'We never saw it coming': A Manchester teen took his own life, now his family wants to save others
The family of a 16-year-old who took his own life last month in East Manchester Township is grappling for answers — and a local suicide prevention advocate says it's important to know the warning signs of suicidal ideation.
Erik M. Rivas was a hunter who respected animals and loved nature, so it wasn't unusual for him to leave the house often and go for walks, said grandmother Julia Weyant.
However, the Manchester teen never came back this time, and family members say his death felt like a slap in the face because they never saw it coming.
"It's not just us as a family that can't grasp this. The school can't, the church he went to can't; nobody ever saw this coming from him — never," Weyant said. "That's what was so bad, because he never showed a sign up until I found his empty bed on Tuesday morning."
Erik died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen at 9:23 a.m. March 23 near railroad tracks in the area of Gut Road and Wago Road in East Manchester Township, according to the York County Coroner's Office.
Northeastern Regional Police responded after Norfolk Southern Railway employees discovered his body and called 911, according to his grandmother — who was already at the police station when the call came through because she had been searching for Erik that morning.
'Such a great gentleman': The teen had received treatment — taking antidepressants, going to therapy — for about two years, and he showed signs of progress leading up to his death, family members said.
"We all thought he really did conquer his voices and his fears, and he was growing up to be such a great gentleman," Weyant said. "How do we make people see this? Because we didn't."
Professional help and care from relatives wasn't enough, which is why Erik's family members say they want to share his story — in the hope that it will save others.
York County has had 12 deaths by suicide so far in 2021; Erik is the only minor, county Coroner Pam Gay said.
Despite a significant decline in the number of suicides over the past two years in the county — there were 60 in 2020, down from 70 in 2019 and 92 in 2018 — one death is still too many, said Cindy Richard, chairperson of the nonprofit Suicide Prevention of York.
There probably were warning signs in Erik's suicide as in many cases, but people don't know what they are, she said.
"They just didn't see the warning signs either because they didn't know them, or they weren't just loud and clear — and a lot of times, they're not loud and clear," Richard said.
Warning signs: Suicide is complex and occurs because of a combination of factors rather than any single reason, she said.
One warning sign is talking about being a burden to others, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Erik left a suicide letter detailing his past traumas and how he wanted to deal with them on his own because he didn't want to burden anyone, according to family members.
Another sign is showing relief or sudden improvement, which Weyant said described her grandson, who "was starting to feel more confident” after treatment and therapy.
"That's what fools people, because they think that they've finally got this person over the hump," Richard said. "You can't let your guard down, because at that point, they, one, are either deciding not to take their life or, two, they are comfortable with taking their life. The plan is in place. They know when they're going to do it."
It's especially the case if they've already planned their funeral, she said. Erik, in his letter, laid out instructions for his burial, according to his aunt Brandi Weyant-Ceron.
"The majority of the people who die by suicide would give the shirt off their back to anyone. And so they're seen as a very caring, loving, taking care of other people type of person," Richard said. "What people think is the type of person who takes their life, there is no type, but people feel like there is. And the person who takes their life does not match up with that type of person that they have in their mind."
Withdrawal from activities is another indication and could have contributed in Erik's case because he was cut off from in-person interactions at school due to the COVID-19 shutdown, his grandmother said, adding she believes it played a part.
It's unclear the extent to which the pandemic has increased the national rate of teen suicide, but experts emphasize that suicide is preventable, even during times of extraordinary stress.
"He was getting mental health help, but a lot of times it's just not enough for many reasons. A lot of people have died by suicide within the same day or days after they've been released from a mental health care facility," Richard said. "I don't know (why)."
Most Americans said in a 2020 national survey that they would step in to stop someone they know who is at risk of suicide. But the signs may not always be recognized by the person's loved ones, Richard said.
A public memorial for Erik was held Wednesday evening at Bible Baptist Church in Conewago Township. The Northeastern High School junior, who was buried Wednesday, would have turned 17 the next day.
"I think we probably did do what we were supposed to do," Weyant-Ceron said. "Ultimately, a part of this counted on him to open up to us, but I just feel like, was there something else I could have said that would have been the right question to have him share with us what he was feeling?"
As Richard put it for people experiencing distress, "It's OK to not be OK."
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is (800) 273-8255, and people can contact Suicide Prevention of York at 717-451-6411 for resources.