at the scene saw the woman standing outside the third-story rail, facing into the garage, holding the rail with both hands.
According to reports the Statesman obtained through a public records request, the officers tried to talk to the woman. They asked her name, which was redacted from the reports. They asked if they could contact her family. They asked her to please step back over to the safe side of the rail.
She said nothing.
“[She] did not appear to show any emotions in her facial expressions, and she maintained a blank stare,” officer Andrew Morlock wrote. “She did not appear to be crying, mad, distressed, frantic, or any other sort of emotion.”
She stood outside the rail in the stairwell of the parking garage, facing into the garage with her back to the open air. Some officers spoke to her from the stairs. Others taped off the area below to foot and pedestrian traffic.
The woman inched her feet off the ledge.
Police officers rush up
Talon got out of the elevator on the eighth floor. He headed to a corner of the garage. He climbed on top of the concrete wall around the roof.
He looked over Downtown and the Foothills. The police lights below flashed around the street and threw light off nearby buildings.
Pedestrians passed below. None looked up.
He leaned over the edge, using a short metal railing as a handhold. He chose a landing spot.
The police lights piqued his curiosity. As he leaned more, he saw the woman at the third-floor railing.
He did not realize that officers Morlock and Rod Short were ascending the stairs, trying to talk her down.
In his report, Morlock said the woman inched her heels so that only her toes and hands secured her. She turned to look at the ground below. Morlock sprinted up the remaining half flight of stairs.
“As I made the last step toward [her], she looked up and forcibly pushed away from the railing and maintained her blank stare as she fell towards the ground,” Morlock wrote. “I was at the railing and within approximately 2 feet of being able to grab on to her and pull her back to safety.”
Talon sees the woman fall
Talon said he was “taking in his last moments,” looking over Boise, hearing the sirens, when he saw the woman drop.
“As I saw her falling, I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “I saw her hit the ground at the bottom of the elevator shaft, and I kind of froze. Because I imagined me where she was, except from five stories higher.”
Talon said he went numb. He lost track of time, until a voice behind him instructed him to get down. He turned. A flashlight beam crossed his face. It was a parking garage attendant.
Talon climbed down. He broke into tears.
At home, his mother, Tawnia Owens, was awakened by a ringing phone. The caller ID read, “Restricted.” It was a police officer. “Your son is safe,” the voice said. “But you better come.”
The call had to be a prank, Owens thought. But she stayed on the line as she opened the door to her son’s room. Finding it empty, she moved from room to room, turning on the lights.
Talon’s sister, then 17, found the phone he had left unlocked on his bed. She opened the text messages and found the drafts of five letters addressed to family members, including her, explaining why he had decided to jump off a parking garage.
Talon’s mother second-guesses herself
Tawnia Owens said she sat in her son’s room that night at Boise’s Intermountain Hospital, which offers inpatient mental health treatment.
Talon had resisted checking in. She had threatened to “tether myself to him” if he didn’t agree to go. His oldest sister, perhaps his closest friend, was adamant that he should go, Owens said.
They persuaded him, and that started more than a week of an up-and-down recovery. He was emotional one day, distant the next, then hyperventilating, then flippant, Owens said.
Owens replayed the day before Talon went to the garage. He had seemed normal that day and gave her his typical long hug before bed. She said Talon had no history of depression, and if there were signs she could have picked up on, they were subtle.
Owens supports her family by working double duty. She is an online sales representative for Hubble Homes and sells products for Acti Labs, a cosmetics direct sales company.
She felt like a fraud as a parent. After a close friend in Nevada lost a teenage son to suicide, Owens founded Hart Inspired, a Boise nonprofit that was developing suicide prevention programs for teens. She hoped to work with businesses to create scholarships for troubled teens to get involved in activities they love, such as dance classes or piloting courses, to give them new interests.
She left her son at the hospital. She cried in the car.
“I felt like the biggest phony,” she said. “How can I go out and help other people when I can’t even save my own kid?”
Teens survive most suicide attempts
We know some facts about suicide, said Kim Kane, the manager of Idaho’s new suicide prevention team in the Department of Health and Welfare.
We know that older, white males are the most common victims.
We know that, among Idaho teens, the number who commit suicide is a minuscule fraction of the number who contemplate or attempt it.
“Our most basic instinct is self-preservation,” Kane said. “Thankfully, that’s the part that usually steps in.”
We know that the common thread tying attempt survivors is a failed sense of belonging.
“They can seem very supported by friends and family, but among those we lose, they are not in a rational state,” Kane said. “They have achieved this sense of feeling like a burden to those around them.”
However, understanding the difference between those who complete suicide and those who survive is harder to pinpoint. Factors that can increase the risk of suicide attempts — including traumatic histories of abuse, or bullying, or being gay, bisexual or transgender in a judgmental environment — do not actually translate to a higher suicide rate, she said.
One factor predicting whether an attempt will become a completion is the victim’s pain threshold, Kane said. Those who have either endured pain or been around others in pain are more likely to override the brain’s self-protection mechanisms.
“For example, there’s a high rate of suicide among doctors and dentists who witness pain all of the time,” she said.
So, then, how do we better intervene before loved ones attempt suicide? Kane said we can save lives by spotting behaviors, such as a person withdrawing from activities or succumbing to addiction or talking about being a burden.
“Cases of suicide are almost always connected to previous nonlethal attempts,” Kane said. “Each attempt bumps up the risk factor. Knowing the number of previous attempts can be very important.”
‘The stigma is still strong around suicide’
Idaho had the ninth-highest suicide rate in the nation in 2015, 46 percent higher than the U.S. average. Nearly one Idahoan per day committed suicide last year, including 139 in the Treasure Valley, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho.
Mountain West states have the highest suicide rates in the nation for several reasons, including our “pioneering, rugged individualist culture” that Kane said makes troubled residents less likely to seek help.
Rural states such as Idaho also face challenges offering mental health services in small and isolated communities. States with higher-than-average gun ownership — Idaho is one — also have higher rates of suicide by firearm, she said.
Reluctance to talk about suicide in families may pose the greatest obstacle in lowering suicide rates, Kane said. She plans to launch a public awareness campaign to lessen that taboo.
“The stigma is still strong around suicide,” she said. “To reduce stigma, we need to stop talking about the stigma and move forward to the things we know can help.”
After hearing pleas from national and local suicide prevention groups and a handful of lawmakers, the Legislature approved nearly $1 million in annual funding during the 2016 session to tackle the problem.
Some of the money is going to the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, which fielded about 5,000 calls last year and is on pace to reach 6,000 this year. Most is going to the new Suicide Prevention Program, Kane’s four-person team, to manage prevention and education programs, including outreach to students.
Boise police receive calls daily
Boise police officers have prevented suicide attempts by grabbing people off of high buildings, Capt. Ron Winegar said. Because of dwindling resources for those struggling with mental health problems, more people suffering breakdowns or attempting suicide are landing in emergency rooms and law enforcement logs.
The department responds to one or more calls about suicidal people each day, Winegar said.
“If you strolled through the department and talked to all 300 officers, you’d have a hard time finding one that hadn’t dealt with, firsthand, numerous suicide attempts or completions,” he said.
The department has ramped up training for mental health crisis response to better equip officers to identify and de-escalate situations. For example, they are taught that people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are more likely to respond to a lighter approach than to stern commands or use of force.
Last year, the department hired a mental health coordinator to oversee training programs and coordinate with outside organizations that can play roles when officers respond to calls involving mental health or suicide.
But training cannot prepare officers for the myriad variables that come into play during mental health crises, Winegar said. Officers such as Morlock and Short must improvise.
“There’s no manual. There’s no checklist,” Winegar said. “You just talk to somebody, one human to another.”
Winegar said he is involved in the department’s handling of its own officers struggling with mental health problems, including problems stemming from traumatic scenes. The department has an officer peer group and out-of-office services it can call upon for professional help.
“We have a front-row seat to bizarre circumstances regularly, but if somebody leaps off a building in front of you, that’s not a regular day at the office,” he said. “That doesn’t just go away.”
For officers, that night in April meant witnessing one jumper but not two. The police department confirmed that they secured a teenage boy who had contemplated leaping from the garage and called his mother.
‘I have a family that cares about me’
Talon said it took about a month to shake his darkness. He threw himself into his passion, mixed martial arts. He practiced on the heavy bag in the garage.
He is earning mostly A’s in school. He is focused on earning his driver’s license and getting a job. He writes in a journal about things he is thankful for, including his oldest sister. He didn’t grasp how much she cared about him until her visits to the hospital.
“It showed me a side of her I’d never seen before,” Talon said. “When she was showing those emotions toward me, it made me feel better about things.”
He’s learned to dwell on the positive things in his life instead of the negative. And there are many positives, he said.
“I have a family that cares about me,” he said. “I have a nice house and a roof over my head. I have friends that care about me. I have an education.”
The woman survives
The woman who Talon says saved his life survived her fall. An ambulance was already on the scene when she jumped. Paramedics took her to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. She was listed in stable condition when officer reports were completed later in April.
At the Statesman’s request, Boise police reached out to the woman, asking her permission to include her in the Statesman’s public records request so that a reporter could reach out to her directly. She declined. Police redacted her name from the incident report, citing state law that shields identities and medical information of people attempting suicide.
With a few exceptions — such as for prominent Idahoans, highly visible events that disrupt the lives of many people, or agreements by loved ones to public disclosure, as in this story — the Statesman avoids reporting on suicide attempts or completions.
Police also reached out to the woman on behalf of Tawnia Owens. Police said that invitation also was declined.
“I want to thank her for saving my son’s life,” Owens said. “She’s his angel.”
If someone you know is in emotional crisis
Call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Warning signs to watch for:
▪ Talking about wanting to die.
▪ Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
▪ Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
▪ Talking about being a burden to others.
▪ Increasing use of alcohol or drugs.
▪ Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly.
▪ Sleeping too little or too much.
▪ Withdrawing or isolating themselves.
▪ Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
▪ Extreme mood swings.
Other things you can do to help
▪ Do not leave the person alone.
▪ Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
▪ Listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
▪ Be nonjudgmental. Don’t debate. Don’t lecture on the value of life.
▪ Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
▪ Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
▪ Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
▪ Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.
▪ Get help by calling the hotline or visiting Suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Source: Suicide Prevention Lifeline