By KATIE EUBANKS
Mississippi Alliance to End Suicide
Mississippi suicide statistics from The Jason Foundation
◼ In Mississippi, suicide is the second leading cause of death for kids between the ages of 10 and 22.
◼ Among middle-school and highschool students in Mississippi, 1 in 8 have attempted suicide.
On December 2, 2015, Vickie Winslett was looking forward to seeing the whales off the Pacific coast. She was flying to California to visit her longtime boyfriend, George.
She called from the plane before takeoff. Said she was on her way.
But “he sounded so sad,” she recalls.
“What’s wrong?” she asked him. “I’m looking forward to seeing you.”
“I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time,” George replied. But what did that mean?
Even as Vickie cried and prayed for him on the plane, she had no idea what was coming.
‘I never saw the signs’
George was originally from Greece and had family there, but lived in the Jackson area. He’d lost his only child — not to suicide, but the death had broken up his marriage. He was depressed, impulsive and strong-willed.
“We had a lot of ups and downs,” says Vickie, a sonographer at St. Dominic’s and realtor at David Ingram Real Estate in Madison. She and George met when he asked her to be his realtor.
George spontaneously decided to move to California, but he and Vickie still talked several times a day. When they discussed her visit, he told her he’d made plans for them: seeing the whales, dinner with his neighbors.
Meanwhile, George was in great shape, but he was 75 years old. He had started making out his will and final arrangements. Vickie assumed he was just being proactive, as one should at 75.
Then on that December day, she arrived at his house.
He wasn’t there when she pulled up, but he’d said he’d be going to get them some food, and that she should let herself in. She didn’t look around the house, because she knew he’d want to give her the tour himself. He loved doing that.
After a little while, Vickie’s son called. He wanted to FaceTime with Vickie and George. He asked Vickie if she’d checked the garage for George’s car.
She went to the garage, and that’s when she found her boyfriend’s body. He had shot himself.
MAtES is born
Vickie tries to remember the name of a recent movie. It deals with addiction, depression and suicide, and she knows she doesn’t need to watch it, but one of its stars — who’s also a singer — has started talking about mental health publicly.
“A Star is Born” is definitely rated R — think foul language and bedroom scenes, marital and otherwise — and also contains content that could trigger anyone who’s dealt with suicide, whether as a loved one or a survivor.
Vickie wonders if singer/actress Lady Gaga is talking about mental health out of sincerity or for publicity. “I know that sounds cynical,” Vickie says. “Can you imagine if celebrities started coming forward (about mental health)?”
A few have, but Vickie makes a good point. Mental health organizations could use more celeb alliances.
In the meantime, Vickie started the Mississippi Alliance to End Suicide (MAtES), which is working in the Jackson area and beyond to be a community advocate through prevention, intervention and postvention.
After George’s death, Vickie initially worked with the American Federation for Suicide Prevention. But then she wanted to start her own organization — one that could be more involved in the local community.
MAtES has been a nonprofit organization since April 2018, they’re holding fundraisers and they’re making connections.
“We do believe God is moving this forward. And when He’s involved, there’s nowhere to go but forward,” Vickie says.
‘Don’t let me die’
The MAtES board members (see sidebar) have lost at least nine loved ones among them to suicide. One of those was Meredith Shaw.
“She was very popular, she was class favorite (for) two years, she was class president in 9th grade — she had a lot going for her,” says Meredith’s mom, Joni Shaw Cummings, who serves on the MAtES board.
“She was talented, she competed vocally, she was in Show Stoppers, which was a very popular group of kids from all over the state … But she was class president, and she felt the need to address the issue of drinking. She gave a speech,” Joni says.
“Then she called me from school one day begging me to come get her. She had gotten notes from friends saying they hated her, and if they wanted a speech they would’ve called their mother. And from that moment on it was downhill.”
Meredith was not nominated for class favorite that year, and she knew why. She’d been rejected.
Her boyfriend broke up with her, “and then she really felt like she had no one,” Joni says.
Meredith committed suicide on February 16, 1994 — just 12 days before her 16th birthday.
Joni and her ex-husband, Meredith’s father, had tried to get her help. But doctors said she was not in the state of depression her parents had described. Nobody suggested medication back then, either, Joni says.
“We did change schools. She didn’t really want to, but we did. That didn’t help her. Then they called her crazy.”
Nobody — not even Joni’s parents — knew the extent of the problem.
“I still believe a kind word, a phone call, might’ve made a difference. Maybe,” Joni says.
One hundred and fifty sprays of flowers showed up at Meredith’s memorial service. Apologies from her classmates poured in — some as recently as this year. People offered a huge amount of support. But none of it brought Meredith back.
Meredith’s father was diagnosed with cancer nine months after her death. He was only 42, but he only lasted a year. Joni knows his grief contributed to his death.
After Joni’s interview for this story, she calls back. There’s something she forgot to mention: Despite having written notes to loved ones, and despite having laid out clothes to be buried in, Meredith dialed 911 after shooting herself in the abdomen.
And when first responders arrived, she said, “Don’t let me die.”
Reaching out to the broken
Joni says she’s grateful MAtES exists to help people understand that suicide is not the answer.
The organization does this as sort of a “first call” resource, says MAtES Vice President CJ Caufield.
“The big picture idea was to become a clearinghouse, so to speak, for anybody who was struggling with or wanted to learn more about suicide,” says Caufield, a United Methodist minister and volunteer firefighter in Kemper County.
“Not like a crisis line, but (we can help with questions like), ‘Where can I go if I’m suicidal, or my child is suicidal, or I want a suicide presentation at my school?’
“We’re interested in being a team player (with other organizations) instead of the parochial, territorial stuff that develops. Because when you’ve got nonprofits, people don’t necessarily think about that, but … they’re fighting for the same grants.”
Instead, MAtES relies totally on individual donations, Vickie says.
The day before this interview, she spoke at Hinds Behavioral Health. “And that’s our goal. The more we speak at places like that, the more contacts we make.”
In the long run, MAtES wants to make the Jackson area a model and duplicate that model elsewhere, with organizations working together, instead of in silos, to prevent suicide.
“We are not a ‘Christian’ organization, but Jesus Christ reached out to the broken,” Vickie says. “We want to reach out to the broken as His disciples.”