Jasan Winship, a data administrator with Volunteers of America, talks about his life after a couple of accidents that led to him feeling like a burden to his family, Tuesday in Sedro-Woolley. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Jasan Winship, a data administrator with Volunteers of America, talks about his life after a couple of accidents that led to him feeling like a burden to his family, Tuesday in Sedro-Woolley. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

‘Letters to Myself,’ a VOA effort, aimed at suicide prevention

Writers describe struggles from times past and hope to assure others that better days will come.

Things will get better. We’d all like to hear those encouraging words, especially these days as the pandemic drags on and the stresses pile up.

They were written by Jasan Winship — in a letter to himself.

Winship, 40, has worked since 2008 for Volunteers of America Western Washington. He’s not a crisis counselor, but the assurances he’s written are meant to support others facing tough times.

Now working from his Sedro-Woolley home as a VOA database administrator, Winship is sharing a message of hope.

His “Letter to Myself,” describing his pain and slow recovery, is part of a VOA effort recognizing September as National Suicide Awareness Month, also known as Suicide Prevention Month. Letters to the writers’ former selves, part of the agency’s “It’s OK to not be OK” campaign, are posted on VOA’s website.

In January 2019, Winship was driving home when, he said, the steering “pulled to the right.” His minivan careened down an embankment and into a tree. He injured two discs in his neck, above and below a fusion from a prior accident.

A couple weeks of missed work were followed by neck surgery in April 2019. Before getting better, things got much worse for the married father of three.

With his legs still weak, he was using a walker. And at the end of May 2019, he fell backwards down 22 concrete steps. Weeks became months as Winship suffered severe pain. Medications left his brain foggy. With limited mobility, he used a wheelchair. In his letter, he wrote of dark thoughts. He wondered, was he too big a burden for his family?

“I was having this thought that life would be better without me,” Winship said Monday.

Through the VOA’s suicide prevention training, Winship said he’d learned about reaching out for help.

“It was a hard time. I talked to my wife one night,” said Winship. His wife, he said, assured him he was much loved and needed, and that his condition was just “one more step in the road.”

Cory Armstrong-Hoss, VOA Western Washington’s director of communications and marketing, said the Letters to Myself concept is somewhat like the It Gets Better Project, which seeks to uplift young people in the LGBTQ community.

“It’s real local people who tell their own stories, lo0king back at a time they were really struggling,” said Armstrong-Hoss. Along with the website, the letters will be shared via social media and VOA’s extensive email list.

The VOA provides emotional support 24 hours every day though its online ImHurting Crisis Chat program.

Levi Van Dyke, deputy director of behavioral health with VOA Western Washington, has seen the need during the pandemic.

Early on, “when we locked down” in March and April 2020, call volumes actually went down, Van Dyke said. By mid-May 2020, “it picked up.” From last summer to early 2021, demand increased. “There was a higher level of acuity, and added anxiety with the pandemic and isolation,” he said.

Ordinary experiences like going to the gym or meeting someone for lunch are “coping skills,” Van Dyke said. “Things like that really do make a huge difference,” he said, recalling months when social contact was shut down. “Some individuals had less anxiety. In others, it increased. It’s tricky, things are all over the place.”

According to Van Dyke, North Sound Crisis Line calls in 2020 were up 6.6% compared to the previous year. The increase was 45% from 2019 to 2020 for calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Van Dyke said suicide statistics typically aren’t up to date. “Most data is two years old. Anecdotally, we’re not seeing a huge rise,” he said.

There were 1,263 suicides in Washington in 2019, according to the state Department of Health. For 2020, the count is 1,170, but that’s a preliminary number as of April 5, 2021.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for youth ages 10-17 in Snohomish County, said Wendy Burchill, Healthy Communities Specialist with the Snohomish Health District. It’s the No. 2 cause of death for county residents ages 15-24.

During a July 2020 Health District meeting, Burchill reported that from 2014 to 2019, there had been 35 youth suicides countywide. Since August 2020, there have been seven student suicides in Snohomish County reported to public health, Burchill said.

Youth account for an average of 46% of crisis chats per month via the VOA’s imhurting.org website, according to Van Dyke.

“The treatment piece has been challenging. It’s hard to get into therapists,” said Van Dyke, adding that wait times for appointments “are terrible,” particularly for those with Medicaid coverage.

In Sedro-Woolley, Winship’s condition has improved to the point that he’s walking a couple hundred feet at a time, aided by a back brace. Although he didn’t break bones in the fall he took after his surgery, he said every muscle was strained and pain was constant. He’s being helped by physical therapy.

Returning to his VOA work has helped ease his family’s financial troubles. Being able to back off with pain drugs has also helped. “With my job, my brain is what I use,” he said. And he’s back to playing family games with his kids, two 18-year-olds and a 7-year-old.

Another Letter to Myself featured by VOA was penned by Jess Smiley, 44. She wrote about a time of severe depression and anxiety that led to hospitalization after a close friend’s death. That was a decade ago.

“Some days are not OK, but there is peace within those days that you have worked hard to achieve — be so thankful you did,” wrote Smiley, who lives in the Tacoma area. On Wednesday, Smiley said she’s learned that in sharing her struggles, she’s part of what she calls a “beloved community.”

“It feels like we’re all in this together,” she said.

In his letter, Winship wrote frankly about his down days:

“Your constant mental isolation from the amount of medication that it takes to numb the pain. Your inability to provide for your family. … Sleepless nights where you feel more like a burden than a husband, father or friend.”

He told his former self that brighter times would come: “I want you to know you are loved and appreciated by all of your friends and family. Things will get better … You are stronger than you realize.”

Signing off with “Sincerely, Your Future Self,” he sent a poweful message to anyone feeling hopeless: “I can promise you that the joy will come back.”

Julie Muhlstein: jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com

Help available

The ImHurting Crisis Chat, a service offering emotional support through Volunteers of America Western Washington, is available 24 hours every day. Chat online at http://imhurting.org/

In Snohomish, Island, San Juan, Skagit or Whatcom counties, call 800-584-3578

In Clallam, Jefferson or Kitsap counties, call 888-910-0416

More information: www.voaww.org/behavioralhealth

Nationally, help’s available at:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: call 800-273-8255 (800-273-TALK), or at https://afsp.org/

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 800-273-8255 (800-273-TALK), or at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Out of Darkness Walk

The Out of the Darkness Snohomish County Walk, a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is scheduled for 10:30-11:30 a.m. Sept. 19 (9:30 a.m. registration) at Boxcar Park, 1200 Millwright Loop West on the Everett waterfront. Information: 206-459-7617 or email jmcclure@afsp.org

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