PASS CHRISTIAN, MS (WLOX) - About 200 South Mississippi educators learned about the trauma of youth suicide from a man who experienced it. On Monday, the founder of The Jason Foundation came to Pass Christian to share a powerful story of losing his teenage son. He told the crowd how he turned that tragedy into a mission to save young lives.
As pictures of a smiling young man flashed on the screen, Clark Flatt described his 16-year old son Jason as a natural athlete who had a lot of friends. He was basically an all-American kid. The story took a somber tone as Flatt recalled the day he walked into Jason's room and found him lying on the floor.
"I stumbled and fell on top of my son's body. He had taken my 38 caliber pistol that I had locked up until he was 14 years old," said Flatt.
That tragic day was July 16, 1997. Within months, Flatt founded The Jason Foundation in his son's memory. He travels all across the country to explain the magnitude of youth suicide, how to recognize the warning signs, and where to turn for help.
"That's why we call it the silent epidemic. It is going in and out of our communities, and many times, it takes some of our brightest and best young people, yet there's very little said about it afterwards," said Flatt. "If we can do nothing else but raise the awareness today, then that's a great first step. That's the foundation for prevention."
Flatt called teachers the number resource in confronting youth suicide. In fact, last year, the Pass Christian School District identified 36 cases of children who expressed suicidal thoughts and their parents had to be notified.
Educators say the problem can happen not only at the high school and middle school, but also at the elementary school level.
"We have students all up and down the coast who exhibit symptoms or signs of it. They're thinking about that. We want to make sure we're doing everything that we can to help those students get the help that they need," said Pass Christian Superintendent Beth John.
That's why Flatt shared his painful story with teachers and counselors. He said his mission through The Jason Foundation is his personal therapy.
"It's a way I really feel that Jason knows what we're doing, and I think he's very happy with taking something that was a very tragic ending for him, and giving others a hope and a start maybe," said Flatt. "This is my way of trying to deal with that to make sure another family doesn't lose their son or daughter without having the ability of learning about this."
"I think it's amazing to turn a terrible, traumatic situation like that into so much good. To impact lives like that is just a tremendous legacy for his son Jason," said John.
The Pass Christian School District hosted the event as part of its professional development program.The district plans to share the information with parents, students and community members.
"I hope that it will ring a bell, perhaps in one teacher's mind. They know a parent that needs this information. They'll know a student they need to help. I hope that we can save lives," said John.
"It's the second leading cause of death for young people across our nation. Most people are not aware of that. If you're not aware of the issue, then you're certainly not looking for the warning signs," said Flatt.
According to Flatt, Mississippi is one of 13-states that have passed the Jason Flatt Act. It requires teachers and certain school personnel to complete two-hours of youth suicide awareness and prevention training in order to maintain or renew their license.