Editor’s note: The original version of this article described Christina Crist as a founder of Team of Mercy. Crist is a vice president and executive director.
Talon Hogan’s tight-knit family had a reputation for entertaining folks in Henderson, Kentucky, with monthly comedy-sketch performances at One Life Church.
He impersonated popular characters to make others laugh and, at the age of 16, raised funds for a Myanmar mission trip rather than saving up for a car.
“He went there to serve the kids, but it was the other way around,” Amber Hogan, Talon’s mother, recalled. “He just wanted to help, and his passion was for the kids.”
Just two days after his 20th birthday in May 2018, shortly after deciding to discontinue his schooling at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Talon took his own life.
Talon hadn’t shown any signs that he might be suicidal, not even to his parents, Amber and Brandon Hogan, or younger brother Caleb.
“I think everybody sees things afterwards. There really were no signs, (but) you want to pinpoint something,” Amber said. “We had just signed a lease for an apartment for him. He wanted to join the police academy.”
Talon stayed in Henderson for two years to attend Southern Indiana after his parents and brother moved to Terre Haute for Brandon’s position as district sales leader with Frito Lay.
After leaving college, Talon applied for a position with Frito Lay in Evansville. But he never made it to the job interview.
“I didn’t hook him up for an interview; he just applied on his own,” Brandon Hogan said. “That’s how we found out. I called to see how his interview went, and he wouldn’t answer the phone.”
In the year since Talon’s death, his parents have struggled to cope with the loss of their son and the accompanying guilt.
Amber Hogan, a personal finance banker with a skill for photography, catalogued her family over the years, preserving Talon as the smiling young man passionate about family, church and service to others. Seeing Talon this way helps Brandon Hogan remember Talon at his best.
“It’s rough. Rough. It’s against the natural order of things,” Brandon said. “I would give anything if I could have just two more seconds with him.”
A statewide problem
Though Talon died just across the Ohio River in Kentucky, Vanderburgh County in Indiana experienced at least a dozen of its own youth suicides in 2018, according to preliminary figures from the Indiana Family & Social Services Administration’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction.
The preliminary report from the FSSA, showed that, like Talon, a majority of the Hoosiers ages 10 to 24 who died by suicide in 2018 didn’t have any known history of mental illness. Less than one in six reached out to friends or family before taking their own life.
Jason Murrey, the statewide suicide prevention coordinator, promotes efforts to reduce those numbers and increase awareness of resources. His presentation to the Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana in mid-August reported an increase in youth suicides from 2017 to 2018.
“My main goal ... is to send that message that we all have mental health, just like we have physical health,” Murrey said. “If we talk about mental health just like we talk about physical health, it will reduce the stigma.”
Murrey oversees the state’s 23 active suicide coalitions and five lifelines, but some National Suicide Prevention Lifeline calls in rural, underserved areas are picked up in other states where officials might not be aware of the resources available to Hoosiers.
“No one goes around and tells you these are community mental health centers. It’s on the website, but I promise you, if you’re (in a mental health crisis), you’re not going to look up the division of mental health and addiction or state suicide coordinator,” Murrey said.
Shelvy Keglar, an Indianapolis clinical psychologist at the Midwest Psychological Center Inc., said that Indiana has few minority providers, especially at the community mental health centers that serve vulnerable Hoosiers.
According to a State Department of Health report using 2017 data, black Hoosiers had a higher rate of death by suicide, 8.4 deaths per 100,000 people, than did black Americans, 6.6 deaths per 100,000.
As a member of the Indiana Association of Black Psychologists, Keglar looked at African-American access to mental health care and found that African-American Hoosiers seeking a black provider would have difficulty finding one in Indiana.
“We felt the ... highest level of care was usually not accessible to African Americans. … Since I got my Ph.D. in Indiana (in 1979), that’s the way it’s been,” Keglar said. “If I want to see the highest-trained black professional, a Ph.D. or an M.D., and I went to one of the community mental health centers, I would not find one.”
Another community at risk in Indiana: LGBTQ Hoosiers.
According to the Trevor National Survey of LGBTQ Health 2019, youths who identified as LGBTQ reported higher rates of suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts and self-harming behaviors.
When it came to shaping policies specific to minority groups, Murrey said he relied heavily on the other members of the Indiana Suicide Prevention Network Advisory Council (ISPNAC), a group of volunteers who provide input about suicide prevention matters for their communities.
Murrey’s military background informed approaches for veterans, but specific groups such as youths, black Hoosiers and LGBTQ Hoosiers required input from others on the council.
“It would be great if we had individuals from those communities that are able to say, ‘Hey, you know what, Jason? That program you suggested would never work here. But I think this would be very, very helpful,’” Murrey said. “Within ISPNAC, we have that, but we also have other priorities within the state.”
A coverage gap in Southern Indiana
The southern third of the state, specifically Evansville, Madison and Bloomington, doesn’t have the same coverage as the central and northern parts. Murrey identified Evansville as a potential location for expansion with more funding.
“Every community is different. That’s why I haven’t created some overarching suicide prevention plan that the whole state needs to adopt,” Murrey said. “So what we’ve developed is a framework (for communities and coalitions) for suicide prevention.”
Keglar said that, in his work throughout Indiana, he’s observed the same lack of access in Southern Indiana and rural areas.
“The system has tried to reach out but, with children, it’s still a problem,” Keglar said. “A lot of them don’t get access to services until they’re in the criminal justice system.”
Seeing more people with personal connections to a loved one’s suicide, Keglar said that people have become more willing to talk about suicide.
“You’ve got to look for any change in behavior — withdrawal is one of the major ones you will see with youth,” Keglar said. “All suicides are when someone feels entrapped and hopeless. That’s the number one factor, psychologically, no matter what age they are, that they have.”
Finding support within the community
Grief and questions about their son’s life haunt the Hogans every day.
Brandon Hogan wants to know what hurt his baby. Amber Hogan asks herself if she missed the signs. Both wrestle with the crushing, hopeless despair of loss and wonder, “Is this what Talon felt?”
Amber sought counseling with one requirement: someone who knew what she’d been through. In Terre Haute, she found Team of Mercy, a suicide survivors support group that provides individual counseling, group sessions and biohazard cleanup.
“I’ve got best friends, but when they say, ‘I know what you’re going through, Brandon’ — they don’t have a clue,” Brandon Hogan said. “But Team of Mercy, when I share there, they know what we’re going through.”
Christina Crist suffered the death of a daughter by suicide in 2013 and is now executive director and vice president of Team of Mercy for fellow survivors. There, the Hogans learned about the prevalence of depression — a revelation following reports of more youth suicides in Henderson, a town of just under 30,000 people.
“If (Team of Mercy) weren’t here I don’t know where I would be right now. Because there’s that loneliness that comes from that stigma,” Amber Hogan said. “People don’t want to talk about it or they’re afraid to talk about it.”
For Brandon and Amber Hogan, the need to educate others outweighs the difficulty of speaking about Talon’s death. For others living with depression, contemplating suicide or grieving the loss of a son, Amber shared a message of hope.
“I would really like to see more education around mental health: making sure that we’re OK and that people know that it’s OK if you’re not OK,” she said. “There are people out there that want to help you — that will help you. You have friends even when you think that you don’t.”