'It can't be a taboo topic anymore': Dallastown father raising awareness after teen's suicide

Harper Ho
York Dispatch

A Dallastown father wants people to talk freely about mental health issues after his teen daughter took her own life last year — and he's inviting people to speak out at a fundraiser.

Matt Dorgan's 15-year-old daughter, Brianna Dorgan, had told her father repeatedly she wanted to die and tried to end her life at least once before she fatally shot herself Dec. 3 in York Township. 

Even after the teen got medical help, it still wasn't enough, and now Dorgan wants to share her story in the hope that it will help save others.

More:'We never saw it coming': A Manchester teen took his own life, now his family wants to save others

More:Despite pandemic, US suicides dropped last year

Matt Dorgan of Dallastown shows his favorite portrait of his daughter, Brianna, 15, at Lion's Park in the borough Monday, June 21, 2021. He lost her to suicide last December. Dorgan is working with the nonprofit, Families Renewed, to host the fundraiser "Building Bridges for Brianna" on June 26 at the park. The event will raise awareness for mental health issues. Bill Kalina photo

The former police officer teamed up with York County nonprofit Families Renewed and organized "Building Bridges for Brianna" — a fundraiser planned for 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday at Lions Park, 500 Lions Drive in Dallastown. 

Multiple mental health nonprofits as well as officials from York Area Regional Police and York County government will be present for anyone who needs to talk, Dorgan said. 

Hundreds are expected for the event, which will also feature live entertainment, food trucks, raffles, vendors and a motorcycle memorial motorcade, he said.

The purpose is to raise money for an awareness fund in Brianna's name and also to bring the community together to talk openly about mental health issues, Dorgan said. 

"It can't be a taboo topic anymore," he said. "It needs to be out there. People need to know it's OK to have those feelings and just what do we do with those feelings." 

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between 10 to 24, according to National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

Locally, suicide has been one of the top three leading causes of death in York County over the past eight years and usually ranks third after fatal drug overdoses and falling deaths, said York County Coroner Pam Gay,

“We are trending seven more suicide deaths than last year at this time, but my hope is that in the following months that may decrease as the COVID pandemic fears lessen and businesses are opening up and in-person support and other resources are more available for those with mental illness and depression,” Gay said Tuesday. “But the last 15 months have been very hard on a lot of people, and it has exacerbated many underlying problems in regards to mental illness and substance abuse issues.”

York County however has made progress with a steady decline in the number of suicides in the past three years, in part through increased efforts by Suicide Prevention of York to raise awareness among the public and in schools, Gay said.  

“Even our teen suicides, as tragic as they are, are not what they were when we had 10 in one year back in 2016. So I feel we have made great strides in York County,” she said. “There are now mandates for teachers and students to receive education about suicide prevention. This is all very important towards decreasing the deaths among teens.”

There have been 33 suicides in York County in 2021, of which two are teens, according to the York County Coroner's Office. 

In March, 16-year-old Erik M. Rivas took his own life near a railroad track in East Manchester Township. The Manchester teen died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen.

Similar to Dorgan's case, Rivas' family members thought the teen seemed happy and was recovering. His family also shared his story to help others speak up about suicide ideation.

More:'We never saw it coming': A Manchester teen took his own life, now his family wants to save others

In 2020, there were 61 suicides, with one still under investigation, according to the coroner's office. Three of these were teens, which included Brianna. 

In 2019, there were 75 suicides, of which one was a 15-year-old girl who died by hanging in North Codorus Township, according to the coroner's data.

It's a real issue that's increasing and impacting children, said Bruce Norton, chairman of Families Renewed, a local nonprofit created in 2013 to help children and families facing homelessness, suicidal and non-suicidal self injury and the aftereffects of child abuse.

"The rate of teen suicide is bad. And I would say that the rate of self harm is even worse," Norton said. "What it should be is zero. There's been a lot lately, and again I think it's partly COVID. I think there are a lot of different factors."

While there is no current nationwide data yet, findings published this month in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report showed there was a spike in emergency room trips for potential suicides by children.

The proportion of mental health-related emergency visits last year among adolescents ages 12 to 17 spiked 31% compared to 2019, according to the report — and this was especially among girls.

Also, from February to March this year, ER visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls aged 12 to 17 were 50.6% higher than during the same period in 2019, according to the CDC, and among boys in that same age group, the increase was 3.7%.

"Making sense of suicide is something that I think is a difficult thing to do," Norton said, adding taking suicide threats seriously, however, is one of the first steps. 

"I think this is an important thing for people to know, that if somebody is drawing attention to themselves with threats of suicide, there's something wrong. There's something going on. There's something that they need help with," Norton said. "So just dismissing it as they're looking for attention is a very, very harmful thing to do."

Brianna was a victim of child sexual abuse, and for a while no one, including family members, believed her, Dorgan said. This trauma contributed to her depression, and then bullying at school exacerbated the situation, the father said. 

"I had to clean Brianna's room, and there was just note after note after note, not necessarily goodbye notes, but it was spelling everything out of how she was feeling, why she was feeling that way. And she couldn't believe family didn't believe her," Dorgan said.

The father said he wished Brianna had confided in him sooner so that he could have more opportunities to prevent her from falling through the cracks.

"For the two years after the second time she was in the hospital, she would have her ups and downs. She would still cut but she wouldn't — it would never be bad enough that I really had to worry about it. And she would always openly talk to me about what was going on," he said. 

Brianna seemed happy and appeared to be getting better, so it baffled Dorgan when his daughter ultimately chose to end her life at home, he said.

"What we're learning reading through Brianna's note is it's OK to feel the way they're feeling, but it's what they do with it. It's how they react to it. It's who they tell. And then the people that they come and open up to (will) even listen to them." Dorgan said. 

Matt Dorgan of Dallastown and Bruce Norton, of the nonprofit Families Renewed, left, plan the fundraiser "Building Bridges for Brianna" at Lion's Park in the borough Monday, June 21, 2021. Dorgan lost his daughter, Brianna, 15, to suicide last December. Dorgan is working with the nonprofit to host the awareness-raising event on June 26 at the park. Bill Kalina photo

The money raised for Brianna's memorial fund will be tied to Families Renewed, Dorgan said, and will go toward helping people suffering from mental health issues. 

"It could be your kid. I think that's the core message that people need to understand, that it could be your kid," Norton said. 

Roughly $5,000 has been raised so far, said Norton, and the nonprofit hopes to raise $50,000 to $100,000 at the event.

"If we can save one life with this event, then we're all happy," Dorgan said.  

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.