Protecting a life

Download a PDF of the story as it appeared in print
in The Nevada Sagebrush.

By Jessica Fryman and Tony Contini

Two names adorn dozens of scars on Cassondra Coleman Schoppe’s wrists. On her left — her mother, “Marilyn.” On her right — her brother “Timothy.” The tattooed inscriptions replace flesh once stained with blood. The dedications serve as motivation to never fall that low again.

In alcohol-fused hazes, Coleman Schoppe, a University of Nevada, Reno alumna, slit her wrists once in 2003 and again in 2007, shortly after the unexpected deaths of her two family members.

“I was not in reality in any way. I was so angry,” she said. “That pain — it was so tangible, you could cut it with a knife.”

Coleman Schoppe, who now works at the Crisis Call Center in Reno, uses her personal experience to help counsel others. After a UNR counselor changed her life, she said she is confident being heard is enough for someone to understand death isn’t the only means of escape.

About 10 percent of new patients at the UNR Counseling Services report having symptoms of suicidal ideation, which could range from having fleeting thoughts of wanting to die or having a solid plan in place to kill oneself, Director Cindy Marczynski said.

Since 2007, there have been six attempts and nine threats of suicide on the UNR campus. All but two were students. The only successful suicide attempt during the five-year period was in 2008, when a 44-year-old man hanged himself at Peccole Park.

About 26 percent of student deaths across the nation each year are from suicide, according to The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

Coleman Schoppe first attended the UNR Counseling Services in the 2004 spring semester, when she returned to college after dropping out for several months in the wake of her mother’s death. She cared for her gambling-addicted father and younger brother while on a break from school.

“I advocate it to absolutely any and every student. It’s phenomenal,” the now-26-year-old said of campus counseling. “The fee that you pay at the beginning of every year, that $35, goes to support that. Every student has to pay it, so everybody should (use) the right to get counseling.”

When students report suicidal ideation to the counseling center, the staff goes through an assessment process to determine how serious the considerations of death are, Marczynski said. Based on how the client reacts and what’s said during therapy sessions determines whether they will be hospitalized, prescribed medication or included in intense therapy, she said.

“The main thing that we do is we take it seriously,” she said.

At Cornell University, where six students killed themselves last year, dubbing the college the “suicide school,” preventative measures are taken on campus, Director of Psychological Services Greg Eells said.

Several programs, such as “Social Resilience” and “Notice and Respond,” have trained faculty and students who look out for others who may have a change in attitude or behavior in their school, social or dorm life.

Counselors are stationed throughout campus at nine different locations, giving students a more accessible approach to help, Eells said. At the health center, patients answer various questions as part of a depression screening.

After about two years of counseling at UNR, Coleman Schoppe and her counselor decided she was more comfortable with her mental health and ended her sessions. Two days later, on July 21, 2006, her younger brother Timothy was killed, struck by lightning while standing in Lake Tahoe.

“Fuck, right? Like holy fuck. Are you kidding me?” she said, recalling that day. “I just get done. I feel in a healthy, wonderful place. I just got myself a great job doing something I loved and am right back to square one all over again.”

She dropped out of school again and turned to methamphetamines and alcohol, a futile attempt to ignore her problems.

But instead of an exacto knife and vodka, as she used in 2003, she drank a bottle of wine, two beers and seven gin and tonics before slicing her wrists with a razor blade and kitchen knives. She then laid on her bed to bleed out.

“My friends told me I went out on the porch for a cigarette,” Coleman Schoppe said. “(They) just happened to look up and notice there was blood tripping down my arms. They said I was essentially psychotic. They were calling an ambulance — I laughed.”

Now she finds herself on the other end of these stories, as she talks panicked callers out of harming themselves at her work at the crisis center.

After her second suicide attempt, Coleman Schoppe participated in another regimen of counseling and became sober in April 2007. She graduated from UNR with degrees in sociology and psychology two years later.

Coleman Schoppe first started at the Crisis Call Center as a volunteer and then began coordinating the volunteers about two years ago.

“We pride ourselves on being the people in your life that won’t pass judgment on your situation,” she said. “We want to offer you that empathetic ear.”

Crisis Call Center Line Coordinator Debbie Gant-Reed stressed the importance of listening, whether it’s as a professional or friend. People are afraid to talk about suicide directly, and the thought that talking about it might put the idea in their minds is a myth, she said.

Hopelessness is the main reason for suicide, Gant-Reed said. Signs to look out for are isolation, drastic changes in eating or sleeping habits and the need or want to give away treasured objects.  Another indication of suicidal tendencies is sudden drastic changes in mood. She said that if a long-time depressed person suddenly acts better, he or she might have made a decision to end his or her life and is at peace with that.

She stressed they see a doctor, even if it’s a general practitioner. Problems with the thyroid or blood pressure levels can affect mood or appearance.

Sometimes, a simple call to the crisis center is all that’s needed to help people who feel as though there’s no one else, Coleman Schoppe said. The center takes all types of calls, from domestic and child abuse to sexual assault and suicide.

Coleman Schoppe remembers answering a 14-year-old girl’s cry for help as she contemplated killing herself because her dad called her evil for liking a boy. Coleman Schoppe said she believes her advice and empathy helped the girl, but the center’s employees never  find out what happens once the caller hangs up the phone.

The combination of Coleman Schoppe’s past experiences with suicide and taking calls at the center can be emotionally draining, she said.

To stay balanced, Coleman Schoppe plays with her two 3-year-old pit bulls, writes in her journal, reads romance novels and cooks. She also looks to her husband, to whom she has been married for nine months, for moral support.

As it did with Coleman Schoppe, trauma and drug use can factor into one’s state of mental health and lead to depression or anxiety.

Gant-Reed said some students could be at risk for depression or suicidal tendencies because of factors such as exposure to drugs and alcohol, and being young and away from home.

Despite those factors, college students commit suicide at about half the rate as people in the same age group who are not enrolled in school, college counselors said.

“To some extent, research suggests that college is kind of a protective factor,” Marczynski said.

At college campuses, services for counseling are well advertised and centralized, giving students a clearer outlet for help, she said. Students also have a strong support group of roommates, classmates, teachers and friends. They are also more likely to have ambitions and life goals that deter them from thinking suicide is the only escape from problems.

Within six months of dropping out of college, however, suicide rates increase quite a bit, she said.

“Failure from college is certainly an issue,” Marczynski said.

While depression was the leading cause for college students to seek counseling over the past two decades, anxiety has become more of a concern in recent years, Marczynski said.

About 15 percent of the students who use the UNR counseling center say anxiety is their top issue. Depression is still a close second, however, with 13.8 percent of the center’s clients ranking it as their first problem. UNR’s statistics are in line with schools around the nation, Marczynski said.

Students often are overwhelmed with the stress of having too much to do, Marczynski said.

“In a way, it’s a more energetic kind of distress,” she said.

Aside from anxiety or personal suicidal thoughts, losing someone else to suicide is a large issue for college students.

“It really wrecks people,” Marczynski said. “If you have a close family member, especially a parent, who commits suicide, it creates a lot of guilt for the survivors.”

Meghan Beltram, 22, has been dealing with the side effects of her mother’s attempts since the age of four.

Every year around November, Beltram’s mother recalls the death of her brother, who died of leukemia. Beltram said she first noticed scars on her mother’s wrist when she was in sixth grade. Her mom’s most recent attempt left her in the hospital after she swallowed a bottle of pills.

“I think it’s really selfish,” said Beltram, who used to attend Truckee Meadows Community College. “It hurts because it’s my own mom and she’d rather die than to be with me and her kids.”

Beltram said she had been jaded toward counseling and would rather hold feelings in than share her problems. But it’s always on her mind — especially with her other brother near death from cirrhosis of the liver.

“That’s lingering over all our heads,” she said. “We’re waiting for the phone call when he dies. I worry, ‘What will my mom do then?’”

Beltram said she and her stepfather try to take days off and spend extra time with her mom during the month of November, but her mother always seems to find time alone to attempt suicide.

Although Beltram is opposed to counseling, most say the service saves lives.

The UNR counseling service has yet to have a client commit suicide. The Crisis Call Center knows of only one death since it opened in 1966.

Coleman Schoppe said she firmly believes in helping others through dark times. With her mother’s name “close to her heart” on her left wrist and the name of her brother, her “right-hand man,” scripted on her right, her hands will serve as reminders for more than just herself — that life is worth living.

“The fact that I’ve gotten through it keeps me going,” she said. “The fact that I can stand here and look at you today with pride over the fact that I made it through hell and back. I’m here to help hold whoever’s hand that wants to walk through.”

This story was originally printed in The Nevada Sagebrush
on May 3, 2011.
Original story on The Nevada Sagebrush website.