The roadblocks we faced trying to save our son from suicide

John Terrell's self portrait
John Terrell’s self portrait

By Buddy Terrell

My son, John Terrell, began having bipolar episodes at the end of his freshman year at VCU in 2005. The journey has been both frustrating and tedious.

We kept hoping that the next doctor or counselor would help our son. Most likely, we think John also suffered Borderline Personality Disorder which prevented him from being honest with professionals due to feelings of embarrassment.

Eventually this led to his loosing employment and health insurance. At this point, the bipolar disorder was rapidly cycling and choices were limited at the Chesterfield County Mental Health Department. The personnel there did everything they could do to help John within those limitations.

John did not qualify for subsidies for Affordable Health Care Act and the Medicaid portion of the bill is not permitted in Virginia.

HIPAA rules, designed to protect patient’s records, blocked our being able to intervene. There were numerous calls to 911 and the Crisis Center Hot Line.

Five times John was hospitalized after attempts to die by suicide. After a couple of days we would collect John and hope that somehow he would get better. Unfortunately, he was self-medicating.

The solution?

We were told we had to remove him from our home and support in order for him to get housing and assistance. This usually takes two to three years with the involvement and cost of a lawyer. How many homeless people are mentally ill? Are the mentally ill capable of being self-advocates?

We tried to get him the right counseling and medication, but the rules and the system, along with John’s mental state and choices at the moment, did not help.

On Tuesday, December 8th 2015, I found John’s body in his car. He left us a note that lamented a broken heart, personal sacrifice to prevent pain for an unborn daughter, and a loss of hope with his medical treatment.

My wife, his sister, brother and I are trying to do everything we can to heal after years of pain and frustration.

John loved to paint People, Places, and Things. He expressed in those visual nouns a passion to use color in patterns that revealed their form. His art was two dimensional, but his placement of color against color made them pop from the surface.

This is particularly evident with his “Skull” paintings. White bone was interpreted in patterns of color that brought life to these objects found on his countless walks in the woods behind our home. His drawings expressed mark making that showed hatchings and texture on his surfaces that were controlled with an active imagination. Many of his illustrations took his noun imagery on narrative adventures.

Retrospective of John Terrell’s Art

Where: Artspace Gallery in Richmond, VA, Zero East 4th St.
Richmond, VA 23224
When: October 28 – November 20
Proceeds: NAMI, Full Circle Grief Center, and Virginia Chapter American Foundation of Suicide Prevention

Hosting the International Suicide Survival Day:
Saturday, November 19, Artspace will host an International Suicide Survivor Day event 11:00 am – 2:00 pm. Free and Open to the Public

News article about this show

Nov 19 article about John Terrell

5 thoughts on “The roadblocks we faced trying to save our son from suicide”

  1. I went to swift creek middle school with John in 8th grade back in 98/99. After that year he, Lee(another friend) and myself all split into different High schools and lost touch. He spent the night at my family’s house in wood lake. (where we lived at the time we were in swift creek together.) I thought of John the other day and looked him up thinking he would be a successful athlete and Artist to find his tragic story. I’m so sorry for your loss. From what I remember John was talented and funny. Remember playing playstations metal gear solid over at my house several times with him. Rest in peace John. My prayers go out to you and your family.

  2. Dear John & family,
    I am so sorry for the death of your son. I pray everyday that my son is alive after many suicide attempts. He has bipolar illness, severe anxiety, ADD, and alcoholism. He has been homeless many times. He went to rehab and has been sober for 3 months. He has a college degree but works in a deli for $8.75 an hour and cannot get full time work. I live in PA and he lives in IL. I try to help him financially as much as I can. HIPPA laws have made my life so difficult. His friend dropped him at the hospital n
    Because he was suicidal and had a definite plan for dying. After 4 days, I called to speak to him. The hosp. saidhe was not there and never was. I was sure he had never been admitten and was dead somewhere. I filed a missing person’s report with the police in IL. I have type 1 diabetes and was so distraught that I was hospitalized with dehydration and ketoacidosis due to the stress of thinking my son was dead.The police called the hosp. and they told the police he was there. My son was discharged with no place to go so he was again homeless. Our country HAS to help the mentally ill with housing and jobs. I am sorry to write so much, but I am a desperate parent who lost my husband to suicide and I cannot go through it again with my son.

    1. Thanks for reading John’s story. I am so sorry to hear of the heartache you are suffering. Worrying about your child’s safety and whereabouts 24 hrs. a day is terribly difficult. In our culture it seems as if the mentally ill are not seen. Most people including politicians want to look the other way. That’s why we as caregivers and suicide survivors need to speak up whenever possible.

  3. Our story is so eerily similar, I could have written this article. Our 28 y/0 son was bipolar & also self-medicated. Although unable to maintain employment, he qualified for no assistance. He was able to receive both in-patient & out-patient treatment but alas on Dec. 7, 2015, he jumped to his death from his father’s truck, speeding down the highway at 65 mph.

    1. Thanks for reading John’s story. I am so saddened to hear of your similar loss. John’s illness and subsequent death have changed me in a fundamental way. I wish you and your family well as you take this grief journey that none of us wanted.

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