"Gone in an instant."  PLU football team tackles mental health stigma after suicide

“Gone in an instant.” PLU football team tackles mental health stigma after suicide

Anna Taff remembers the yellow post-it she found in her son’s desk drawer. It was a list of principles he was trying to live up to, there to remind him of the person he wanted to be – his “rules of life,” she called him.

Some of the bullet points were concrete – things like “dressing properly” and “having good money management”. Others were more philosophical, like “expressing gratitude” and “being able to love.”

Taff believes the written reminders provide a glimpse of the person her son, Jordan, was before he died by suicide almost exactly a year ago during his first months of college at Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland. She discovered it while going through his belongings shortly after his death.

Today, she often revisits the list, she says. It helps spark fond memories of her son amidst a sea of ​​grief.

“He was a firecracker. He lit up a room. It’s crazy how many people he touched,” Taff told me over the phone this week. “He had goals. And he was running for those goals. , and everything was taken away.

Until recently, I had never heard the story of Jordan Taff. Few people outside of the PLU community and the Taff home in the Portland area have them. He died on October 12, 2021, aged 18, but discussions of suicides and the underlying mental health issues that cause them are often kept in low tones.

It’s a silence that Taffs and Jordan’s teammates on the PLU football team – most of whom knew the uniquely smiling linebacker just months before his death – intend to break.

“I think it’s kind of a taboo subject for a lot of people,” Jordan’s father, Rich Taff, said of suicide and struggling with mental illness. “So we want to break that taboo because it affects everyone, and everyone should be concerned.”

In conjunction with October’s Mental Illness Awareness Week and in partnership with Hilinski’s Hope Foundation – a nonprofit created after the suicide of Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski – l he PLU football team has done its part to keep Jordan’s memories alive. Players have worn green wristbands in his honor ahead of games this season and recently wore his shirt in midfield for the draw, recognizing Jordan as honorary captain.

According to PLU coach Brant McAdams, they want people to remember, they want people to know that the pain of depression and mental illness is real, and they want to encourage anyone in need to ask. help.

“I think it’s critical, and I think it’s becoming increasingly critical,” McAdams said of the need to focus on raising mental health awareness on campus and in the world of college sports. .

“You have to be intentional about it.”

PLU student-athlete Jordan Taff committed suicide on October 12, 2021. He was 18 years old. Courtesy of Rich and Anna Taff

“It’s all been taken away”

A year after Jordan’s death, the Taffs are struggling to understand what happened to their son. It all happened so quickly. As an honors student and accomplished left-handed pitcher at Portland High School and later Lake Oswego, he had his whole life ahead of him. He appeared on the path to achieving his goals, including playing baseball and football at the college level.

According to Anna Taff, everything changed during the first year of high school in Jordan when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While some students have adjusted to the closures and isolation of remote learning, Jordan has struggled. Without the routine of school and sports, he became quiet, distant, anxious, depressed and soon incredibly ill.

“He just wasn’t himself, and he eventually had to be hospitalized because he became catatonic. Psychiatrists called it malignant catatonia, which is the worst classification of catatonia. He stayed in the hospital for quite a long time, because he stopped eating, drinking and talking. He was on probation,” Taff recalled. “I mean, we almost lost it then.”

Despite difficulties in finding accessible mental health care at the start of the pandemic, Jordan received treatment at Randall Children’s Hospital and the Unity Health Center for Behavioral Health in Portland, then traveled twice to Utah to electroconvulsive therapy. Anna Taff described the treatments as an act of parental desperation which, for a time, seemed to work. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed medication, Jordan graduated with his high school classmates in June 2021, accepting a baseball scholarship at PLU.

A dual-sport athlete, Jordan arrived on campus in August 2021 for the start of football practice. While he quickly bonded with his teammates and coaches – revealing an endearing kindness and humor, according to McAdams – privately he again began to struggle with depression and anxiety, including self-medication. with cannabis, which made his symptoms worse, his parents said.

Within months, Jordan was gone.

Today, Anna Taff can’t help but look back and blame the pandemic for causing her son’s rapid descent.

“All of those things were going in the right direction for him, and then all of a sudden it was all taken away,” Taff said. “I feel like if the pandemic hadn’t hit, we would still have it here.”

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Pacific Lutheran University head football coach Brant McAdams talks to the team after a morning practice on the school field in Parkland, Washington on Oct. 26, 2022. Cheyenne Boone Cheyenne Boone/The News Tribune

Promoting Mental Health Awareness

There are things that make Anna Taff smile, even with everything her family has been through over the past year. The memories of her son help her to live. The same goes for the outpouring of support the Taffs have received from the PLU, she said.

Sometimes, said Ann Taff, it feels like Jordan, who wore number 38 in the PLU, “is still with us.” It’s one of the reasons she’s compelled to share her story, she said.

Recently, the Taffs attended a PLU game played against George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. With the Lutes leading 13-12 and the opposition on the march, PLU Jordan’s defense would have been part of a last play needed to secure victory. The fourth stoppage came with exactly 38 seconds on the clock.

Two weeks later, in a PLU home game at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup, the Taffs were in attendance again. Jordan was recognized as honorary captain during the game, and shortly after his empty shirt was taken to midfield for the draw, the first attacking play from scrimmage took place – at the 38-yard line.

As if that wasn’t a clear enough sign of Jordan’s presence, the last play of the game also took place on the 38-yard line, Rich Taff recalled.

“It’s something special when you see something like that,” he said. “Jordan was a character, and he always made his presence known, so it was kind of like, ‘Of course it’s happening.'”

Although McAdams could not explain everything that happened on the field, the two games, he said, were part of the university’s campaign to promote mental health awareness in memory of Jordan.

It’s an effort the football manager expects to continue for the coming seasons.

“Absolutely, we will pay tribute to him. We had this kind, calm, funny, dedicated friend and teammate, and then it was gone in an instant,” McAdams said.

“We will use Jordan’s memory to highlight the value and fragility of life, as a reminder to never, ever take this for granted.”

Resources are available for people in crisis or those who are worried about someone else.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Available 24 hours a day by dialing 988 and at suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Lifeline Crisis Chat: suicidepreventionlifeline.org/talk-to-someone-now/

Washington Recovery Help Line: 1-866-789-1511

How to identify and help someone who may be at risk.

Matt Driscoll is a columnist for the News Tribune and the newspaper’s opinion editor. A recipient of the McClatchy President’s Award, Driscoll is passionate about Tacoma and strives to tell stories that otherwise might not be told.

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