“On the night of January 31, 2018, I climbed to the top the Purple Heart bridge [over the Red River between Pineville and Alexandria] and stood there for nine minutes, telling myself if one person stops and tries to help, I won’t jump. But over 100 cars crossed the bridge and no one stopped to help.” The personal testimony of Kyah Iles is dramatic and heartbreaking. No one stopped to help; someone did call 9-1-1, and a police officer came to the scene. His method of intervention was to leave his patrol unit, run toward her as fast as he could as she stood poised to jump, and yell “STOP!” She jumped.
Fortunately for Ms. Iles, her husband and young son, and the citizens of Central Louisiana, her outcome was different from the outcome of 98% of all people who jump off bridges to end their lives. The 98% succeed in ending their lives—Ms. Iles did not; she fractured a wrist and suffered hypothermia, but she was rescued from the frigid waters and lived to give her testimony about her struggle with mental illness to help others suffering from similar mental health disorders.
The guest speaker of Rotarian Lee J. Taylor, Ms. Iles, at the age of 27, is a suicide survivor, a suicide interventionist, a suicide prevention and intervention trainer, and a crisis intervention trainer. Today she trains law enforcement officers NOT to run toward and yell at a person poised to commit suicide. She works for the Central Louisiana Human Services District, which provides mental health treatment, treatment for substance abuse disorders, and support and services for those with developmental disabilities.
Iles related the story of her youth, when she had a good home life, made good grades in school, was heavily involved in school activities as well as extracurricular leadership activities, such as RYLA [Rotary Youth Leadership Awakening]. On the surface, she appeared to be a well-adjusted, happy, and productive teenager, always smiling and cheerful, but she was not. She was in pain psychologically because she had a mental illness called bipolar disorder with psychotic features.
She was 16 when first hospitalized for treatment of her condition at Brentwood Hospital in Shreveport. She perceived that, in contrast with the other teenagers in Brentwood at the time, she had no reason to have mental health disorder, because she was raised in a happy well-ordered family by Christian parents. When she was discharged and returned to school, she covered up her problem and said she had been “on vacation with her family.”
Ms. Iles went on the graduate from high school and attended NSU in Natchitoches. At this time, although she had been prescribed medication to help control her brain chemistry and her mental health disorder, she was not taking her meds because, as she told herself, she “didn’t need them,” she was “trusting God to take care of her.” Little did she know at that time that, although she seemed to be functioning well and had almost completed the requirements to obtain her bachelor’s degree, her mental health disorder was worsening. One day as she was walking across campus, she suffered a mental breakdown, was detained by campus security, handcuffed and removed from campus in a patrol unit. Northwestern administration sent a letter to her which said she could not return to campus without written clearance to do so from her doctors. Her doctors would not provide the required written clearance, so she left school.
Kyah started her own business and got married. After giving birth to a son, she suffered from severe postpartum depression. During this time, she had electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which is much changed from the way “shock treatment” was performed in latter part of the 20th century—the late 1900’s. However, it did not improve her condition significantly.
On January 31, 2018, when her son was two-years-old, Ms. Iles was still suffering from pain due to bipolar disorder, she went about her day as normal until that night when she went to the bridge. At that time, all she could think of was the need “to stop the pain,” the same motivation as any other suicide victim. She said someone ends his life by jumping from the Purple Heart Bridge across the Red River every two years, although the public rarely learns of it. Indeed, although her jump from the bridge was publicized, she was not identified, and her friends were unaware of her suicide attempt.
Surviving her attempted suicide was a turning point for Kyah. She was tired of being in pain, covering up, smiling and pretending to be alright, so she shared her story on social media, got it out into the public eye, and it was shared over 1000 times. “I turned my mess into a message,” she says, and she began to feel better, to acknowledge she had a brain disorder and would not get better without taking her medications. She began taking her medication as prescribed and devoting herself to trying to help others in the same situation. She acknowledged that a mental health disorder is the same as any other chronic disease like diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, requiring medication to ease the pain, and started working to get this message to others who are in pain due to mental health disorders.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death of persons between the ages of 14 and 24. Ms. Iles urges everyone to recognize that mental health problems stem from physical imbalances in the brain, that many people suffer pain from such illnesses, and that we should all think of and treat such disorders in the same way—they are a normal part of life for many people, and we must all understand this and acknowledge it in the way we treat those around us who are burdened with mental health disorders, by treating them the same as we do those who have other chronic diseases. We must look beneath the superficial appearance and masks people wear and try to discern if the person who tells us he or she is fine, okay, alright, really IS alright. We must stop viewing such illnesses as if they are something of which the patient should be ashamed, so as to eliminate the need to hide it and cover it up.
If a mental health disorder goes untreated, the person suffering with the disorder is at high risk of suicide, and we must see depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses as common, not shameful. We must encourage those around us who are struggling with mental health disorders to speak up about it, to get treatment and to reach out for support from those around them.
Ms. Iles spoke to the Rotary Club to publicize the suicide prevention and intervention workshop she will be leading here in Winnfield at the Central Louisiana Community and Technical College on October 5 and 6, 2021. The local training was inspired by recent events in this community resulting in the deaths of two teenagers at their own hands; concerned citizens in the parish recognized that the people of our community need to learn how to identify or recognize signs and symptoms of mental health issues, suicidal thoughts and plans, prevention of both development of suicidal thoughts and attempts, and how to intervene in such plans and actions.
The Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training [ASIST] course is a two-day, two-trainer training program that teaches participants in the course how to assist those at risk for suicide. There will be no charge for taking the training, and anyone can get more information or sign up for the course at CLTCC or on the website.
The resources available for suicide prevention and intervention as developed to date should be in our schools, our churches, extracurricular and civic organizations. Every effort must be made to get the information and resources out to all parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors, club and team leaders, church leaders. Moreover, the stigma and shame attached to mental health problems must be eliminated from all cultures.
After audience questions were answered by Ms. Iles, the meeting was adjourned with the Rotary motto, “Service above self!”
Pictured above: Rotarian Bob Holeman, Kyah Iles, Rotarian Kim Nation