Franklin James Cook

Oratorical Skills Help Teenager Cope with His Father’s Suicide

In Grief, Mental Illness, Stigma on February 13, 2009 at 11:03 am
Brandon Kapelow shares a photo of him and his father (Rachel Shaver, Jackson Hole News & Guide).

Brandon Kapelow shares a photo of him and his father (Rachel Shaver, Jackson Hole News & Guide).

[Editor’s note: The story referenced includes brief descriptions of several suicide attempts.] Last month, reporter Kelsey Dayton learned she had won first place in feature writing from the Wyoming Press Association for a story last April in the Jackson Hole News and Guide. The story is about teenager Brandon Kapelow, whose …

… journey creating what would be an award-winning original oratory for this year’s high-school speech and debate season started in spring 2002 when Brandon was 8. That was the first time his father tried to kill himself.

The speech Brandon delivered is as helpful as it is courageous, for it reveals not only what it is like for a child to survive his parent’s suicide, but also what it is like for him to live with a parent’s mental illness, including several nonfatal suicide attempts.

Brandon celebrated his ninth birthday while his dad was hospitalized for his second suicide attempt. His father admitted trying to buy a gun to kill himself. In the hospital, he refused to eat, hoping to starve to death.

Brandon began to understand bipolar disorder and how people who loved life could be so sick they tried to end it, when his father made a third attempt. Loren [Kapeolow, Brandon’s mother] tracked him to Carbondale, Colo., by intercepting the trademark suicide notes he sent by FedEx. He was in a storage unit, his wrists slit, trying to asphyxiate on carbon monoxide from the running car and barbecue grills he had lit in the small space.

After Stephen’s fourth attempt was thwarted, when he had planned to jump off a building in Indianapolis, it was beginning to seem like routine.

Dayton’s story tells about Brandon’s development as a high school orator, about his yearning to talk about the subject that had shaped his young life, and about the assistance and understanding he received along the way.

His first speech was clinical, full of statistics. Mark Houser, his coach, knew Brandon would have to add emotional gravity to the story to be competitive. But Houser, who coincidentally is a member of Teton County Suicide Prevention and had a friend who killed himself, stepped back. He saw Brandon’s speech wasn’t just about trying to win ribbons.

This was a kid on a journey who needed to go at his own pace.

As Brandon confronted his first competitions in qualifying rounds, he he “worried about using his dad’s story.”

He didn’t want sympathy points. He felt unprepared the first time he presented the speech, at a meet in Rock Springs. He felt exposed when he nodded, “Judge ready?”

[Afterward,] The judges’ comments read: “Excellent grasp of facts and statistics … Good use of personal story without making it a pity party … You have the ability to make a difference concerning suicide because of your insight and because of your excellent communications skills.”

Brandon’s mother watched her son’s progress from the sidelines as he spoke publicly about their family’s tragedy, crediting his oratorical endeavors with helping him with his grief.

Losing a father to suicide is something Brandon probably will never fully recover from, his mother said. Instead, he must learn to cope. Through speech, Brandon was coming to terms with his father’s suicide. His mother knew he was healing or he wouldn’t have decided to talk about it publicly day after day, she said …

Brandon’s no-holds-barred message has an unquantifiable potential to touch lives, Houser [the speech coach] said. Stigma is the biggest issue with suicide, leaving survivors feeling alone and preventing people from getting help, he said. It inspired Houser in his own prevention efforts.

“If there is a teenager that can be so brave, I should try to work through some of my own barriers,” he said.

His presentations are also having an effect on the audiences he has been speaking to.

His speech is not just about how losing a father changes the life of a son. It is a call to action. Be aware. Talk about the taboo. Break the stigma.

In the hallway of Jackson Hole High School, during the national qualifying meet, a girl stopped him … She wanted to thank him. She was depressed. She had seen his piece in Rock Springs. She realized she wasn’t alone … She would be OK now, she said. His speech – his life – had changed hers.

SPNAC readers can also read more about Brandon’s family’s experience in a 2006 News & Guide story in which his mother is quoted extensively. She says, for instance

“Mental illness is a fatal illness, just like cancer.”

“My life is an open book … If I close that book, then it’s like saying I’m not going to help somebody else. … I think that if people don’t talk about it, if we make it taboo, then how are we going to help each other? How are we going to help each other heal?”

[The abridged URL for this story is  http://tinyurl.com/OratoricalTeen .]

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