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Pooler Magazine

CHRISTY STEPHENS: Turning Pain into Purpose

Story by Katie Vandenhouten • Photos by Shelia Scott

Suicide. It may as well be a four-letter word. It’s an uncomfortable subject that is so stigmatized it seems easier to avoid than to address.When someone ends their own life, those left behind are in a state of shock and confusion. The pain and grief are as real and eviscerating as with any other death, yet society views it differently. It’s unkind to speak ill of the dead, but the words “weak,” “coward,” or “selfish” are dropped as carelessly as crumbs when someone takes their own life.

Christy Stephens knows what it’s like to lose a loved one to suicide. She knows the pain, the grief and the stigma. She is now an advocate for suicide prevention, and it is her mission to bring this sensitive subject out of the shadows and erase the stigma of suicide altogether.

Her daughter, Jennifer, was a typical middle school student. She played softball, went to church, joked around with her siblings, and enjoyed spending time with her friends. When she started getting bullied in the sixth grade, her parents did what any parents would do: they went to the school, talked with the principal and teachers, and handled the situation. Or so they thought.

Unfortunately, the school’s zero tolerance policy on bullying wasn’t enough. The taunting persisted into her seventh grade year, until it was too much for Jennifer to bear. On Valentine’s Day of 2014, she ended her life. She was thirteen years old.

“You don’t ever overcome this,” Christy explains. “If you bully someone and they take their own life, I think it’s murder. I think they pushed her, and they murdered my child. That’s how I felt.” She says her daughter was a strong, beautiful, outgoing power hitter whom everybody loved. Even though she was being teased, she never expected this could happen. “She took up for everybody that was being bullied, but nobody took up for her,” she says through tears. She refuses to be bitter, though. Instead, she is doing everything in her power to make sure no other parent has to experience the pain of losing a child this way.

The year that she lost Jennifer, she attended The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) annual Out of Darkness Walk. She has been an advocate ever since, and she is now chair of the event. The fundraiser boosts the platform of suicide prevention and mental health, with the goal of reducing the suicide rate by 20% by the year 2025.

According to AFSP, 113 people die every day by suicide. Suicide claims more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined, yet suicide prevention receives only a fraction of the funding compared to other leading causes of death. Suicide is preventable, but unless society breaks the taboo and gets comfortable talking about it, people will be afraid to ask for help. So Christy talks about it to anyone who will listen. If there’s an event where she can speak or hand out pamphlets, she never misses an opportunity to offer her support. “I’m going to be there to make sure I’m passing out information,” she says. “I know it’s not a subject people want to talk about, but you’ll be amazed at how many people need it. They need to know that there’s somebody they can talk to.” Her mission is not only to tell Jennifer’s story and raise awareness, but also to comfort others who have lost someone by suicide.

In addition to working with AFSP, she created Jennifer’s Dream Team, a local charity that gives donations directly to those impacted by suicide in Pooler and the surrounding area. Whether it’s shopping for the family, providing meals, or donating money for funeral expenses, Jennifer’s Dream Team provides any help the family may need. When Jennifer died, the community pulled together to help her family, and this is their way of paying it forward.

Jennifer’s Dream Team is not just support for family members. If someone just needs to talk or needs emotional support, Christy is there to help. “Call me,” she says. “I’ll come to you.” If she reaches just one person, she says it’s worth it. She urges those with depression to change their scenery, talk to someone, get some sunshine, exercise, anything but sit alone dwelling on their thoughts. Walk away. Don’t listen to the bullies. Go somewhere you feel comfortable. Go to an adult,” she advises. “That feeling will eventually go away. Don’t let your weakest moment be the last breath that you take.”

She wants people to know the warning signs. “Pay attention to your loved ones,” she cautions. Common red flags include withdrawing from people, not participating in activities they usually enjoy, sleeping excessively and giving away possessions. “Watch for those signs,” she says. For those who are dealing with the pain of losing a loved one, Jennifer’s father, Ben, urges them to keep moving forward and not to be hard on themselves. “You have to fight hard every day,” he says.

“Know it’s not your fault, because you will blame yourself over and over.” Christy’s message is just to keep pushing forward and keep telling the stories so people know they’re not alone. “You have to make yourself get up. You have to make yourself look at the world as beautiful as the person that you lost, and think about what they would want you to do. Even though they aren’t here, they would want you to keep fighting for them.” Her faith in God has helped her get through the worst loss of her life. “I know if I didn’t have Him in my life I wouldn’t be sitting talking to you right now,” she says. “Because I know He’s with us, in everything I do. That’s why He’s pushing me to get what I need to get done to help save lives.”

The pain is always there, but now there is also a purpose. Christy Stephens’ purpose now is to save as many people as possible, and that will only happen if people keep talking about suicide and mental health until it’s no longer taboo. “I’m going to do this with my last breath that I take,” she says. “I’m going to tell Jennifer’s story. I’m going to tell my story, and I’m going to encourage people.” She will never stop talking about suicide prevention, and if her story inspires one person to get involved or prevents one person from taking their life, Jennifer will not have died in vain.

For more information or to make a donation, visit Jennifer’s Dream Team on Facebook, or contact Christy Stephens at 912-547-3738 or [email protected]

For free and confidential support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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