Community and students bring struggles to light

“I do still have my moments when life seems to be getting a bit more than I can handle, but now I just don’t handle it. Things tend to work themselves out. Depression is hopelessness and it’s really sad to me how many people really haven’t heard, don’t know how much hope there is, how many good things there are in the world. And I was one of those people. If you’ve lost a loved one, all I can say is try to be forgiving. It’s really not a nice place to be.”

Mark Wooldridge, then 20, gave this speech at a suicide prevention walk two-and-a-half weeks before he took his life on Oct. 26, 2011.

His mother, Nancy Wooldridge, spoke about his battles with mental illness and coping with the aftermath in an intimate discussion at Saddleback College for Psychology Week, hosted by the Psi Beta and Psychology club, on Apr. 15.

Wearing Mark’s button-up shirt and a silver heart necklace filled with some of his ashes, Nancy shared the story of Mark’s illness and the ultimate consequence of ‘death by suicide.’

“I do not use the term ‘commit suicide’ because those of us involved with suicide prevention think it’s a little silly. Would you commit cancer or commit diabetes?” Nancy said.

Regardless of the severity of his illness, she never imagined Mark’s suicidal thoughts would take his life.

“Imagine Man of the Year at Trabuco Hills High School, Eagle Scout… all these great things going on in his life, great relationship with his brother, with me…I never in a million years would’ve thought he would actually go through with suicide,” she said.

Mark’s mental struggles were apparent as early as anxiety over potty training.

“He had depression back to elementary school and I can remember that first moment and I know it’s when bipolar was setting in,” she said. “I was afraid to leave him alone because he was, in the terms of suicide prevention, ‘more than sad.'”

In addition to depression, Mark’s bipolar disorder made it harder to cope with daily life.

“Bipolar disorder is more prone to suicide than depression,” Iman Moujtahed, 22-year-old director of events cabinet, said. “The roller coaster of emotions creates more suicidal tendencies.”

After graduating high school in ’09, Mark went to Northern Arizona University. The struggles of life and college drove him to seek an outlet, marijuana. Nancy attributes the drug to the decline of her son’s mental health.

“Marijuana is a mind-altering drug,” she said. “To a depressed brain, a sick brain, it prohibits the brain from creating and retaining serotonin.”

When he came home from college, Nancy prohibited smoking in the house.

“I took away his marijuana on a Thursday night, and on Sunday night, he told me he didn’t want to live here anymore,” she said. “And by ‘here’, he said ‘I don’t mean this house.'”

The next day, Mark took his first attempt at suicide.

His brother, Scott Wooldridge, left to see his girlfriend, but returned for condoms. He walked in and interrupted Mark’s attempt.

“Safe sex saves lives,” Mark said humorously, retelling the incident during his aforementioned speech.

The police took him in as a 5150, involuntary psychiatric hold, where he was given care from the public health system.

“We learned about the public health care system and I know they’re doing the best they can, but it sucks beyond any possible sucking,” Nancy said.

The doctor assigned to him was out of the country, so Mark had multiple counselors and was dealing with withdrawals from marijuana, manifesting in anger. Nancy enrolled him in a double-diagnosis program in an effort to save him. When he returned from treatment, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope for Mark’s recovery.

“His brother left for the Navy, and it gave me a year with my son,” Nancy said. “We watched TV together and we laughed and we talked and I got to make coffee for him in the mornings and breakfast on Sundays. We found out that we not just loved each other, but we liked each other.”

Mark worked at Camp James for the summer, but didn’t register for school, so he needed a job.

“Things started to go downhill because he didn’t have things in place,” she said. “He struggled with those details… He said to me on Oct. 24, ‘I’m feeling it again, Mom.’ I remember the moment and I said, ‘I know. I can tell.'”

She fondly remembers talking on the couch for hours about life, death, suicide and how it would affect others. One thing he mentioned was he wished he had more than two friends. The next week, more than 700 people attended his memorial service.

“His mind was very distorted,” Nancy said.

They also discussed getting him help, which he agreed to. The next day, she called him regarding the details.

“‘Mom, we’ll just talk about it tonight.’ Those were his last words to me,” she said.

The night of his death, Nancy didn’t expect it. Mark made plans, so she went out, but felt uneasy.

“At least he’s told me that if he ever does it, he would do it somewhere I wouldn’t find him,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do and then I drove home and found my son dead.”

Even with the trauma of finding her son, Nancy wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to do it.

“I wouldn’t even change finding him,” she said. “It started with me. It ended with me. I’m his mom.”

After Mark’s suicide, Nancy continued to volunteer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and worked to get her life back on track.

“I decided early on that I didn’t want to die with my son,” she said. “I think that’s a really important belief because it sets your compass in life.”

AFSP hosts a walk called “Out of the Darkness” to raise funds and awareness.

“We need to bring [suicide] out of the darkness, we need to make it OK to talk about it… Thoughts of suicide are equal to a cancerous, malignant tumor,” Nancy said. “If left untreated, the chances of it killing you are pretty good.”

Nancy urges those experiencing signs of mental illness to speak to a professional as soon as abnormal thoughts arise. Although as an acquaintance, friend or loved one, it’s essential to ask the hard questions.

“If you think someone is struggling, it’s OK to say, ‘Have you thought about hurting yourself? Are you suicidal?’ Because if you’re not suicidal, being asked that isn’t going to make you suicidal,” Nancy said.

According to her, it’s important to identify the illness early and find the right doctor and form of treatment between counseling, medication and non-traditional treatments.

“I use essential oils now… I was learning about them at someone’s house, and they talked about how some of them can help anxiety, depression, bipolar, and I just started to cry because I thought I wish I would’ve known this just a year, year-and-a-half ago,” Nancy said.

However, she feels the public health system, specifically mental health, could use some improvements in making help more accessible.

“When I tried to get counseling to get me through that one year anniversary [of his suicide], I joke that by the time I was finished on the phone trying to get the right approval, I could’ve been crazy,” Nancy said. “I should be able to walk into any mental health provider as easily as I can walk into any physician’s office.”

She also recommends that general physicians be aware of mental health to take preventative measures.

“I think general doctors could do a better job at talking to someone at the annual visit, or whenever they see them, about what’s going on in their life and taking up about five or ten minutes, maybe doing a questionnaire,” she said.

When Nancy filled out a questionnaire for Mark, he hit all of the symptoms for his disorders, such as intelligent, highly artistic and family history. Regardless of what could’ve been done to save Mark, Nancy is at peace with her son’s actions.

“I’m glad Mark’s not in his pain, but he did so much good here in helping other people,” Nancy said. “I don’t condemn him, I don’t wrong him, but I just wish he would’ve given real help a chance.”

Nancy has been speaking about Mark’s life since Spring 2012 and appreciates the candid attitude Saddleback has toward mental health.

“What you students and what your teachers are doing [for Psychology Week] is huge,” she said. “I wish Mark could’ve gone to Saddleback and been exposed to these kinds of talks. It could’ve possibly inspired him to get help and know there’s hope.”

Even though Mark’s own words couldn’t save him, his story continues to inspire others.

“Things will get better, I can promise that much, even if they have to get worst first, like they did for me… The other thing I can promise is that things will never be the same. So whatever struggles you’ve been through, high school, elementary school in my case, they’re not going to be the struggles of today and they’re not going to be the struggles of tomorrow.”
To get assistance for mental health issues or crises, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).