Allison Doss thought her family was exempt from what she calls the “silent epidemic” of youth suicide.
She had lost her father and her stepfather to suicide, but she never thought she’d lose her daughter, Sara Prideaux.
But on July 30 of last year, the 16-year-old from Lenexa killed herself — and created a new mission for her mother.
Since Sara’s death, Doss has been working to educate other teens and parents about youth suicide.
“I would give anything to be able to have the conversation with Sara — to be able to ask her if she was struggling, if she was having a bad day,” Doss said. “To tell her it’s OK to have a bad day, just to talk to me. So I have encouraged everybody that I have encountered to have the conversation. Ask them, ‘Are you OK?’ And keep having the conversation.”
Life is never the same after losing a child to suicide, Doss said.
“Losing a child is like losing who you are,” she said. “Your total existence changes, and you’re not sure what the next day looks like. Some days you can see a little light, and some days you can’t even get out of bed in the morning.”
For Cathy Housh, who lost her 16-year-old daughter Cady to suicide on Nov. 9, 2014, it didn’t matter if the world kept going or not. Just putting one foot in front of the other can be next to impossible, Housh said.
That’s why Housh, Doss and other parents are advocating to bring the Jason Flatt Act to Kansas.
Jason Flatt died by suicide in 1997, and his father Clark now runs the Jason Foundation, which sponsors the Jason Flatt Act. The act, which has been adopted in 16 states, requires all certified teachers and principals to complete suicide prevention training every year.
On Thursday, the Kansas Senate Education Committee recommended approval of an amended version of Senate Bill 323 to create the Jason Flatt Act in Kansas and sent it to the full Senate for consideration.
Advocates of the Jason Flatt Act hope the training will help school employees identify students at risk of suicide and get them the help they need. Doss and Housh both said the act could have saved their daughters, but in different ways.
Cady and Sara
Sara had a 4.7 grade-point average as a rising junior at Shawnee Mission South High School. She was fluent in Spanish. She spoke Italian and knew sign language, Doss said.
“She could’ve gotten D’s and I wouldn’t have cared,” Doss said. “She didn’t get her 4.7 from me, that’s for sure.”
Sara adored penguins, including her stuffed penguin Bob, which is also what Sara’s friends called her.
“If you looked at her obituary, it says Sara ‘Bob’ Prideaux because to all of her close friends, she went by Bob,” Doss said. “It was like her alter ego. Bob could take on the world. Sara was more of the reserved, quiet — the girl never got in trouble. She didn’t know what trouble was.”
Cady was a junior at Olathe Northwest High School. She was an amazing athlete and student, Housh said. She had a strong bond with her friends and she was always laughing.
She loved animals so much Housh had to drag her out of pet stores and sternly tell her she would not be coming out of the store with another pet that day. Cady cried when Housh made her release a turtle she caught in the backyard.
“She wrote Santa Claus three years in a row for a little black-and-white puppy,” Housh said. “She already had one dog, so Santa Claus finally gave in. But she loved, loved animals.”
Seeing the signs
Housh said Cady had a gastrointestinal problem that caused her severe, chronic physical pain. Her parents separated when she was 15, and soon after her mother said she started to notice a change. Cady drove recklessly and was arrested for shoplifting. In two months, she missed 65 classes.
“The whole thing was about, ‘I’m not feeling well, I need help. Look at me,’” Housh said.
But Housh never thought Cady would end her life.
“I was concerned that she was spiraling, and I thought maybe she would start thinking about maybe dabbling in drugs,” she said.
Had the school been better equipped to get Cady help, it might have helped save her, Housh said. She said she thinks the Jason Flatt Act would save other lives, which is what Cady would have wanted.
The signs aren’t always obvious. Doss said Sara’s death came as a complete shock.
“Sara did a very good job of hiding it from me,” Doss said. “And she was my best friend. Her and I had conversations. I didn’t see it. I thought it was just normal teenage issues.”
Doss said hindsight is 20/20, and now she thinks some of Sara’s actions were signs, but at the time they appeared to be normal teenage issues. Sara, who was normally quiet and reserved, seemed excited in the weeks before her death.
“She would have spurts of anger that I just considered teenage,” she said. “You get mad at your mom sometimes, you get into an argument.”
One of the hardest things for Doss and Sara’s father, Jason Prideaux, to come to terms with was that they couldn’t fix what Sara had done, she said.
“As a mom, I’m supposed to fix everything, but I can’t,” she said.
Healing is a slow, difficult process. It was hard to find resources at first, Doss said, until she started talking about Sara.
“There’s not a lot of support or people who understand unless you get out there and talk about it,” she said. “And now that I talk about it a whole lot more, I’m finding more support. … And that was really hard, to find a therapist that understood grief and suicide and the right fit.”
There are still some days that are harder than others, she said. Sometimes she goes into Sara’s room, which she hasn’t changed and is still wall-to-wall penguins, to talk to her or yell at her. The unanswered questions are tough to wrestle with, she said.
“What could we have done differently? Why didn’t she let us help her? Her dad and I fixed everything,” Doss said. “If I didn’t know how, he did. And if he didn’t know how, I had my husband. He had his wife. She had four people who adored her to death. We would’ve done anything for her, but she never reached out.”
That’s why Doss is starting the SPEAK Up Foundation — Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids United as Partners — to educate others about youth suicide and remind people to speak up. The group has made rubber bracelets. On the inside, there’s a hidden message that blends into the bracelet, but the raised letters say, “When in doubt, reach out.”
“Our hope is that they’ll feel this and think, ‘I need to reach out,’” she said.
Housh said she hasn’t healed as much as she had hoped since Cady’s death. But she has been trying to be an advocate because she doesn’t want other parents to go through what she has.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” she said.
To the Legislature
After Cady’s death, Housh discovered the Jason Foundation and the Jason Flatt Act. The website links to a list of state ambassadors. Not expecting Kansas or Missouri to be on the list, she clicked on it and found that Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt was an ambassador.
“That’s when I called the attorney general’s office, and I said, ‘He’s an ambassador, so I know his position. I think that I’d like to see if there’s any way I can speak to him or someone there about what do we do to get the act involved.’ That’s really when the door opened on this,” she said.
After meeting with Dorothy Halley, director of victim services for Schmidt’s office, Housh went to work to find organizations to support the bill. That led her to a meeting of the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, where she presented the act and then met with lobbyists who suggested she talk to Sen. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican.
Smith’s 18-year-old daughter, Kelsey, was murdered in 2007. He testified at the hearing for the Jason Flatt Act and said he didn’t want other parents to feel the pain of losing a child.
“The hardest thing I ever had to hear was that my daughter was dead,” he said. “And the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do since then is live every day. Losing a child is like losing your soul.”
Housh said she worked with Smith to introduce SB 323.
“So sure enough, Senator Smith and I connected and I spent a couple hours with him and we talked about getting this bill drafted and he would submit it to committee,” she said. “And that’s exactly what the dear man did, and next thing you know, this is where we’re at.”
The bill has support in Kansas from mental health professionals, the Kansas National Education Association and parents. It also drew neutral but supportive testimony Jan. 26 at the Statehouse from some education organizations.
The hope is to keep other parents from feeling the same grief Housh and Doss have endured.
“I mean, you walk around with this giant hole in your chest all the time,” Doss said. “It doesn’t ever lessen. It’s like, a person who ends their life takes their pain and now we carry it every day, over and over and over again.”
“I feel comfortable that Cady’s not in pain anymore, that she’s in a happy place,” Housh said. “But she would want us to do whatever we could to stop this from others. I’m sure when I get there, she’ll say, ‘Mom, I’m sorry.’ And then I’m going to hug her for a thousand years and then I’m going to ground her for a thousand. She can’t play with the angels. She has to sit on my lap.”
Allison Kite is an intern at KHI News Service, one of Heartland Health Monitor’s partners.