The boxes, packed with a “Transition Guide” for each soon-to-graduate senior, arrived a week or two ago in the offices of 134 high school principals all over Maine.

Sandra Fisher hopes — no, make that she prays — that before they head off to college, the military or whatever else might await them, all 15,277 members of Maine’s Class of 2011 will read it.

“I will do anything I can to prevent another parent from having to live the hell my husband and I live every day,” Sandra said Friday morning in the quiet dining room of her Portland home. “And no child should have to suffer through feeling like they want to take their own lives.”

The woman knows of what she speaks: Six years ago this September, her 18-year-old son, Scott Fisher Jr., hanged himself in his dormitory room closet just days after beginning his freshman year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

And as she braced herself last week for yet another Mother’s Day without him, Sandra also prepared to start calling a long list of high schools to ask that they pass out the 32-page pamphlets, printed under the banner of the Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program (www.maine.gov/suicide/).

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” Sandra said. “That’s what kids need to understand — there is no turning back. And they don’t really want to die. They just want the pain to go away.”

Scott Fisher Jr. appeared to have it all back in June 2005 when he graduated 15th in his class at Portland’s Deering High School: straight A’s on his four-year transcript, a hard-earned reputation as a standout soccer player, a close circle of friends who went all the way back to kindergarten together, an adoring girlfriend, a loving family . . .

“He was accepted and offered huge scholarships from every college he applied to,” recalled Sandra. “He got a full scholarship for Navy ROTC at RPI — he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer and he went there because they had the best program in the country.”

But beneath even the smoothest adolescent surface, currents still churn. Late that summer, with his departure date looming, a suddenly moody Scott told his parents he was feeling depressed.

Sandra and Scott Sr. took it seriously — there was a history of depression on Scott Sr.’s side of the family. They sent him immediately to a psychiatrist, who prescribed the antidepressant Wellbutrin and made Scott promise he’d connect with a therapist upon his arrival at college.

He did. But it didn’t help.

And then, after Scott developed an allergic reaction to the medication and an emergency room physician told him to stop taking it, things quickly got worse.

“His dad and I talked to him every day for three weeks, sometimes several times per day,” Sandra said. “He didn’t like it there, and he didn’t want to be there. He was having a really hard time. But he never asked to come home.”

Friends kept telling Sandra to be patient, it was a simple case of homesickness that would quickly pass.

But deep down, she didn’t believe it. She saw that look of sadness on his face the day she and Scott Sr. drove to Troy — their second trip in as many weeks — to watch Scott take his military oath.

“I didn’t want to leave him,” Sandra said, dabbing away her tears. “And that was the last time I ever saw him.”

A big red flag went up a few days later when, during a telephone conversation with his girlfriend, a despondent Scott said he felt like killing himself. The girlfriend quickly called Sandra, who had Scott’s older sister call Scott and keep him on the phone while Sandra contacted the counselor Scott had already seen at school.

“Should we come?” asked a frantic Sandra.

“Not if you think it’s going to make him angry,” the counselor replied.

Scott, meanwhile, insisted he hadn’t really meant it. “Don’t worry,” he told his family. “I’m OK. I’ll be fine.”

“He always had a lot of pride,” Sandra said. “He didn’t want to say, ‘I need to come home.’“

That night, Scott and his roommate went to a fraternity party. Scott had a few beers and, around 2:30 a.m., told his roommate he was heading back to the dorm.

When his roommate returned an hour or so later, he found Scott hanging from the closet pole.

“I was sound asleep that night and at 2:30 in the morning, I literally sat straight up in bed wide awake and thought, ‘Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong,’” Sandra recalled.

Unable to get back to sleep, she went down to the living room and logged on to her computer to see if Scott might be chatting online. He wasn’t.

She thought about calling him, but decided the last thing she wanted to do was disturb him if he was sleeping.

“So I went and laid on the couch and decided that as soon as the sun came up, I’m going to wake up his father and we’re going to drive to New York,” Sandra said.

The phone call came at 4:30 a.m. The dean from the college was on the other end.

Scott was dead.

“I remember screaming,” Sandra said. “I woke my husband — and our neighbors — screaming.”

The rest is a blur. Scott’s body arrived back in Portland three days later — on his mother’s birthday. A busload of kids from RPI came for the funeral, along with dozens of Maine friends who rushed home still not believing it was true.

Scott Fisher? The kid who had it all? Suicide? How could it be possible?

Sandra and her husband thought about legal action – they didn’t want
money, but rather a promise from RPI to improve what the Fishers thought
was a sorely deficient protocol for dealing with suicidal students. But
after several back-and-forths among the lawyers, the lawsuit never
materialized.

Besides, Sandra had a better idea. After hearing from Scott’s friends how difficult the post-high school transition had been for them, she contacted the Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program to find out how she might save other mothers from the agonizing grief that still leaves her some days barely able to get out of bed.

Over the next few years, Sandra took every training course the state-funded program had to offer.

She persuaded the powers that be at Deering High School to launch a suicide-prevention program aimed specifically at seniors preparing to step out of the 12-year cocoon that is public education and into a world that can be as terrifying as it is exciting.

She told her story countless times to kids, parents, health care providers and anyone else willing to listen.

And now, with commencement season fast approaching, Sandra wants to put the just-published “Transition Guide” into the hands of as many graduating seniors as she can.

The guide is funded through a $7,500 grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation at the request of Colby Fortune of Gardiner, who lost her son, Alex, to suicide in 2008.

It’s broken down into four sections: planning the next chapter of a high school graduate’s life, tips for staying healthy, signs of trouble and, last but by no means least, recognizing and dealing with dangerous situations.

“Trust your gut,” the guide advises. “If you think that something is wrong, you’re probably right.”

Linda Williams, training-and-education project director for the Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program, oversaw the production and en-masse mailing of the guide to every high school principal in Maine.

But without Sandra, Williams said, it wouldn’t have happened.

“She decided, ‘I’m going to take what happened to me and I’m going to make the world different,’” Williams said. “That kind of spirit — it’s inspirational.”

As of Friday, only eight schools had responded favorably to the mailing. Another 16 have either begun or completed suicide-prevention programs that go beyond the guide to provide on-site training for staff and students.

That leaves still over 100 schools with a box full of booklets and a fast-approaching farewell to another wave of wide-eyed seniors.

Sandra will spend this Mother’s Day with her daughter and two grandchildren. It’s a vast improvement over the first Mother’s Day after Scott died, which she spent laying all-but-paralyzed in his bed.

“But I know I’ll wake up Sunday morning and my first thought will be that he’s not here,” she said, blinking back more tears.

Then, starting Monday, she’ll begin dialing one high school after another to ask what they’re going to do with her pamphlet. She hopes parents who read this will do the same.

Sandra knows it won’t bring back “the most caring, loving, sensitive kid you’d every want to meet.”

But she also knows suicide can be prevented only by recognizing acute depression for the disease it is and, while there’s still time, talking about it.

Holding up a copy of the “Transition Guide,” Sandra somehow managed a smile.

“Some days are still better than others,” she said. “But I finally feel like I’m starting to make a difference.”

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]