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Teigan Avery speaks warmly of her dad, saying whoever was on the receiving end of his phone call knew they were in for at least an hour of conversation. But following his death, she poses the question — what would have happened if he had called anybody on the day he decided to turn to suicide?

“But how were we to know? We can’t be blamed for not knowing he was in crisis, he was on my dad to call us … Anyone he would have talked to would have told him that life is smacking him right now, but he wouldn’t always be this way ,” Avery told a packed auditorium Wednesday night at Glacier High School.

“And maybe when my dad killed himself, he thought it would solve his problems, and that it might solve our problems too,” she added. “But because he didn’t make that call, he left behind as his legacy some of the biggest problems my family has ever faced.”

Avery’s father Glacier High School guidance Counselor Jerad Avery died by suicide in late 2019. Avery shared her experience dealing with her father’s suicide and her own struggles with mental health during the school’s Character Conference, which made its return for the first time since early 2019.

Glacier head football coach and teacher Grady Bennett and Kalispell Middle School teacher Noah Couser also spoke during the evening. The theme of the night “Fighting For Our Lives, In An Age Of Anxiety, Depression, Loneliness and Suicide,” aimed to reach people who are struggling with their mental health and offer tangible ways they can get through difficult times in their lives without turning to suicide.

Montana has the third-highest rate of suicide in the nation, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Seven teens ages 15 to 19 died by suicide in the Flathead Valley between May 2020 and September 2021, the Daily Inter Lake reported in late, and a Bigfork September teen took his own life soon after.

AVERY TOOK the stage showing vulnerability in describing her life leading up to her father’s suicide and what transpired after. Before the tragic event, she was already facing battles of her own.

In 2018, she was moving through a “transitional summer” in her life. She had just been through a break-up when she started a strict diet and began working out constantly. It was during a routine doctor’s appointment at this time that a lump on her throat was discovered. She soon found out she had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and despite having a successful surgery to remove it, the cancer had already moved into her lymph nodes. At 20-years-old she didn’t expect to have cancer.

“I felt out of control — I didn’t trust my body, I didn’t trust my fate,” she said. “But I decided to trust that if I could just work hard enough to be fit and control my wellness, if I could be perfect, then the cancer wouldn’t come back. I kept it all inside, this fear that I had for myself.”

After snapping at two people who were close to her, she realized that she needed help and began meeting with a counselor, and soon saw improvements in her mental health — challenging a narrative in her head that she wasn’t good enough and making an effort to speak more kindly to herself.

Then a year after her cancer diagnosis, her father killed himself.

“I miss my dad every day. I try to figure out why he did it; why did this loved, flawed man, who worked here as a counselor, why did he decide his best option was suicide?” Avery said.

She said although he is no longer here, her relationship with her father continues to grow and evolve as she continually chooses to forgive him. She spoke about Post Traumatic Growth, or PTG, a concept describing the positive psychological change experienced as a result of struggling with highly stressful life circumstances.

“The idea is you can have something really hard in your life and grow from it. You get to decide if you are going to embrace those smacks from life or use them as an opportunity to surprise yourself — to respond and to grow,” she said.

SAYING HE has a reputation for being the “every day is a great day guy” at school, Glacier High football coach and teacher Grady Bennett says he has tried to impart to his students that perspective is powerful and they can battle their negative perspectives about themselves and life .

He says he didn’t always understand how someone could lose hope at the point where life might not be worth living. Then, one night his wife of 29 years admitted to him that she had been having an affair. After the confession, she packed a bag and was gone forever.

“The deep emotional, psychological pain that comes from trauma in life is real. Psychological studies say that the most painful thing a person can deal with is the death of a child, and high on that list is finding out about a cheating spouse,” Bennett said.

What followed was one of the hardest periods in his life — experiencing emotions and thoughts he never conceived of having before and feeling like there were no options to go on. He felt like a fraud to a community feeling like he couldn’t face his students and players.

He started a journal called “the fight of my life,” writing in it daily.

“It took me a week, but I did come back and face my football team. I had a nice speech planned, but all I could do was stand in front of them and cry. The words that did come out of my mouth were this: ‘men, I’m in the fight of my life and I need you,’” he said.

The experience led Bennett to two strategies that he shared with the audience at the event.

The first is to “speak the truth to yourself” meaning blocking out negative self-talk and speaking positively. As Bennett said the strategy students joined him on stage holding up signs with positive affirmations saying “my life is precious,” and “I was born on purpose, with a purpose for a purpose.”

The second strategy is “victory comes through vulnerability.” To demonstrate students helped him lift hundreds of pounds to visually demonstrate how much easier it is to take on the things that overwhelm us in life when we have help from those around us.

SO MUCH has changed in the world since the last Character Conference in early 2019, the event’s founder and Kalispell Middle School physical education teacher Noah Couser said adding that a mental health crisis in the valley can’t be solved through an easy 10-step program.

“There is no quick fix, but I do know that if every single one of us here commits to fighting for mental health in our homes, in our community, in our homes, in our schools and mostly in ourselves, we will see change in this valley,” Courser said.

He encouraged students present at the event to lead their lives with purpose — to lift up friends that need support and be an agent of change in their school. He said it can be more beneficial to experience hardship and learn how to grow from it.

“The people in your life need you, the truth is suicide does not end pain, it magnifies it. It transfers to everyone else in your life,” he said. “Please know you are not alone, pain is not prejudiced. We have all been through difficult days and we are united in struggle.”

The entire 2022 Character Conference is set to be uploaded on Sunday to Couser’s Youtube channel at youtube.com/c/NoahCouser. A short film related to the conference is also available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xa7D68hjQqE

The National Alliance for Mental Illness Montana has local mental health resources listed on their website for Flathead County. If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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