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‘Still struggling’: A mother works to understand her teenage daughter’s suicide

Jill Burchill is starting to see a grief counselor, and she’s looking into joining the local chapter of Compassionate Friends, a national group for bereaved parents.

At first, it felt like the call came out of nowhere.

For a few months, Jill Burchill had noticed that her 16-year-old daughter, Teagan, had seemed moody and distant, but she mostly wrote it off as garden-variety teenage crankiness. With two sets of twins nearing adulthood, Burchill thought she was well versed in all varieties of teen angst. 

Then, in January 2015, Burchill said, “I got this call.” It was the mother of one of Teagan’s friends: “She said that her daughter was really upset because Teagan told her that she wanted to commit suicide. She wanted to die.” 

This suddenly felt like way, way more than normal teen angst. Burchill was shocked.

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“I said, ‘Teagan’s right here. She’s in her room. I just spent all day with her.’ ” She went to Teagan’s room. “I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ Why didn’t you tell me you’re so sad? Why are you just talking to your friends?’ Then I realized that this was an overall theme of the last few months for Teagan. She’d quit talking to her dad and me about how she felt. She was angry a lot. She’d even become distant from her twin brother. She’d only text her friends.”

Eventually, Teagan told her mother that she’d been feeling deeply depressed for about six months but hadn’t wanted to tell her family. She didn’t want anyone to worry, she said. But it was too late: Burchill was now more worried than she’d ever been in her life.

The forest for the trees

From the outside, Teagan’s life looked like a teenage dream. At St. Paul’s Highland Park High, she was named Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player on the softball team. She was also co-captain of the soccer team. She was a member of the National Honor Society and had been elected to the school’s homecoming court.

“She should have been happy,” her mother said. “Things were going so well for her. But during all this time, she told me that she was so sad that she’d been cutting her arms.” Still, on the outside Teagan looked happy. “She’d made all these new friends,” Burchill said. “She started going out a lot, wanting to go to parties. She never went to parties before. I found out that she’d been smoking pot, which was totally different than how she used to be. When I think about it now, in so many ways she wasn’t the same kid anymore.” 

Burchill felt horrible that she hadn’t seen the depth of her daughter’s depression. She knew all too well about mental illness — she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder herself — but when it came to her own child, she’d missed the signs. She felt like a failure.

Burchill’s reaction to her daughter’s distress is common, said Donna Fox, program director for NAMI Minnesota. Fox oversees the mental health advocacy organization’s statewide suicide prevention and postvention efforts.

“Parents are buried in the middle of their children’s emotions,” Fox said. Sometimes it can be hard to see the forest for the trees: Parents are too deeply invested in their children’s lives, too close to the situation to see it clearly.

Teagan Burchill
Courtesy of Jill Burchill
Teagan Burchill Riley

When dealing with young people in severe emotional distress, it can be nearly impossible to tell the difference between behavior that’s potentially life threatening and behavior that’s typically teenage, Fox added.  

“Suicide warning signs for teens are not all that different from the warning signs for adults,” she said. “What’s tough is that a lot of suicidal behavior can look like typical teenager stuff.”

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Fox said that the warning signs of suicide include a person talking about and making plans for suicide. Other warning signs are expressing a sense of hopelessness, or displaying severe, overwhelming emotional pain or distress.

“With youth, the key words here are ‘severe and overwhelming,’ ” Fox said, “because young people are very often distressed and they are very often emotional. Worrisome behavior in teens includes any changes in behavior such as sleeping too much, eating too little or eating too much. Suicidal teens may also talk about being hopeless or withdraw from emotional connections or friendships. Sometimes a teen will stop hanging out with people they used to hang out with.”

Another common sign of suicidality, Fox said, is increased anger and hostility: “In teens, this can come out sideways. Anger is usually directed at the people they love the most. Another warning sign of suicide,” she added, “is increased agitation and irritability. I know that teens are often agitated and irritable, but we are looking for the real extremes.”

For Teagan’s family, life was about to become a series of extremes.

Fight for life

After the January call, Teagan’s parents set out on a panicked race to find psychiatric help for the their youngest daughter.  

Burchill and Teagan’s father, Mike Riley, are no longer romantically involved, but the two came together after the call, united in their mission to save their daughter’s life.

“We went all over the Twin Cities that night trying to find help,” Burchill recalled. “We kept getting false leads as to where there might be open beds. For adolescents it’s really hard to find a place in the Twin Cities. We spent the night in the emergency room.” The family went to several hospitals, and ultimately ended up admitting her at United Hospital in St. Paul. “She didn’t feel safe with herself,” Burchill said.

After the first hospitalization, Teagan was in and out of school. Over the next eight months, she was treated in a number of psychiatric facilities and adolescent day-treatment programs. Nothing seemed to stick.

“She hated every one,” Burchill said. “Counselors told us that she just wouldn’t open up in therapy. She was angry. She said she felt like she was being ‘babysat.’ ”

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After Teagan failed to make progress, she told her mother that she wanted to move to Minneapolis to live with her father. It was spring by then, and the family agreed that Teagan could spend nights with her dad and attend a day program for teens at Fairview Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis.

“Her dad watched her like a hawk,” Burchill said. “He would take her to work with him. He was really careful when she went out. He hid all the sharps in the house. He locked up all his meds. We thought she’d be OK there. Things sometimes get a little wild at my house with all the other kids. I thought that was going to make her feel better.”

But Teagan’s mental health continued to deteriorate.

“In the beginning of July, she tried to jump off the High Bridge,” Burchill said. “She texted her friend first.” Frightened, the friend called police, who drove to the bridge, found Teagan and brought her to United Hospital in St. Paul. 

“She was back in the hospital for about a week,” Burchill said. When Burchill went to see her daughter at the hospital, she recalled: “She was really angry about being in there. She told me, ‘I stopped myself. I didn’t jump. I’m following my plan. I shouldn’t be in here.’ I said, ‘Teagan: They caught you on the bridge. The nurses found all these suicide notes in your backpack. This was a serious attempt.’ She said, ‘But I didn’t do it.’ ”

Burchill wanted to believe that Teagan was making progress, that her attempt was only a way to get attention. But she wasn’t confident.

“I told her, ‘That would be an awful way to die. If you jumped from the bridge, you aren’t going to die right away. You’ll probably break bones. You aren’t going to know how to swim. You’ll probably end up drowning. It’s not like you will just jump in and things are going to be over. You just can’t think that this is going to end all your troubles instantly.’ ”

On a mission

For the last two summers, Teagan had gone on an annual mission trip with the youth group from her church, St. Luke Lutheran in St. Paul’s West Seventh neighborhood. She was signed up for this year’s trip, a multi-church effort to help fix up homes and do repair work in a small Michigan town.

As time for the trip approached, Burchill wasn’t certain that it was still a good idea for her daughter to go. But Teagan insisted that helping others would help her get her mind off her own troubles.

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Teagan hadn’t been looking forward to much lately, but she was looking forward to the mission trip, Burchill said. She loved her friends from the youth group, and she told her mother that spending time away and living the life of a “normal” kid would be good for her.

Burchill talked to her pastor, the Rev. David Person.

“He said he would keep an eye on her,” Burchill said. “We all thought the experience would be good for Teagan. She wanted to go on the trip, and I wanted her to do something that made her happy.”

Teagan Burchill, a big baseball fan, shown in a photo taken at Target Field.
Courtesy of Jill Burchill
Teagan Burchill Riley, a big baseball fan, shown in a photo taken at Target Field.

Person admitted that he had his doubts about taking Teagan on the trip, but he wanted as much as anyone else to help her feel better. “I’d talked with Jill and I knew that Teagan had tried to commit suicide,” he said. “To tell the truth, I was concerned. But I’ve known Teagan for more than a few years and I thought this would be good for her. Both Jill and I agreed to that. And so she came.”

For the first part of the trip, Person said, Teagan seemed to be doing well. In photos taken at project sites she looks happy, relaxed and maybe even a little goofy. 

For the first part of the trip, at least, that’s how Teagan acted, but then during group devotions, her mood took a darker turn.

“She really opened up a couple of times during group,” Person said. “She explained the cuts on her arms, saying she just feels like she wanted to die. The kids were all shocked. They were saying, ‘No, no no, Teagan: You’ve got all this stuff going for you.’ They were really supportive. They reminded her of all her accomplishments and they really built her up,” He paused, and smiled sadly. “I thought I saw a little change in her.” 

But then, a few days later, Person was just settling to sleep on his air mattress when he got a call: “It was one of our kids saying, ‘Something’s wrong with Teagan.’ ”

Person rushed to the girls’ sleeping room. Several were gathered around Teagan, who stared ahead, blankly. “She was just sitting there in a catatonic state,” Person recalled. “Just staring. She wouldn’t speak or answer questions.” Person spoke her name, and when Teagan didn’t answer, he said, “I’m gonna make a phone call.” When she heard this, Teagan spoke. She asked, “’Who are you gonna call?’  She knew I was going to call her mother. And I said, ‘I’m not going to call anyone if you talk to us.’ And so she did.”  

The group sat around for hours and spoke with Teagan, who eventually said, “I want to die. I just want to die so bad.”

Person reacted in the only way he knew how. “I just said,” he recalled, “ ‘Teagan: We don’t want you to die. We want you to live.’ All the kids were holding her and I just said, ‘Teagan: We want you to live and what we will do is we will make a covenant with you. A promise that we’ll walk with you and that when you feel this kind of pain you’ll let us know and we’ll be there.’ ”

Beyond reach

Teagan’s church friends followed up on their promise to support her, Person said. They scheduled a regular weekly meeting at a local coffee shop, where they’d talk about their lives and encourage Teagan to talk about her feelings and any progress she was making in the treatments. 

“They told her,” Person remembered, “ ‘If you need help, call me, and I’ll be there.’ This message wasn’t just for Teagan. It was for others in the group who were going through problems, too. That’s how tight they are.”

Teagan, who turned 17 on Aug. 14, continued to live in Minneapolis under her father’s watchful eye, and in some ways her life seemed to be looking up. With a little help from her brother Thor, she got a job at the St. Paul Saints stadium. This was a dream job, her mother said, because Teagan had always been a serious baseball fan. She’d even played on a West Side boys’ Booster team for years until she switched to softball. She also planned on going back to Highland in the fall, Burchill said. She told her mom that she wanted to join the soccer team.

On the morning of Aug. 20, Teagan went to soccer tryouts at Highland. She was scheduled to work at the stadium later that day, so she went to her mother’s West Side home to shower and change. She rode her bike over the High Bridge toward downtown, and stopped. 

“She locked up her bike, sat by the green chair on the other side and texted her friends,” Burchill said. “She said goodbye and then by the time that they got the text and called the police she had already jumped.” Teagan’s body was found on Aug. 24.

When Person remembers how he heard about Teagan’s death, tears come to his eyes.

“I was driving up north to go on a church canoe trip,” he said. “I made it up the hill right before you go into Duluth and I got a text. My phone was sitting in my cup holder. Normally I don’t look at texts when I’m driving, but I glanced down. It was from Jill. It said, ‘Teagan jumped off the bridge. They’re looking for her body.’ I pulled off the road at a gas station and I called her mom. I said, ‘Are you sure?’ Jill was just sobbing. And so we turned around and drove back. I went right to see Jill. And I just sat with her for a while.”

Community reaction

The way churches, schools and even the media respond to suicide is key in limiting its spread, Fox said. At highly emotional times like the days and weeks following a death, suicide can be contagious: Large memorial services may encourage teenagers and even adults in distress to act impulsively on their own suicidal thoughts.

“Contagion is a danger right now,” Fox said. “I wouldn’t want to be part of that. Kids make that decision really fast. They are still struggling. They are really impulsive. Anyone who’s been through a suicide is at higher risk of a suicide.”

Fox said that counselors from Highland High School contacted her the week after Teagan died.

“Memorials bring people down,” she said. “Research shows that for people who are having thoughts of suicide, especially other kids, a memorial is only going to feed their darkness. I suggested that instead of doing a memorial or planting a tree it is encouraged to do a mental health fair. We supplied them with a lot of educational materials for a booth. That was a really healthy step.”

Fox also said that schools, especially, should not memorialize suicide deaths.

“Leave that to the community,” she said. “What I would recommend in the case of a student suicide is that a school dedicate a room for a week or so after the funeral, a place staffed by grief counselors where kids can go. There they can write poems or letters for the person’s family. This can be a place to go and grieve and talk about the person’s who’s gone.”

Fox, herself a survivor of suicide loss, emphasizes one belief that is at the core of her mental health activism. “Suicide is the most preventable death there is,” she said. “That is hard for people to hear. Loss survivors always push back on that. They believe that nothing could’ve helped their loved ones. I get that. But I still do believe that suicide is preventable.”

Suicide prevention and postvention efforts, Fox said, should be built around that framework: “Suicide is preventable if the signs of suicidality can be identified early enough, if we can catch this stuff and treat it early.”  

Jill Burchill still struggles every day to understand her daughter’s death. Not long after Teagan died, she and Mike met with her psychiatrist to process what happened and to figure out if there was anything else they could have done to keep her alive.

“The psychiatrist said we did everything right,” Burchill said with a heavy sigh. “We just tried everything. She just would not talk. She would not open up. She’d only open up to a few friends. She was really angry, really anxious. She just felt like she wanted to die. She felt like her time was up. She didn’t feel any future for herself. She didn’t think she had anything to live for. She couldn’t see a way out of it.”

Burchill is starting to see a grief counselor, and she’s looking into joining the local chapter of Compassionate Friends, a national group for bereaved parents. She’s also been supportive of various community efforts to “suicide proof” the High Bridge, including posting anti-suicide messages on the sidewalk, installing crisis phones or even adding safety nets when the bridge is up for deck work in 2017.

A suicide hotline number painted onto St. Paul's High Bridge.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
A suicide hotline number painted onto St. Paul’s High Bridge.

Lately, however, Burchill has been more focused on remembering Teagan before her  slide into depression.  

“She was little,” she said of her daughter. “She was very tough, very strong for her size and age, very athletic. She did really well in school, almost always straight As. She was the first one to do chores if I asked her. I didn’t have to harass her like everybody else. At Christmas she’d go on the Internet and order stuff for me and the rest of the family. She was just really kind to other people.”

A few days after Teagan’s death, Burchill saw a counselor at her church. The counselor came up with a suggestion that Burchill and her other children tried to adopt.

“One thing she said was that every day we should all think of a memory of Teagan and write it down,” Burchill said. “We did that for a bit, but then it just made us feel too bad so we quit. We’re still struggling. For now, anyhow, we’re just keeping the good memories of her inside our heads. Hopefully we’ll be able to let them out again soon.”