By: Dr. Jasmine Zapata, MD
This month marks the 1 year anniversary of a tragic event that gripped the hearts of Wisconsinites and others around the nation. On January 2, 2015, Morgan Faye Slaight, age 27, shot her two young sons, Jaxon and Joseph, as well as herself in the head. One son, Jaxon, died immediately on the scene. Morgan and Joseph were rushed in critical condition to the hospital where Morgan died 11 days later. Joseph survived and is making progress but has a long recovery ahead.
Much of the media attention over the last year has largely focused on Morgan’s surviving son Joseph, however, there has been little to no focus on the life of Morgan – who she was, the upstream factors that led to her depression, or things that could have been done to prevent the tragic events of that day.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-34 year olds, second only to unintentional injury. In 2013, 6,348 Americans ages 25-34 died via suicide. There is one death by suicide in the US every ~12 minutes. This is a preventable public health crisis that should not be ignored, however according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) the “stigma surrounding suicide has limited society’s investment in suicide research”. “ It’s something that needs to be talked about more. Not stigmatized”, says Abagail Catania, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin Madison and ambassador for a campus based pilot program sponsored by the AFSP called Ask.Listen.Save.
“Morgan was in the sixth grade, 12 years old, when she made her first plan to die by hanging, got a rope and made a list to give away all her things,” explains Morgan’s mother, Lory Seffrood. “She later expressed an interest in pills that would put her to sleep instead of hanging because hanging would hurt.” Over the next few months, she underwent intensive inpatient treatment for her depression and suicidal thoughts. During her 6 month hospitalization as she fought to recover, her father left town giving the family no forwarding address. Over the next 3 years, things stabilized somewhat for Morgan after her family moved to Wisconsin to be closer to family. She was thriving in school and had made good friends. A few years later, however, her family had to move again due to employment issues and she suffered socially in her new school. “She struggled as an outcast in the new school and found refuge among the other outcasts that readily accepted her. They immediately introduced Morgan to their best coping skill, using drugs,” explains Lory. This initiated a downward spiral for Morgan which included further and heavier drug use, another suicide attempt at age 16, multiple inpatient mental facility hospitalizations, trouble with the law, the loss of her children, homelessness, and methamphetamine induced schizophrenia where she was tormented by voices in her head. She also suffered an extremely violent and abusive relationship with her husband, also a drug addict, while living in Oklahoma. She hit a low point when her husband tried to drown a son she had conceived when they were separated. At that point, she knew enough was enough.
Despite these obstacles, Morgan had many triumphs in her rollercoaster of a war against mental illness and drug addiction over the next few years. She eventually found the strength to leave her abusive husband and return to Wisconsin. On multiple occasions she took the initiative to sign herself into mental health and drug treatment facilities. She got sober and attended hours of counseling. She got passionately involved in church, and regained custody of her children after months of hard work. “What most people don’t know is that she was sober for 2 years preceding her suicide,” explains Lory.
Things took a turn for the worse, however, when Morgan’s depression and suicidal thoughts began to return following a rapid wean from her medications by her doctors. “Her meds had previously, successfully silenced the voices that followed her into sobriety,” Lory reflects but “she got sadder and sadder.”
“Morgan presented at the emergency room with a desire to die and a plan to overdose. She was sent home and told not to hurt herself. She eventually stopped leaving her room. Finally at another ER, she signed an agreement with the court to submit to court oversight for ninety days and present herself back to court to give an account of her progress. She was sent to a behavioral health institute near Osh Kosh, WI. Morgan expected to be there for months. After eight days, Morgan was taken off all her medications, given Vitamin D and sent home. The next morning Morgan shot her sons and then herself,” recounts Lory.
“We now seek ways to impact change for other families like ours. Morgan didn’t want to die! Her fight was to live. Morgan’s whole life was a series of wars. Some of her wars raged around her and some raged in her. Ultimately, her private war raged on and no one could save her because she went to that war alone,” explains Lory. “Morgan didn’t want to die. She was a warrior. She fought to live. She sought help over and over until she quit asking, talking and hoping.”
According to Fitchburg, WI mayor Steve Arnold, a passionate advocate for suicide prevention and awareness, the key to getting the depression and suicide rates down is indeed to spread the positive message that “you CAN make it and there IS hope.” “Seeing successful role models that have made it is key. Also by making the subject more transparent, we can have success,” he explains.
Morgan’s mother Lory echoes these sentiments with this passionate message to those contemplating suicide: “Decide that you could always choose suicide tomorrow but today TALK, ask for help and write a list of reasons you could be grateful or reasons that you need to live. You have a reason FIND IT and hold on… no feeling good or bad remains forever, it just feels like it.”
In closing, Morgan Faye was more than just a drug addict and shooter, but was a mother, a sister, a dreamer, a friend, a daughter, an overcomer, and a little girl who once had hopes and dreams of her own which were cut short by the throngs of depression and mental illness all of which began at a very young age. The growing depression and suicide epidemic that plagues our nation is a preventable public health crisis that cannot be ignored. This is an issue that cannot be solved overnight but can be overcome if we as a society come together from all angles to combat. This includes enhanced community awareness of the signs of depression and suicidal ideation, less stigma and judgement toward families of those who have lost loved ones to suicide, enhanced access to mental health resources, decreased bullying, decreased discrimination, domestic abuse prevention, strengthening of families, continued drug use prevention among teens and adults and much more. We all can play a role no matter how big or small. Countless lives are depending on the actions we choose to take today. Let’s come together and make a change!
To learn more about depression and suicide prevention visit http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/suicide/index.html or www.ReachOut.com. To hear more of Morgan and Lory’s story or for the extended interview, visit www.drjasminezapata.com. To learn more about the work of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the local UW Madison chapter of students working to make a mental health resource book focused on low income patients email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.afsp.org/. To participate in a live event, email email@example.com to learn more about the “Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention Walk” on April 17, 2016 on the UW Madison Campus. Need further help for yourself or friend? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Open 24 /7) at 1 (800) 273-8255 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org . For further support you can also text with a trained specialist 24 hours a day by texting “CTL” or “LISTEN” to 741-741. And most importantly, never forget…. With Help, Comes HOPE! Things WILL get better. Never give up!
Dr. Jasmine Zapata, MD is an author, pediatrician, health empowerment educator, preventive medicine advocate, and motivational speaker from the Madison area who’s mission is to heal, uplift and inspire. Her passion is working with teens and families to spread the message of Hope, Strength and the Power to Overcome! She can be reached at Www.drjasminezapata.com or firstname.lastname@example.org