Open to talk: Turning grief into positive actions

  • Jeffrey White named the front porch of his Loudon home “Alec’s Porch” in honor of his son. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jeffrey White at his home in Loudon. White lost his son, Alec, to suicide in 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Martha Dickey speaks with Gov. Chris Sununu about SB 234, which has been named the Jason Dickey Suicide Prevention Act in honor of her son, on Aug. 3. Monitor file

  • Jason Dickey Courtesy

  • Alec White Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 11/21/2022 4:34:56 PM

He was an incredible athlete. He could ski and do front, back, and side flips that would make anyone jealous. In everything he tried, he excelled. He was a daredevil.

That’s how Jeffrey White remembers his son Alec.

In November 2017, White lost his 16-year-old son to suicide.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident at Merrimack Valley High School. Jason Dickey, another high schooler, died by suicide less than two months before Alec.

Despite his incomparable loss, White, like other suicide survivors, has worked to bring meaning and purpose to the tragedy.

In the years since Alec and Jason’s deaths, White said he has seen a massive increase in people willing to seek mental healthcare.

“Suicide is not a positive change, but it encourages growth and some change,” said White, who said he still thinks about his son daily.

“Alec was a great little brother and a big brother to many friends and friends of friends at school,” said White. “He was funny, sarcastic and just a typical kid.”

However, Alec underwent significant changes after December 2016. He was no longer cheerful. During that year, he started to withdraw, battled depression and anxiety, and attempted suicide several times.

Alec’s family gave him all the tools they could – psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers – to fight his mental illness. But, it didn’t work.

Compared to national figures, children in New Hampshire have a significantly higher ratio of mental health issues. The National Survey of Children’s Health found that 12.6% of the state’s youth suffer from one or more emotional, behavioral, or developmental disorders.

The state has passed legislation to support children going through a mental health crisis in part due to the work of Jason Dickey’s parents, Martha and Paul.

While the grief of losing her son will never go away, Martha Dickey tries to honor him through acts of kindness and making donations to nonprofits that help with mental health in Jason’s name.

“It doesn’t bring him back,” she said. “But the more that you can keep their memory alive has ultimately helped us in my family.”

Dickey was a driving force behind a bill that was approved in 2019 requiring New Hampshire schools to train staff on suicide prevention and create procedures for responding to student suicides.

Following Jason’s death, the state passed the Jason Dickey Suicide Prevention Act, which required student ID cards to include the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 988.

“I often wonder if Jason had seen the helpline number on his student ID, would he have reached out for help?” she said.

Now, Dickey is working to have a law approved that will allow students in public schools to take a “mental health day.” It would let students take an excused absence when they feel anxious, depressed or struggle with other mental and behavioral health conditions.

“Mental well-being is just as important as physical well-being,” she said. “They’d be like sick days spent focusing on your mental health.”

Twelve states across the country, including Maine and Connecticut, allow students to take mental health days. Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland have proposed bills but they haven’t been signed into law.

White believes that teenagers suffer in a “society of instant gratification” that often does not afford the time and space to work through complex issues. Mental illness is not something that can be treated immediately. It’s a long-term process, he said.

“You have to take the time to recognize a mental health issue,” he said. “We also need to improve our patience and that of our children.”

Less than a month after his loss, White became associated with NAMI’s Survivors of Suicide Loss, a support group for persons who have lost their loved ones to suicide.

Opening up and talking about the impact of his son’s death helped him slowly feel better. Before he went to the meeting with the support group, he had so many unanswered questions.

Is it normal to start crying when you’re by yourself in a vehicle for no reason at all? Is it normal to talk to your loved one? Is it normal to sleep or stay up excessively?

“To find out that all of those things are normal and I’m okay was reassuring,” he said.

Like Martha and Paul Dickey, White made the decision to use his personal experience as a survivor of a suicide loss to help those who were suffering.

This year he participated in the NAMI Walks NH event and raised over $7,000 to benefit families and individuals with mental illnesses.

One way to support teenagers and adolescents is for schools and teachers to provide mental health and suicide prevention education.

“Teachers have our children for more hours per week than parents do,” White explained. “At the end of the class, take five minutes to ask how everyone is doing and tell them that my door is always open.”

White emphasized the importance of having open communication and empathizing with each other’s difficulties to help the community combat the mental health crisis.

“Open minds, open mouths, open ears and open hearts,” he said.

If you need help

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

Veterans: Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Support for deaf and hard of hearing individuals is available.

Crisis Text Line: Free, 24/7 support for those in crisis. Text 741741 from anywhere in the US to text with a trained Crisis Counselor.

Trans Lifeline: Call 1-877-565-8860 for a hotline staffed by transgender people for transgender people. Trans Lifeline volunteers are ready to respond to whatever support needs community members might have.

Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 1-800-985-5990 for a 24/7 national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster.

The Trevor Project: A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth. If you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call 1-866-488-7386 to connect with a trained counselor.

The LGBT National Help Center: Call 1-888-843-4564. Open to callers of all ages. Provides peer-counseling, information, and local re sources.

Sruthi Gopalakrishnan

Sruthi Gopalakrishnan covers environmental and energy stories in Bow, Hopkinton, Dunbarton and Warner for the Concord Monitor. In 2022, she graduated from Northwestern University with a master's degree in journalism, specializing in investigative reporting. She also has a bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Engineering and is always looking for new ways to incorporate data and visual elements into her stories. Her work has appeared in Energy News Network, Prism Reports and Crain's Chicago Business.

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