Fighting depression’s stigma Family and donor turn Madeline Sherlock’s suicide into a wake-up call for Ozaukee County — (Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinal)

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Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinal

MARK JOHNSON, Staff  – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

November 1, 2004

My mom said the first day I was born I laughed

Madeline Sherlock wrote those words in fourth grade, the opening sentence of a three-page autobiography, and when her parents read them now they recall fond memories that are painfully hard to square with the sad, disengaged teenager Madeline became.

Madeline, who eventually struggled with depression, was in good company, the Sherlocks say.

When Tim and Deb Sherlock moved from Minnesota to Cedarburg four years ago, they were surprised by the number of friends their daughter met who had been diagnosed with depression and were taking medications.

“As time went on you knew about more people and it was very disturbing,” says Madeline’s mother, Deb Sherlock. “I felt like I was living someplace that was very sick. What do they need to have happen before somebody acts?”

Today a serious discussion of depression among teenagers in Cedarburg and throughout Ozaukee County is under way. An anonymous benefactor from Ozaukee County has made a multiyear commitment to provide thousands of dollars for programs to battle depression and suicide among children.

One of the programs, a support group for teens, met for the first time last month, and more than a dozen teens discussed the community’s need to address depression and provide more help. It was a discussion tinged by grief.

Over the summer, Madeline, a sensitive, curly-haired young woman who loved ice hockey and agonized over the problems of her friends, took her own life. Only two weeks earlier she had begun taking an anti-depressant medication.

She died two weeks shy of her 18th birthday.

Acknowledging depression, suicide

Nationwide, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.

But how widespread depression and suicidal behavior are among Madeline’s peers in Ozaukee County isn’t clear.

“It’s not greatly talked about, but there’s a decent number of people who are depressed,” says Jordan Westplate, an 18-year-old senior at Cedarburg High School and friend of Madeline Sherlock. “I think it’s definitely more of a hidden thing than something people talk openly about.”

Ozaukee County Coroner John R. Holicek said there were 14 suicides in 2003 and five so far this year; one involved a teenager. But those numbers include only people who killed themselves within the county’s borders. Madeline died in Glendale in Milwaukee County.

In 2003, Ozaukee County also recorded 233 involuntary hospitalizations, instances in which people were sent to the hospital after police determined they were a threat to themselves or others. Perhaps 25% involved adolescents, says Joan Kojis, the county’s mental health and drug and alcohol program coordinator.

At Cedarburg High School, where Madeline would have been a senior this year, there have been signs of a problem, or at least the perception of one.

Students speak of a “senior curse.” Seven seniors have died in the last seven years, at least two by suicide.

“We have at least one senior die every year,” says Michelle Weatherhogg, a 17-year-old senior who was a close friend of Madeline’s. “It’s just this idea that kids are waiting for the next person and they’re scared. Who’s going to die next?”

Jan Chapman, director of pupil services and special education for the Cedarburg district, says the so-called senior curse is more media invention than truth.

“Do I think we have a higher prevalence? No. I think it’s just more publicized,” she said.

Patrick Sorensen, a school psychologist in the district, stresses that depression among teens “is not just a school issue, it’s a community issue. I don’t have all the answers. You, as a community member, don’t have all the answers. Clergy don’t have all the answers. Hopefully we can work on this together.”

Any collective effort, however, must overcome several barriers, including the powerful stigma that keeps people from discussing depression and suicide.

“Society at large doesn’t want to acknowledge suicide,” says Dan Laurent, executive director of Youth and Family Project Inc., the group running the new support group for teenagers. “There is still that idea that if you talk about suicide with teens you are putting that idea in their heads. That is a barrier to open and honest communication.”

Tighter school and social service budgets have also made it harder to address the problem, forcing counselors to focus more on crisis work and less on prevention.

Perhaps the greatest barrier is the reluctance of many teenagers to discuss depression with adult counselors.

“I don’t think I’d be comfortable talking to a school psychologist or counselor,” Westplate says. “I don’t know of any way that people would go and say, ‘I’m depressed.’ ”

Depression surfaces slowly

Friends of Madeline say that she seldom, if ever, talked about her depression.

“We had no idea,” Weatherhogg says. “At that point in time she was the most energetic person. She always cared about her friends so much.”

She recalls accompanying Madeline to the funeral of another Cedarburg student in 2003, a young man who had taken his own life.

“She said, ‘I can’t believe he would do this. Look how many people he hurt,’ ” Weatherhogg says.

Since Madeline’s death, friends and family have sifted through their memories for clues to her illness.

Tim and Deb Sherlock remember the happy girl their daughter was: long, curly hair, hazel eyes, a smile from ear to ear, a song seemingly always on her lips.

She had boundless energy. She was not cautious, learning to ride a bicycle before her big sister, Evan, who is four years her senior.

Madeline was mischievous, but also empathetic and sensitive. She did not excel in academics, which was difficult in a school district that emphasized achievement, her parents say.

The Sherlock family had no history of depression. Nor did they have an inkling that Madeline suffered from the illness until her final year.

In the summer of 2003, Deb’s mother died. Madeline had been very close to her grandmother and took the loss hard.

That fall, a close friend was badly injured in an auto accident. Madeline had seen her friend earlier that night and blamed herself for not stopping the friend from driving.

Madeline’s mother, who had been through a similar experience in her youth, thought she understood her daughter’s self-reproach.

“I told her I remember feeling very responsible and guilty,” Deb Sherlock says. “It’s very hard going through life without having done something you deeply regret and wish you’d done differently.”

Madeline’s parents and friends told her repeatedly, “It wasn’t your fault.” But Madeline insisted, “No, it was my fault.”

Eventually, she stopped talking about the accident.

She let things slip: household chores, gra
des. She had a hard time even staying in school for the day, though she desperately wanted to graduate with her class.

“It just got worse and worse, and I went, ‘OK, we need to get her some help,’ ” her mother says.

About three months after the auto accident, Madeline began seeing a therapist once a week, but her slide continued.

“He did not know what was wrong with her,” Deb Sherlock says. “He was a very nice person and she liked talking to him, but I don’t think he had a clue.”

Twice Madeline ran away from home.

There were still good times, nights when her father was out of town and Madeline would crawl into bed with her mother, nights when they all went out to dinner and she couldn’t stop hugging mom and dad. In some ways, that made the bad times harder.

Sparkplug of team

Tim Sherlock saw his daughter disengage from all of the activities she loved. Ice hockey, he says, was the one exception.

She played for the under-19 Ozaukee Ice Dogs, a spirited group of young women who had far more fun than talent.

“They’d get slaughtered,” says team manager Beth Shully, “and they’d drop the sticks in the middle of the game and just start dancing.”

Madeline was the sparkplug. Around teammates, she kept her sorrow and detachment in check.

“They really only saw the vivacious side of her up until the last week or so,” Shully says.

Two weeks before her death she was diagnosed with depression after seeing a new therapist. She was put on Lexapro, an anti-depressant. She told friends the medication was helping.

But the pills made her feel lethargic, and adjusting the dosage didn’t seem to work. Her mood shifted wildly.

On July 21, Tim Sherlock drove his daughter to summer school. She seemed lethargic and he gave her his best pep talk. He told her she could fight her way out of this rut. She shouldn’t let the opinions of others affect her.

“I know,” she said. Her voice sounded flat, disengaged.

Deb Sherlock spoke to her daughter around 6 p.m. Madeline didn’t sound good. Her mother asked her to come home, but she didn’t.

That night Madeline went to a get-together with friends at a house in Glendale. She was very quiet and kept slipping away to make calls on a friend’s cell phone. After 15 minutes, her friends worried, went looking for her and found her.

Later, she disappeared again, and this time her friends could not find her. They called the Sherlocks and the police.

The next morning Madeline was found in a yard not far from the home she had been visiting.

The Sherlocks would not say how their daughter killed herself.

“She didn’t do something that could fail,” Deb Sherlock says. “She was very intent.”

The Sherlocks struggled to understand their daughter’s death.

They learned that Madeline had not been calling people as a cry for help. Apparently, she had already decided what to do, and was only searching for the means to do it.

After her death, Madeline’s hockey teammates wore her number 9 on the sleeves of their team jerseys. Friends came to the Sherlock home and talked and cried and hugged.

But others in the community, whom the Sherlocks had expected to reach out, drew back instead.After witnessing the way some responded, the Sherlocks wanted to be sure children who needed help would not be pushed away, but rather drawn closer and embraced.

Their hopes were bolstered when the anonymous benefactor, who had seen Madeline play hockey, came forward. In early August the benefactor approached Susan G. Stein, who runs Strategies for Philanthropy.

As a result, Maddie’s Fund for Teen Health has been established. Among other programs, the fund will pay for the new support group, and a mass mailing of postcards with warning signs and suicide prevention resources. The postcards will be sent to every home in Ozaukee County with a child between 10 and 18.

Imagining her future

Back in fourth grade, when Madeline Sherlock and her classmates wrote their autobiographies, they were asked to imagine the future. Madeline anticipated some hard times ahead:

High school is so hard. When I think back to when I was in fifth grade, sometimes I wish I was there.

But she saw herself making it through the tough times. She wrote of getting into college, studying to be a reporter and working in a clothing store at the mall. She ended her autobiography in the middle of the life she imagined for herself.

Ring, ring! I pick up the phone. It’s Jill my news reporter partner. She says that Sue Johnson was just found murdered this morning. I’ll be right down, I say.