VASHON ISLAND - Palmer Burk was full of personality. Home videos show a young child wise and adventurous beyond his years. By the time Palmer was 14 years old, he was a popular and athletic teen who dominated in crew and wrestling in the small town of Vashon Island.
“He really had everything going for him,” Palmer’s mom Kathleen Gilligan said.
Yet at the young age of 14, Palmer ended his own life.
“You blame yourself,” Gilligan said.
The emotional pain of losing her son made Gilligan physically sick.
“I became very physically ill for many years; I could not work for a year,” Gilligan said.
A psychological autopsy of Palmer’s life brought her to this conclusion.
“I’ve gone through everything that happened and thought what should have I done different, and I know what I should have done different,” Gilligan said.
Gilligan says Palmer died by suicide just days after a break-up, but Gilligan says the break down of his life started well before that.
“He probably needed professional help, I didn’t recognize the signs,” Gilligan said.
Looking back, Gilligan says the signs of depression were there as early as 12 years old.
“He was sad, but I didn’t realize how sad and upset he was. Now I know that I should have dug a little deeper. I should have said, 'Palmer, are you so sad that you are feeling suicidal?' That is what I should have done; I just didn’t know,” Gilligan said.
Like most parents in that situation, she thought he was going through puberty. Suicide was never on her radar.
“Parents need to look for these subtle and not so subtle changes, even if the kid doesn’t want to eat their dinner that night, but you have to look at the whole picture,” Gilligan said.
And the picture for those who study teen suicides is getting darker.
“The data is compelling that there is an increase,” Dr. Molly Adrian with the University of Washington School of Medicine said.
According to the CDC, suicide is the No. 2 killer among kids 10-to-14 years old.
The Department of Health says in Washington state, 65 kids under 19 years old died by suicide in 2016.
The next year it increased to 84.
“At this point, we can’t predict who is going to die by suicide so we don’t have to a test to tell us someone is a risk,” Dr. Adrian said.
Adrian says there is no scientific explanation on why more teens are taking their lives.
“They feel like they are a burden to others, and they feel like they don’t have a place in their community,” Adrian said.
Experts say the best thing to do is to ask someone if they are suicidal, and if the answer is yes don’t try to fix it right away.
“That’s hard for adults to do is sit there and be in pain with your child,” Adrian said.
Don’t minimize the pain or tell someone in a crisis that time will make things better. Instead, validate their emotions.
“I think that’s a powerful strategy that is not often used,” Adrian said.
And when it comes to suicides, Dr. Adrian says it’s important to talk about how teenagers are doing it. Hanging and guns are the two most common methods.
“I lost my son to a firearm suicide, and so this is another reason I tell his story. I had one unlocked weapon in the house,” Gilligan said.
Because suicide is an impulsive act, Gilligan wonders if Palmer would still be alive if he didn’t have easy access to a gun.
“He didn’t want me to come into his room the night before, which was very unusual for him,” Gilligan said.
Gilligan is urging other parents to secure their guns if they have any in the house.
All the what-ifs are too late to bring Palmer back, but she is hoping her painful honesty will help other families.
“I say I won’t stop telling his story until mental health and suicide become dinner table conversation,” Gilligan said.
That became the case for many in Vashon Island because Palmer’s death almost six years ago rocked the small community.
To this day, his friends haven’t forgotten him, some of them walking across the graduation stage with Palmer’s picture close to their hearts.
If parents need help there are a number of resources.
Forefront a non-profit organization is focused on reducing suicides.
The center is at the University of Washington and they can be reached at 206 543 1016 or http://www.intheforefront.org
Anyone who needs help can also text HOME to 741741 or call the National Suicide Hotline at 1800 -273- TALK.
American Foundation of Suicide Prevention is another resource and you can find more info at https://afsp.org/find-support/
Youth Eastside Services in Bellevue is also helping families every day and they can be reached at 425 747-4937 or http://www.youtheastsideservices.org/
Suzanne Peterson, a specialist with Youth Eastside Services, talks about the warning signs of suicide parents should watch for: