Our Son’s Preventable Suicide

by Pat Sterling

Trigger warning: Strong emotional content and suicide method mentioned.

On March 22, 2018 our 38-year-old son, Brian, took his own life.

My husband and I believe very strongly that Brian’s suicide could have been prevented if the first group of medical responders and sheriff officers who we called had acted appropriately.

What follows is a reconstruction of events to the best of our recollection and we question why officers who responded to our 911 call did not exercise their authority to use an ECO (Ref: Emergency Custody Order that allows a person to be taken to a hospital against their will in Virginia) to assist our son who clearly did not have the clarity of thought to act in his own interest.

As Brian became increasingly delusional and paranoid over a period of months, he called the (Loudoun) sheriff non-emergency number several times.

Brian had called them when he lived in an apartment in Leesburg and continued to do so when he moved to our house in Sterling.  Officers had come to our house in Sterling to investigate imagined break-ins and “suspicious people” loitering around the house at least twice or three times in the 2-3 weeks prior to Brian’s suicide.

Deputy P. Brick (#3198) responded to these calls several times and became acquainted with Brian and his mental health status.  Because Brian did not present himself as being a danger to himself or others during these calls, Deputy Brick told us that he could not take Brian in for a mental health evaluation and we agreed with him at that time.

The last time Brian asked officers to come to the house, Deputy Brick suggested trying to get an ECO ourselves from the magistrate on the grounds of “inability to care for self.”

Brian had been hospitalized in Loudoun County several times over a 7 year period and had a history of being taken in by the sheriff’s office through emergency custody orders issued on our behalf by the magistrate. He had also been taken for mental health evaluations several times directly by the sheriff’s officers because of complaints by neighbors or, in one case, because of a domestic assault.

On March 22, we were occupied most of the day talking to and supervising the upgrading of our home security system.  Because of Brian’s paranoia, we thought it might help him feel more secure if we activated an old security system that already existed in the house when we purchased it but that we had never used.  We had a technician from the security company in our house from approximately 11:30 AM until approximately 5:00 PM.

We were aware that our son was not feeling well and had been vomiting but we didn’t really start paying attention to his condition until after the technician left at 5:00 PM.  Our son had locked himself into an upstairs bathroom and had water turned on. 

We were able to open the door with a screw driver and found our son crouched on the bathroom floor vomiting. We assume he had hoped the sound was camouflaged by the running water.  His eyes were glazed and he could barely stand up to walk to the adjoining bedroom.  He continued to throw up into a bucket as he sat on the bed.

When we saw his condition, we thought he had perhaps taken a street drug or overdosed on one of his psychiatric medications.  We asked him and he denied it saying that he had food poisoning and would be fine. 

We could immediately tell that it was not food poisoning.  His voice was high pitched and abnormal as were his eyes and ability to walk. Alarmed, we called 911. 

When the responders to our 911 call arrived, it must have been about 5:45-6:00pm.  Two sheriff officers accompanied the 3 or 4 medical responders. We learned from one of the sheriff’s officers officers that Officer Brick was not available because he was ill that night. 

An older man seemed to be in charge of the medical personnel

He asked my son if he could take his vital signs and my son refused. 

He asked if they could take him to the emergency room and my son refused again. 

The two officers noted to each other (I overheard them) that my son had a red mark on his neck where he had pulled off a chain that he always wore. The older medical person informed us that he could do nothing since my son was refusing treatment.  He asked me to try to convince my son to be hospitalized but I was also unsuccessful.

It was clear to me that my son was ill and delusional.

I do not believe that the medical people ever examined the contents of the bucket my son continued to vomit into in their presence.  Shortly thereafter, they all left.  They were probably in the house about 15 minutes total.

To us at least, it was obvious that my son was not in a mental condition where he could make an informed decision about his own health.  He was beyond understanding what anyone was saying to him or urging him to do.  The question of whether he had taken some self-harming drug was never addressed.  The officers certainly must have been aware of his mental health record from past visits. 

The red mark on his neck that indicated self-harming behavior was ignored.  We know that police and sheriff officers are trained to take people in distress into custody and we cannot understand why this was not at least considered.  We did ask them to please take Brian to a hospital for medical treatment.

They did not exercise their authority to issue an ECO, despite the fact that, clearly, our son was not able to make a rational decision at the time. With hind sight, we think our son was already well along the road to endeavoring to end his life.

Our questions are:

  • Did the officers not understand their authority to act in a crisis?
  • Had the officers completed the training that is required for this type of situation?
  • Did they consider one or more of the three criteria (danger to self, danger to others, inability to care for self) that allows them to act without the consent of an adult?
  • The officers seemed to be taking direction from the medical people rather than making an independent assessment

After the medical responders and the officers left, my husband and I debated for about 30 minutes on what to do.  My husband left the house about 6:30-6:45 to go to Leesburg to the magistrate to try to obtain an ECO in order to get my son both medical and mental health attention.

While my husband raced to Leesburg to get an ECO, my son stumbled down the stairs into our office where I was sitting near the bottom of the stairway.  He sat down and a few minutes later had a convulsion. His whole body went rigid and his eyes rolled back.

He had never before had a convulsion. 

I immediately grabbed my cell phone and called 911 again

My son then walked into the living room and fell onto the living room couch continuing to vomit into a bucket, had another massive convulsion and ended up with his head on the living room floor and his feet pointed at the ceiling.  He clearly had no control over his body.

Eventually he was able to sit up again.  I was still on the phone with 911 when I saw a knife poking out from one of his pants pockets.  I asked him what that knife was for.  He started having another convulsion and as his arms and body were becoming rigid again, he pulled the knife out of his pocket and slit his throat.  I told the 911 person what had happened and begged her to get someone to the house quickly. 

She told me to get towels to try to compress the wound on his throat.  I ran to the kitchen to get towels but my son pushed me away when I returned.  Running back to get more towels, I turned around and found him standing in the kitchen looking through the trash can.  I can only guess that he was looking for the knife.

The 911 lady asked me if there were any weapons in the house and I replied that there were none but kitchen knives.  When I said that, my son’s attention went to the drawer where we keep them and he began moving toward that drawer. This whole time, he was bleeding profusely from the wound in his neck.

I stood in front of the drawer and saw that he was getting weak and could not push me aside from the drawer.  At that time, an officer burst through the kitchen door from the garage and started wrestling with my son trying to handcuff him.  My son struggled against being handcuffed and asked the officer why he was doing that. The officer must have seen the blood pouring from the gaping wound on my son’s neck. 

The officer replied that he was trying to save his life 

After several minutes, the officer was able to handcuff him. He then threw my son down on the dining room floor.  It was only at that point medical personnel came into the house.  By then it was too late since my son had lost so much blood.  Medical personnel worked on him for 20-30 minutes with no success. We believe he died on the dining room floor.

He was taken to Reston Hospital in an ambulance.  My husband arrived back from Leesburg and we rushed to the hospital where we sat in a waiting room for about 45 minutes.  A doctor came out and told us that they were not able to save Brian because he had lost too much blood and that they had not been able to get a heart beat after he arrived at the hospital.

We so wish that the first call to 911 had resulted in getting my son medical treatment and then mental health treatment.

We would hope that in the future, the mental health of the ill person and his/her ability to make informed and rational decisions be taken into consideration by medical responders and that they defer to sheriff’s officers regarding a possible ECO. 

The possibility of an attempt at suicide must also be taken very seriously and into account when deciding whether or not to leave the scene.  An opportunity to save my son’s life was missed and resulted, in our opinion, in a tragedy that could have been avoided.

Our family is devastated by his loss.

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8 thoughts on “Our Son’s Preventable Suicide”

  1. Dear Pat,
    I am so very sorry for all you and your wife have endured. To lose someone to mental illness and suicide is horrible enough. To have it all unfold right in front of you is on a level I cannot imagine. My thoughts are with you and your family as you continue to deal with this and find your way forward without Brian. It is a devastating loss, a horrific story, and a cautionary tale. Peace to you on this day and all the rest.

  2. Dear Pat,

    I’m so sorry. Our mental health system is so flawed. I don’t think police officers get much training in mental health issues at all. Vomiting like this is clearly not a normal behavior and although you didn’t say, I’m not sure if the vomiting was due to a substance which I’m guessing it was. Your right that they should have been more responsive towards him and taken him to the ER for further treatment. Have you spoken with a state representative or lawyer? You can’t assess a person that is barely able to speak to you. They’re not mental health professionals and can’t make the call. I worked at an adult home in New York and had to dig deep into a guys chart to even figure out what behaviors he had. No one told me about him, nor was it in his case notes. The police weren’t going to take him to the hospital without my begging. He was admitted. He was actively psychotic, refusing his medication, not coming for meals, running down once a day to take food from an area where people scraped food into and peeing out a window. 4 days in and this is how the case manager finds out about it because a friend of mine was peed on. He posed no danger to others, but to himself absolutely! Your son was vomiting without control and was clearly not able to speak for himself and had become a danger to himself as he did something to make him vomit uncontrollably. Drying out at the hospital or being checked out for alcohol poisoning or any other poisoning is reason enough to go. I used to have the police so trained that they’d say okay what do you want me to do because I know your going to be unhappy if I do nothing. I’d say take the responsibility out of your hands and take them for a mental health evaluation. I’d always call the hospital ahead of time to tell them what went on because the police and ambulance drivers were poor communicators so they’d just assess the patient as they were presenting. It’s a flawed system and I’m sorry that you lost your son due to a lack of competence. Writing this story is only part of the change that you can bring about. As a mom you probably still have nightmares about this day. You were very brave. I’m proud of how you tried to help your son. Telling your story had to be hard. I’m going to tell you a story about a man far ahead of his time. Before Benjamin Franklin passed away he was working on a bill to end slavery. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln that it happened, but it has to start somewhere. Being brave enough to tell your story is a big part. If your lead to, you can be the voice that is needed for change. God bless you and I’m so sorry!

    1. I am sorry I did not see your comment until now. But I appreciate so much that you took the time to write and you make some good points. Many mistakes were made that evening and I wish I had been much more adamant. I think I was assuming they would take him and when they walked out I was in shock. I hope change does come throughout our health system but esp. mental health. A group called National Shattering Silence Coalition (NSSC) has put together a platform they are trying to send out to all presidential candidates and other national and local politicians. At least this is an attempt to focus national attention on some of the issues families and professionals have been aware of for years.

    1. Hi Chris, After the autopsy and a search of his room, we discovered that Brian had taken several bottles of caffeine pills. His blood pressure must have been through the roof and is probably the reason he didn’t want the EMS to check it. He was apparently hoping that he could kill himself that way. The police officers in our county actually do have training in mental health (CIT training). Thank you for your encouragement and sympathy. If nothing else, I hope that Brian’s story will help people understand what a terrible toll mental illness exacts on the person and their families and how law enforcement and EMS services needs to be more attuned.

      1. Hi Pat,

        Our first ammendment right gives us the right to petition government at any level to make a change. Even if listening to the EMS, training should have told the police about his poisoning and the EMS even if they couldn’t get his vitals. Wrestling him to the ground wasn’t the proper thing either. You have to assess the danger in the situation first which would have been the bleeding. I know that you could be reliving this situation over and over as it was a traumatic experience. I think your story will help. When you’re ready you could use your story to change things. It’s powerful and speaks volumes of the ability of our EMS and police at assessing a situation. They might have already said that everyone acted appropriately, but as a person that’s worked in this field, I’m saying no they didn’t. Like the story says it was an avoidable suicide. You went through a nightmare that I can’t even fathom. I’m so sorry for your loss. If you are ever ready to submit a proposal for change, I’d be honored to review it. May God bless you in all you decide to do. If just the story, I would like to Express my gratitude for your bravery in all that you did to help your son, all you did to write this story, and I offer my support in all that you do. My personal email address is chrisskinner1280@yahoo.com My best times are always in the morning, but I am disabled now so I can help out most times during the day. I won’t be hurt if you don’t reach out as I know it’s hard.

        1. Thank you Chris. I am receiving therapy for PTSD and go to a suicide support group twice a month. I appreciate your comments and thank you so much for writing and for your empathy. I may be in touch at some point. Right now, I still break down when I try to talk about the whole experience. He was not only my son but also my best friend.

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