ELYRIA — When they thought back on it, everyone said it was a normal Saturday night.
“It was summertime, so here in our house that meant everybody was up late, watching movies, hanging out, just being a family,” said Lisa Beckett.
Her house on Oak Street always had been the neighborhood gathering spot, with room for one more always open. Lisa and her husband, Rodney Beckett, live there with their five children and their two extra sons: Eric Little and Brenden Rich-Beckett. The teens were their nephews but had lived with the Becketts since 2009, when the couple gained legal custody.
Nobody cared about titles, or got tripped up on “nephews” or “cousins.” They were family. Siblings. Sons.
The rate of suicide is growing in the United States, across every demographic.
According to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control in June, rates of suicide have increased nearly 30 percent across the nation from 1999 to 2016, including a more than 30 percent increase in Ohio during that time period.
The rate, in 2016, is nearly four times higher among men (21.2 percent per 100,000 people) than women (6 percent).
“The increases are alarming. So much so that the federal government, the state government and here locally with the (Lorain County) Board of Mental Health, there is quite a lot of energy going into solving the problem,” said Eric Morse, executive director of The Nord Center, on Friday.
Morse said local experts in the field also are seeing a rise in suicide among Lorain County residents. According to figures from Blanche Dortch of the Lorain County Mental Health Board, suicides increased from 22 (of 100,000 people) in 1999 to 43 (of 100,000) in 2016.
These numbers did not include those who die in another county, or those from other counties who die in Lorain County.
By that definition, that number would not include cases like Brenden Rich-Beckett’s, who died in a Cleveland hospital several days after a suicide attempt.
In Lorain County, a suicide hotline is staffed by clinicians through the center around the clock.
That toll-free number is (800) 888-6161.
“It doesn’t matter if it is a child or an adult. If someone in Lorain County feels like they are contemplating suicide, they can call us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year.
“They can call us, consult with us, or someone can come here and get an assessment,” Morse said.
Even family members or concerned friends may call to make a referral “and we will work directly with that person to get to them to get help,” he said.
The county board promotes the Navigator, a helpline to connect adults or children to mental health services. That number is (440) 240-7025 and is available for English- and Spanish-speaking clients 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, and can accept messages.
Suicide among teens has shown a “slight increase,” Morse said, but the biggest group historically has been, and continues to be, white men in the 40s to 50s age group. Having access to a firearm increases that risk. According to the CDC report, 54 percent of suicide victims do not have a history of mental health issues. Among that group, firearms is by far the means of death. Gun-related suicides outnumber firearm-related deaths of other categories, Morse said.
Morse said that while mental health professionals cannot pinpoint for certain what is driving the numbers up, he said some issues are known risk factors.
People with higher risk of suicide include those with a history of past suicidal behaviors; current or past psychiatric issues, such as depression, anxiety, substance use disorders or diagnoses such as schizophrenia; complaints of hallucinations or inability to sleep; or anyone expressing low energy, excessive physical pain or hopelessness.
“Take those things and add life stressors to them and there’s reason for further concern,” Morse said.
Life stressors that are particularly worrying can be anything that can lead to humiliation, despair or shame, such as the loss of a relationship, a job, or the diagnosis of a severe illness or debilitating condition. Anyone who is seeking treatment and suddenly stops should also raise concern.
Often, the concern over the availability of mental health treatment can be a concern. Too often, people who are uninsured or under-insured think they cannot afford to seek help. Sometimes even those who can afford help will not seek it, due to a perceived stigma of “needing” psychiatric help, he said.
“All services we provide through the Crisis Line are free. And we work with people to figure out the best place to go to meet their insurance or financial needs. Thanks to our local mental health board and the citizens of Lorain County who are so generous with the mental health levy, there is assistance to get them the help they need,” he said.
There also is the national Crisis Text Line, which is not operated by Nord but works with local crisis counselors to find local help, he said. The text line is free and confidential, Morse said, and organizers say accessing the service does not appear on cell phone bills. The anonymous line aims to help younger customers who may feel more comfortable seeking anonymous, text-based help, and is available to anyone facing issues of anxiety or depression, not necessarily only suicidal thoughts.
To access that help, text 4HOPE to 741741. Organizers say responses will be texted within minutes, although texts including the words “suicide” or other keywords will be bumped up in priority.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is (800) 273-TALK (8255). For information about resources and chat online, visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
“I think if a parent sees any warning signs that are concerning, it’s always better to reach out for help, so that someone else can give a professional opinion on it. People think if they call the crisis hotline, they’re automatically put in the hospital. In 70 percent of the cases we go out on, they stay in the home, they’re stabilized without hospitalization or other things to cause further disruption in the home,” Morse said.
The first clue — the only clue, maybe — was so easily overlooked.
Sixteen-year-old Brenden, called Bren, was messing around, painting his sister’s toenails.
“Take a picture with me,” said Tierra, one of a set of 16-year-old twins. Sierra and Tierra are only three months younger than Bren and they all were raised together since Feb. 9, 2009, the date Bren came to live — for good — with the Becketts.
“No. I don’t want to.”
“Want to watch a movie with me?” she asked.
“No. I want to go to my bedroom,” he told her.
During that day, June 30, the family’s backyard was full of teens swimming, adults barbecuing, music going. Bren, who loved animals and loved his 3-year-old twin nephews, pulled out the slide for the boys and horsed around with them like usual.
Lisa Beckett remembers he was always the first one to volunteer to go with the boys to the splash pad at West Park or walk the family dog.
His aunt Heather Little Lopez said he always greeted her with a big, enveloping hug.
“He was the most loving kid. He was always smiling. You would never — never, never, never — know,” Lopez said.
His best friend had been staying overnight since school let out at Elyria High, where Bren was on the football and track teams. That night, though, he was spending it with his brother but planned to return within a day or so.
Bren went up to his room in the evening and pulled up the social media app Snapchat on a phone he wasn’t supposed to be using. He blocked every family member who was in the house at the time.
Then he posted: “If I killed myself, would anyone care?”
Upstairs, Lisa and Rodney Beckett had just finished putting together two toddler beds for their grandboys. It was nearing 1 a.m. Lisa fell asleep. So did Rodney.
In his room, Bren texted another brother, Tracy. Tracy and Bren were born 21 hours apart from different mothers and were very close, despite living apart. “Bro, I love you.”
Then one more post to Snapchat: “This may be my final good-bye.”
One floor above Bren’s bedroom, twin Sierra was hanging out in her room when she got a call. One of Bren’s sisters — he has nine siblings, not counting the Becketts — texted, and asked that she have Eric take the phone to Bren.
The brothers were downstairs, installing a Firestick on the television. Eric took a minute before going to Bren’s room to pass along the message.
He found Bren.
“BREN HUNG HIMSELF!”
The scream followed her oldest son, bursting through her bedroom door. Lisa Beckett, who had just fallen asleep, woke up in a panic.
“Bren hurt himself?” she asked.
By now Rodney Beckett was wide awake and had heard correctly.
“Oh, man. It bolted me dead up out of my sleep. ‘BREN HUNG HIMSELF!’ We took off.”
“BREN HUNG HIMSELF. HE HUNG HIMSELF!”
Minutes — and an entire life — had passed in mere seconds. The couple rushed down the stairs to find Bren, their Bren, the boy with so much potential and the always-smiling face, lying on the floor of his bedroom. Lisa Beckett remembers instantly launching into CPR; Rodney Beckett remembers her screaming.
“I will never, ever forget that sound. Even now, just thinking about that excruciating scream, I got chills on my arms,” he said.
She didn’t stop until paramedics took over. There was no note, no clue, no hint. Just his body, hanging from the Playstation cord wrapped around the post of his bunk bed.
Bren was taken to nearby University Hospitals Elyria Medical Center, then flown to Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland. He was on life support for days while more than 200 people visited him, hoping and praying for him to pull out of it.
They thought maybe he would. His vitals looked good, he would occasionally breathe for himself, his heart rate was good, he had a gag reflex. Sierra said she would talk to him and he would squeeze her hand.
Lisa Beckett left his side twice: to attend her grandfather’s funeral July 2, and for a brief trip to the Ronald McDonald House on July 5 so the twins could take a shower. Sierra was in the shower when her mom yelled their dad had called and they needed to get back to the hospital, right away.
“The doctors told me it would get worse before it would get better,” Rodney Beckett said. “And by worse… well, there was no point of return.”
The doctors told them only medicine was keeping him alive, and that they could do no more. Lisa Beckett laid her head on his bed and sobbed into his blankets as he died.
Today marks the 10th day since Bren has been gone.
His family, his friends, his classmates — everyone is still asking themselves “Why?”
The only trouble in his life of late, both Lisa and Rodney Beckett said, was being grounded for bad grades at the end of the year. Bren was on the junior varsity football team and the track team at Elyria High and it was important to the Becketts that he maintain decent grades and athletic eligibility.
“I’d been looking out for him always, from the time he was born,” Rodney Beckett.
Bren was the son of Rodney’s brother, and Lisa Beckett said that even before the boys came to live with them, the Becketts made sure the kids had Christmas gifts and took them along on trips to water parks and Cedar Point.
“I knew he was an athlete from when he was little. I put him into sports as soon as he got here. He was on the Little Pioneers traveling basketball team. Won championships,” Rodney Beckett said, with sad pride. “He was grounded for his grades, so he didn’t have his cell phone or his PlayStation, but he had full range of the house. He was still out, playing basketball, swimming in the pool.”
Lisa Beckett said Bren was seeing a counselor 10 years ago when he was first removed from his parents’ custody and moved to the Becketts, but he had long seemed adjusted and happy. Once he hit high school, his grades had started to slide and he had gotten into some trouble requiring a trip to juvenile court. They figured it was fall-out from the turbulence of puberty, hormones, and dealing with the problems of his birth family.
After his death, though, they’ve heard things.
Bren may have discussed suicide with a brother, but the boys kept it to themselves.
Lisa Beckett heard he was meeting with a counselor at school, but if he was, nothing was brought to her attention that it was serious enough to continue therapy outside of school.
“If I would have known, we would have gotten him help. He would’ve gotten all the help he needed to be well,” she said. “Now I’m going to be getting all of us into counseling (to deal with Bren’s death). Including myself.”
Lisa Beckett said she and her husband were fully involved in their children’s lives, spending time as a family and supporting their athletic or educational endeavors. Rodney Beckett said he regularly would check in with his kids, casually, just to see if they needed anything, showing his boys — all his boys – how to become men.
“I was trying my best. Just them watching me go to work every day, making sure everybody was taken care of. He was grounded because of his grades because I didn’t want him to end up not finishing high school. I wanted him to go on to college. Be somebody. Not be like me, just a roofer,” Rodney Beckett said. “You can never tell. Never. I always asked him questions. We had talks by ourselves. Just being a parent, I’d always ask my kids: ‘You all right? What’s going on? He’d say ‘yes, Uncle Rodney, I’m good.’ And I’d say ‘OK. You need something, you let me know.’ “
Lisa Beckett said she doesn’t think Brenden wanted to die.
“I don’t think he meant to kill himself. I think he wanted somebody to walk in and find him tying the rope or something. My older son had just passed by and seen him in his bed within 10 minutes before (they found him),” she said. “And Brenden had called his friend at 1 a.m. and was just breathing into the phone. The friend thought he was playing a joke, so he hung up. Bren called back and just kept breathing into the phone. He hung up. They were always pranking each other.”
While he was still in the hospital, his sisters planned a pool party at their house to raise money for the family’s extensive medical bills. Friends donated food and the girls sold wristbands for entry. It ended up being held just days after Bren died.
More than 300 people — Bren’s friends, families, neighbors, classmates and coaches — showed up to support the Becketts, raising more than $2,000. About 150 showed up at the family’s home for a balloon release the day before.
At both, Rodney Beckett gave an impromptu speech.
“I just wanted them to know that this was an eye-opener. And that this is never the answer. Never. And if anyone of them, ever, feels this way to call me and I will be there for them and if I can’t help, I will help them get help,” he said. “I just want to save kids’ lives, if I can.”
Bren’s sister Sierra says the same thing. She remembers a friend who faced tremendous bullying in school and she was her only friend because no one else would be. The girl is doing good now but so many pressures could have made that story just as different as Bren’s.
And Lopez, his aunt, said if a child who was socially involved, in a loving family, with adults willing to provide help for him, could do something so desperate and so final, any child could be at risk.
“It’s possible for any of them. He was always smiling, he was happy-go-lucky, he was happy. Nothing he went through was out of the ordinary. Nothing. He was going through puberty, girls, he was a teen-ager. Nothing drastic,” Lopez said.
Lisa Beckett wonders how much of his childhood may have proved inescapable, after all. His father is not involved in his life and mental illness and substance abuse affects his lineage, she said.
“Somebody told me that he had recently said he just wished he was loved by his real mom and dad,” she said, trying to reconcile that with the crowds who have been showing up to show support to his family and visiting him in the hospital. “I just don’t know, if he thought he wasn’t loved, how he couldn’t see that.”