SALT LAKE CITY — They knew the warning signs. They talked to their sons. Read their texts and monitored social media. Still, two Utah families say they never saw suicide coming.
Looking back, they see the importance of speaking out, sharing their stories and changing cultures to try and keep other families from experiencing the same tragedy.
“Nathan was up at 5:30 in the morning, with friends, to go work out,” David Cowsert said of his son’s busy teenage life. “He was active with his friends at school. He played lacrosse with his friends after. I was doing things with him. He was not just a ‘sit in his room’ kind of kid.”
Seventeen-year-old Nate Cowsert seemed to do it all. He was a solid student, worked hard at his job and enjoyed the outdoors. But his passion was lacrosse. He was captain of the Box Elder High Bees and making plans for the future when in an instant, everything changed. Cowsert took his own life, stunning his teammates, family and the Brigham City community.
“It didn’t make sense,” said Jason Shipp, father of Cowsert’s teammate Jeremy Shipp. Jason Shipp, an EMT, had responded to the 911 call. “I couldn’t believe it. He was an amazing kid, had a great support system, lots of friends… Looking back, I wish I would have done something or done more. I certainly didn’t ever think that it would be my son next.”
Six months after the death of their captain, the Bees lacrosse team learned they’d lost another one of their own. Sixteen-year-old Jeremy Shipp had taken his life. It was another heartbreaking blow seemingly out of the blue.
“He was good at everything that he did,” Jason Shipp recalled of his son. “He did seem to be a natural. When he decided to do something, he was all in. He would study it and learn about it and then do it. He taught himself to play the guitar.”
I couldn’t believe it. He was an amazing kid, had a great support system, lots of friends …
Jeremy’s love of music was rivaled only by his love of lacrosse. He also enjoyed the outdoors and was a fan of fitness.
“He was my best friend,” his dad said. “We did so many things together.”
Following Nathan’s death, Jason Shipp had checked on his son. Looking through his phone he found something that worried him.
“He had sent a text to a friend that said he had thought about this, thought about suicide,” he said. “So I confronted him about it the next day and he said, ‘Yeah, Dad. I thought about it. But I would never do it. It was just a thought.’ Obviously, looking back, I wish I would have done more.”
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.
Information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Looking back is all that’s left for these parents, but they hope their experiences can be a lesson for others looking forward.
“I think he was overstretched,” Cowsert said of his son’s schedule shortly before his death. “It was actually the one thing we were arguing about, he and I. He used to tease me about it, that I was the only parent he knew that was arguing for the child to do less, work less, study less because I felt he was burning the candle at both ends.”
Cowser’s mom, Nettie Goins, said she recognized that what may seem like a small concern to a parent can feel like a much bigger deal to a teenager.
“Our children are having to deal with lots of problems that to them seem huge,” she said. “Breaking up with a girlfriend. Wrecking their car or being in trouble at school ... All of these little things affect our children. It could be big or small.”
Experts agree. Whether the stress is from school, sports or somewhere else, teen brains process pressure different than adults. They are more impulsive and they feel things more intensely.
“I think that we should encourage young men to talk about their feelings,” said Jason Shipp. “Jeremy grew up sharing his feelings as much as I thought any young man would. But obviously, he kept some of the deepest ones to himself.”
What to do if you see warning signs of suicide
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
- Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
- Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
Lacrosse coach Juan Gaytan is trying to do just that. Following the two tragedies that hit his team, Gaytan changed his coaching tactics. He now spends more time with his nearly three-dozen players off the field. They have lunch and talk openly.
“I think it shows them that someone cares,” Gaytan said. “It shows them that someone’s listening and to them, that’s important.”
Shipp hopes everyone will change their tactics.
“We need to figure out why this is happening and do what we can to stop it. Jeremy was a light to anybody that was around him, but he’s no longer here to share that light with anyone else … I always thought that it couldn’t happen in my family. I always thought, ‘Certainly not Jeremy,’ It can happen and I don’t know the answer.”
There are no definitive answers or one-size-fits-all plan for parents who are trying to protect their children. But there are places to find help. If you’ve noticed a change in your child’s behavior or are concerned about their mental health, there’s a symptom checker at the Child Mind Institute’s website.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
- Utah County Crisis Line: 801-226-4433
- Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
- Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386