Jennifer Stuber knew her husband, Matt Adler, had been suffering from stress at his job as a corporate attorney in 2010, but she had no idea how bad things were until the call came. Of course she was concerned. Anyone would be if their spouse was too depressed and anxious to do their job. And that’s exactly what happened to Matt, who went from being a well-respected international corporate attorney who had established DLA Piper’s law office in Beijing to a lawyer whose battles with depression left him unable to focus for more than five minutes at a time. Even though he was spending 15-hour days at his office, he found himself only able to bill for two hours of work.
Out of concern that he was unable to function and fearing that he was losing his mind, Matt took a leave of absence from his job. While some might call it a mental-health break, the 40-year-old didn’t see it that way, Stuber says. Instead, he felt stigmatized, shamed and discouraged over what he called “a broken brain.”
“I was in denial,” Stuber says. That was until her children’s nanny found a disturbing receipt in the trash and phoned her with the news. “I think,” the nanny told her, “Matt has bought a gun.”
What started as the UW School of Social Work assistant professor’s ill-fated effort to save her husband has done more than just push Stuber to help get two new suicide-prevention laws passed and create Forefront, a UW-based organization to help prevent suicide across the region. If she has her way, it may also change the way people see the problem. Of the many myths about suicide, one that Stuber is incredibly keen on challenging is the myth that if someone wants to die by suicide, there is nothing you can do to stop them. Rather, she emphasizes, most people who are suicidal do not want to die; they want to stop their pain.
“Suicide is not a personal problem, it’s a public-health issue and prevention is possible,” says Sue Lockett John, a spokesperson for Forefront. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for more than 38,000 deaths every year, including nearly 1,000 in Washington state alone. Stuber wasn’t thinking in big-picture terms when she first focused on the issue; she was focused on her husband’s well-being. When she confronted him, he admitted that he had spent an evening in a hotel room with a gun when she thought he was at work. He admitted considering suicide, but told her he decided against it because, as he put it, “I was worried how much shame you would feel.”
After promising he wouldn’t consider suicide again, they both went to return the gun to the store where he bought it, Stuber says, adding, “It was a humiliating experience for him.”
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last trip Matt made to a gun store. Two major steps that initially appeared to be steps in the right direction both backfired, making matters worse. Instead of easing his stress, Matt’s leave from his job had the unintended result of being a daily reminder of his mental-health disorder that robbed his ability to focus.
“Everybody knows I’ve thrown my career in the gutter,” Stuber recalls him saying. The negative stereotypes about mental illness are so powerful, and Matt internalized them. Stuber learned after his death that Matt’s employer was not aware of the underlying health issue that caused him to take a leave, but he felt so much shame nonetheless. She doubts her husband would have felt shame if his leave of absence was for cancer or a heart condition. Sleepless, anxious and unable to find the right medication to ease his depression, he switched psychotherapists, opting for one who came highly recommended. When Matt told him that he was considering suicide, the therapist refused to treat him further and accused him of having an avoidant personality disorder.
“This person was his last hope,” she says.
“I’ve talked to many professionals [since] and that’s just inappropriate. There were a whole bunch of things that should have been done at that point,” Stuber says, ticking off a list that included an assessment of his suicide risk and the development of a plan for care that is consistent with the risk he posed to himself. These things never actually happened. She says what her husband needed was compassion and ongoing support. Despite the inadequate care that her husband received, Stuber stresses she still believes people enter into the health-care and mental-health professions to help others. But, she believes many within these professions don’t realize the role and responsibility they have in the prevention of suicide.
Adler died by suicide Feb. 18, 2011, leaving behind his wife, a 5-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter.
“He was in unbearable pain. His suicide was an illogical act of grief over what he saw as the loss of his mind and the belief that his family would be better off without him,” Stuber said in a biography she wrote for the website Making Everlasting Memories (mem.com). “Matt was a brilliant man who held himself to the highest of standards. He couldn’t accept anything less than ‘perfect’ and sadly, the knowledge that he had a mental illness represented that for him.”
Stuber wants others to know that while her husband’s story ended in tragedy, there is hope for others in despair. She also says she wishes Matt had known how much he would be missed by his family.
Many suicide survivors might not have had the strength to turn the experience into something positive, but Stuber isn’t just any survivor. Her research focus on public policy and the stigmatization of mental-health issues made her uniquely qualified to undertake the effort.
Watching Stuber talk about suicide prevention in two appearances on a local afternoon television show is like watching two different people. In the first, a year after Matt’s death, she wears a brown vest and white shirt, her hair often obscures her eyes and there are moments when she seems on the verge of tears. In the second, taped 18 months later, she’s wearing a beige jacket, a bright pink blouse, is all smiles and looks and sounds confident as she talks about a fundraiser for Forefront. Fast forward two months and she turns philosophical as she sits in a conference room in the School of Social Work Library on a warm November morning between quarters and prepares to retell the story she’s told so many times before.
“It’s complicated for a spouse,” she says. There are few books to help husbands and wives work their way through the resulting emotions and unanswered questions left when the unthinkable happens.
She not only had to figure out how to be a single parent and understand what had happened, she also wanted to determine how she would turn her grief into service. She found her focus early when she met with a suicide prevention expert who told her, “I’m really sorry for your loss, but mental-health professionals may or may not have the training to deal with this.”
That suicide expert turned into Stuber’s most cherished collaborator, Sue Eastgard, ’71, ’88. Indeed, Stuber learned how accurate Eastgard’s comments were when she reviewed her husband’s medical records and found emails between his psychiatrist and psychotherapist showing that they were more upset that Matt was putting them in a difficult position than they were about getting him the help he needed.
“To me that was really shocking,” she recalls.
Most suicides are preventable with the right intervention, says Eastgard, Forefront’s co-founder and training director. Unfortunately, many survivors have learned there are quite a few health-care professionals who aren’t up to the task because they haven’t had the proper training. Part of the problem may be the taboo surrounding suicide. Eastgard notes suicide was considered a sin, states have outlawed it, insurance companies sometimes won’t pay benefits to survivors. Others see it as the ultimate selfish act and believe talking about it only makes it worse.
She says she understands it’s hard to talk about, but adds, “Why wouldn’t we teach something that can prevent premature deaths from happening?” Relying on her public policy background, Stuber partnered with Eastgard and State Rep. Tina Orwall, ’88, ’91, to pass the Matt Adler Suicide Assessment, Treatment and Management Act of 2012. The legislation made Washington the first state to require that all mental-health professionals receive six hours of suicide prevention training every six years. They followed up in 2013 by pushing for passage of a law that increases a school’s ability to intervene with troubled students who have expressed suicidal thoughts.
“It’s not easy passing bills, but the hard part is implementation,” Orwall says, adding that she is confident that Forefront is the right organization for the job. She also hopes to expand the 501c3 organization’s scope by passing a law requiring similar education for doctors and nurses.
Providing suicide-prevention training to health-care providers, teachers and school counselors is just a small part of the organization’s focus, however. It’s all part of an effort to reframe the way people think about suicide. Instead of seeing it as a sin, a personal problem or a selfish act, they want to open up conversation about a topic that’s been swept under the rug so that it can be seen as a public-health concern.
Forefront also works with journalists to help promote responsible coverage of the issue, according to UW Department of Communication Professor Randal Beam. Since there are concerns over the likelihood of stories about suicide causing other people to follow suit, he says it’s best for writers to avoid providing a great deal of detail about the manner of death.
Because survivors of suicide are also at increased risk for suicide themselves, the organization’s Forefront Cares program also provides peer counseling. Volunteer peer counselor Wayne Lynch, whose brother died by suicide in 2005, took the training to do just that because, “a family member needs to connect with somebody, it would be great to help them in any way [including] listening, allowing them to vent to somebody who understands, who’s been there,” Lynch says.
The organization also plans to work with secondary schools and colleges to create comprehensive plans that focus on students’ emotional well-being and take a preventative approach to suicide. The strategy is also designed to make students aware of the mental-health services that are available to them. Forefront is heading up the campus-based prevention program at the UW.
Forefront’s approach may be complex and encompassing, but that’s what Stuber says she believes it will take for the UW and the organization to become a center of excellence in suicide prevention on the west coast. How will she know when she has accomplished that goal?
Simple. “The most rewarding thing to me,” Stuber says, “will be to see that the rates of suicide are going down in Washington.” Preventing the tragedy of suicide—the pain of which she is all too familiar with—has become Stuber’s rallying call. The silver lining of her husband’s death: the opportunity to get to know and bring together many incredible people who share her passion and commitment to the cause.
UW students who are experiencing times of crisis can turn to Hall Health Services, the Health and Wellness Program and the UW Counseling Center for help. A new program guided by Forefront and funded by a $300,000, three-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration will allow campus suicide-prevention efforts to go further with a more comprehensive approach.
Rather than waiting for students to reach a crisis point, Husky Help & Hope’s goal is to be more proactive, showing staffers, faculty members and peers what to look for and how to identify struggling students before they need an emergency intervention. Another goal is to teach graduate students who are about to enter health-care-related professions how to do assessments and provide treatment for people who are at risk of suicide. The plan also calls for working alongside student groups to promote mental health and remove the stigma from mental illness while providing more Internet-based resources for the suicidal—and those who love them.
Counseling Center | 206-543-1240
After Hours Crisis Clinic | 206-461-3222
Health and Wellness Suicide Intervention Program | 206-543-3426
Hall Health Mental Health Clinic | 206-543-5030
Forefront | 206-543-1016