It’s been just over a year since Scott Dennis, a 42-year-old fitness company owner in Overland Park, was getting ready for an industry convention in Las Vegas.
Dennis had already paid for a $20,000 sponsored dinner, booked his flight, hotel and rental car and sent out some work e-mails.
He showered and shaved. He packed his bag.
“He wrote a note that said, ‘I can’t live like this anymore,’ and left his wallet and his watch on his desk, drove to Wal-Mart down the street and shot himself in the chest,” said Brook Phillips, a friend of Dennis for 35 years.
Dennis was one of 505 Kansans who killed themselves in 2012 – a 30 percent increase in suicides from 2011, according to recently released data from the state.
Nationwide, the number of deaths by suicide surpassed the number of deaths by motor vehicle in 2009, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided data. The CDC noted increases nationally in the number of middle-aged adults who commit suicide, and that the overall rate had steadily dropped in the 1990s but had gradually increased throughout the 2000s.
The most recent national data shows that more than 38,000 people committed suicide in 2009.
Statistically, the largest increases in suicides in Kansas occurred among white males, who already were the segment of the population most likely to take their own lives. More than 80 percent of suicides in Kansas last year were men.
In 2012, Sedgwick County had 88 suicides – the second-highest number in the state. Johnson County had 92 suicides.
In the same year, the state counted 110 homicides – about one-fifth the number of suicides.
According to Sedgwick County autopsy reports, there have been at least 37 confirmed suicides in 2013 – a number that is likely to grow.
Phillips said he and Dennis grew up together in Rose Hill, playing football and graduating with the class of 1988. They played together for a year at Oklahoma State and a year at Butler County before going their separate ways: Phillips went to Utah and the 5-foot-8-inch Dennis played linebacker at Temple.
But they remained close friends through the years.
After coaching at several schools and working as a salesman for Cybex fitness equipment and later Precor, Dennis started his own business around 2010 selling equipment for multiple fitness companies.
“It was a huge step for him,” Phillips said.
But in April 2012, Dennis told his friend that he and his wife were getting a divorce. They had two children.
“I told him I’m the poster child for life after divorce,” Phillips said. “I told him, ‘It’s going to be tough for a couple of months. Weather the storm and get back on your feet. I mean, quite frankly, you’re a good father, you’ve got a successful business and you’re a nice looking guy. … You’re in a pretty good position.’”
There is often one big question for families and friends of those who commit suicide: Why?
“We had plans,” Phillips said. “We were going to get a lake house and do stuff to really reconnect with our families and kids.
“I don’t know if it was the divorce that was that hard on him or if it was that he had actually failed at something. It’s probably a combination of things.”
As part of his healing – and as a way to make something positive out of the situation – Phillips created the Scott Dennis 44 Fund to help raise awareness of suicide and to create a scholarship fund for children who lose a parent to suicide.
He hopes at some point to implement a program for schools across the state and even the country to teach students about warning signs – and to tell kids it’s OK to talk about suicide, despite the stigma.
The name of the foundation comes from Dennis’ longtime football jersey number: 44.
“The biggest shock was that he was the most dynamic, full-of-life person. Nobody ever saw that coming,” Phillips said. “He was the guy you couldn’t be mad around. He would punch you, tickle you, pick you up and spin you around until he got you to laugh.
“You could be in a room with 200 people and shut your eyes, and if he walked in, it would change the vibe. He was just one of those people. Everybody wanted to be around him. He was the guy that everyone wanted to show up.”
While suicide rates have increased, some public funding for mental health has decreased.
Since 2009, the community mental health center in Sedgwick County has lost 53 percent of its state funding, said Marilyn Cook, executive director of Comcare of Sedgwick County. She said the county is trying to appeal to the state to replace some of that money.
“This is a community problem and a public health problem, not just a mental health problem,” Cook said. “Treatment dollars have gone down and more and more people are coming to us, a growing number without any other payment for services.”
She said they’ve seen an increase in the number of calls to the crisis program and more law enforcement officers have been trained in crisis intervention, which is a good thing, she said, but “without adequate funding, it’s difficult for us to get to everybody who needs care and help.”
In 2012, Sedgwick County 911 dispatch received more than 2,400 calls related to suicide threats or attempts, according to the Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition, and Comprehensive Community Care of Sedgwick County responded to more than 61,000 crisis phone calls for suicide risk or urgent mental health help.
With mental health reform in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a shift to treat people in their communities instead of sending them to state institutions, similar to the addiction field.
“We did bring home a lot of people from state facilities and closed (state hospitals),” Cook said. “But when money is reduced by 53 percent it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we would have adequate resources to treat them.
“It’s costly and when it’s dramatically reduced, it’s a difficult situation.”
2012 had the highest suicide rate in Sedgwick County since the coalition began collecting the data 12 years ago, Cook said.
“We wonder if the economy is part of it, the number of people struggling with job loss,” she said. “But we don’t have any clear answers.
“If you asked people today if they feel any more stressed than 10 years ago, I think a lot of people would say, ‘Yes.’”
For Liz McGinness, suicide prevention is a personal calling. In 1984, she said, she had intense postpartum depression.
“It was the first time in my life where my thinking got so dark that I began questioning whether I wanted to live,” she said.
“Fortunately, I was connected quickly with help and got better. When I did, I was able to reflect on how grateful I was that I did not act out and choose death.”
McGinness, a member of the Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition, is a retired school psychologist and mental health crisis team director for USD 259. Now, she has devoted herself to working with groups across the state to talk to kids about suicide prevention.
“I think one of the biggest things we can rally around is reducing stigma and talking about getting help,” McGinness said.
In Kansas, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 and those between 25 and 44 years old, right after unintentional injuries.
“One year does not make a trend, and hopefully we will not have the same repeat next year,” McGinness said of the 2012 data.
“There has been an uptick in suicides in middle-class, white professional men. … We do likely attribute that incidence as being related to the economy, for men particularly. So much of their identity is tied up in their job, and they lose their moorings.”
According to data from the Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition annual report, half of those who took their life in Sedgwick County had a history of mental illness – primarily depression, bipolar disorder and/or substance abuse – and 40 percent had other significant medical issues.
The suicide prevention coalition says it does not include non-Sedgwick County resident suicides that occur in Sedgwick County in its report, so it counts 83 Sedgwick County resident suicides instead of the 88 the state reported.
Of those 83 suicides, the coalition had toxicology reports for 81. Those showed that 72 percent of those who committed suicide had alcohol or drugs in their system at the time of death.
“Alcohol acts as a further depressant on the brain, and it also impairs controls,” McGinness said. “It reduces logical thinking and increases emotional thinking. It also increases impulsivity.”
The most common method of suicide by Kansans is firearms, followed by suffocation and poisoning, according to state data.
“Firearms are the highest correlated method because of how lethal they are. But more young people use hanging because it is generally more accessible to them than firearms,” McGinness said.
If someone notices warning signs in another person, they should immediately notify mental health experts.
Those signs, according to McGinness, include changes in mood, sleep and eating patterns, no longer wanting to do things they previously enjoyed, becoming isolated or withdrawn, mentioning suicide or wanting to hurt themselves and becoming angry or hostile with others.
“We especially tend to see the anger come out more with men and young people,” she said.
‘It didn’t seem real’
David Mickey was born on the Fourth of July.
Every year on his birthday, Mickey’s family goes to the cemetery and lights fireworks just for him.
“He was crazy about fireworks,” said his younger brother, Josh Larson, a senior at Circle High in Towanda. “Mom always used to tell him the whole world was celebrating his birthday.
“When my mom told me David committed suicide, I literally just fell to the ground. Everything fell apart.”
Mickey killed himself on May 16, 2011.
It was especially hard, Josh Larson said, because his 26-year-old brother had told him he would never do that to himself after seeing the effects of Larson’s father’s suicide on the family just two years earlier.
William (Bill) Larson had killed himself at the age of 51, on Nov. 3, 2008, when Josh Larson was in the seventh grade. The elder Larson suffered from alcoholism.
“It took years to get over it,” Josh Larson said. “It didn’t seem real when it first happened. It’s weird thinking you’ll never see your dad again.”
Larson said his experience has led him to want to become a social worker. He plans to attend Butler Community College to get his general education credits before attending Wichita State University. Tennis became his coping mechanism. He also sings and writes poetry.
Now he’s working with Phillips to help raise awareness of suicide among young people as part of the Scott Dennis 44 Fund.
“I’m going to therapy,” he said. “I almost lost myself along the way, but I want to be a social worker and help people with the same problems. I understand the hurt, the pain. The numbness.”
He’s even had a few friends who have come to him for help.
“Everybody needs somebody,” he said. “A simple, ‘Hey, man, you’re going to be OK’ can literally save them and get them through the night.”