Preventing the unthinkable.
Photography by Brandon Markin
[dropcap]Steven[/dropcap] Blackwood and Bruce Trimble serve as co-chairs of the Arkansas Suicide Prevention Council, formed last year by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to provide “a comprehensive and coordinated approach to prevent suicide across all age and demographic groups” in Arkansas and “to ensure that suicide prevention becomes a shared priority for all citizens.” While Blackwood serves the council diligently, it’s not a position that he ever hoped to hold. You see, he has become intimately knowledgeable with the topic as a result of a personal tragedy: he lost his son Alex in October 2009 to suicide.
“I tell people he died of depression,” Blackwood said. Alex was a freshman at the University of Central Arkansas when he passed. “It came out of nowhere.”
“Alex was one of those kids who had everything under control,” Blackwood said. He describes his son as someone whom other kids got advice from. “He was an encourager.”
As a youngster, Alex was involved in a number of activities, including baseball and soccer; however, he later became involved in American Quarter Horse Competitions and that became his passion. He obtained his high school diploma while attending school virtually, which allowed him to travel and train. In fact, he started college a semester late so he could participate in the American Quarter Horse Honor Roll, which is now known as High Point.
“Alex had a big heart. He was a giver. His competitors said he encouraged them and often gave them advice to help them become better. Alex would do whatever it took to stand up for someone who couldn’t stand up for themselves. He was not a perfect kid, but he never gave me a reason to be ashamed or embarrassed,” Blackwood said. Just as one would expect, Blackwood looked for answers after Alex’s death. “The best explanation I’ve been given was from a counselor who called it an existential depression, when one asks ‘Why do I exist? What is my purpose? Where do I fit in?’”
This makes sense to Blackwood, whose son literally went from having his name on a Jumbrotron and being celebrated to “living 20 minutes from home where he had to show his ID to be able to eat.”
“Knowing what I know now, I would say he experienced a 10-day or two-week spiral. Had we known [about the depth of his emotions and about the occurrence of suicide in youth], we would have questioned him. If we were able to pick up the signs, we would have realized there was a problem,” Blackwood said. “I taught him to be a world champion, but I failed miserably at teaching him that sometimes life sucks, and we sometimes just have to hide from the world. And that it’s OK to take time to recharge.”
“When word spread and people began to offer their condolences, they’d say they were so sorry and then say, ‘This is such a problem.’ I thought, ‘What do you mean? I know, maybe, one or two people who [were affected by suicide].’”
When he asked, people began to share stories about suicide that Blackwood said, “blew him away.” “I spent five years on a school board, and suicide and depression were never topics of discussion,” he said.
That’s not surprising. Despite the startling statistic that a person dies by suicide every 17 hours in Arkansas, suicide hasn’t been a topic of discussion. “It’s a difficult topic. It’s something no one wants to look at or think about,” Kristin Agar, LCSW and certified interventionist, said. “It’s horrific, but we have to talk about it because a huge number of people are dying by suicide.”
Blackwood, a certified real estate expert, is owner and principal broker for Blackwood Team Realtors and a self-professed “high-profile problems solver.” He’s served as president for the number of organizations and “likes to be a key ingredient in his community,” working with others to ensure success. So it’s natural that he’d take action. “I didn’t apply for this job,” Blackwood said of his work with the council, “and as bad as it sucks, I’m uniquely qualified for this position.”
Of course, the entire Blackwood family mourned. His wife, Cindi, who also serves on the council, and their 20-year old daughter Ariel each grieved differently and at different times. Blackwood said that while they tried to resume normal family life, it was very important to respect one another’s processes and timing, even to this day.
“Someone described the process of grieving and pain like an ocean wave. Before you can get your feet down, another wave comes. Sometimes, you can barely think about standing, the waves are so big and come in so fast, but over time, little by little, they’re farther apart and a little smaller. Sometimes there’s a tidal wave. You cannot always predict it,” Blackwood said. “It’s been seven years. It changed everything for us. Really, it’s just been in the last 18 months or so that we’ve really started existing again.”
He and Ariel have spoken publicly about their loss and depression. “Having my wife and daughter is vitally important. They and the work I do to make a significant impact for others keeps me going.”
“We spend millions of dollars on the flu vaccine and we don’t even know which strand of the flu to treat to be certain it’s effective. We know 80 percent of Americans will experience depression and that if we can recognize it earlier, educate ourselves and get [those affected treatment, we could help prevent the loss of life]. So why aren’t we spending money on suicide prevention — just as we spend money on the flu vaccine? We know there’s an end to the flu because we’ve been educated, but without the proper education, someone suffering from depression will believe that what he’s feeling is endless. Alex had no idea what was going on … what if he’d known that it wasn’t the end of the world, that he wasn’t the only one and that depression is a part of life?”