State suicide prevention expert Linda Flatt retired this month. She leaves a legacy of hope for others — and still harbors the private grief that powers her cause
Linda Flatt tried to help Paul. She tried to help him with a budget, with counseling, with loans — anything to help stave off the gambling addiction that was taking over his life. When Paul defaulted on a bank loan that Flatt had co-signed, she had enough. She declared herself finished with bailing him out of his gambling debts. One week later, Paul — her only son — took his own life.
Growing up, Paul Tillander had been a sweet but challenging kid. Tall, rail-thin and often flashing a goofy smile, he struggled with the structured environment of school. Today, he might have been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder, but back in the ’70s, he was just considered a mischief-maker and rule-breaker. Flatt would miss the man he could have become — and blame herself for the loss.
Maybe I could have done more to help him. Maybe I should have loaned him more money. Maybe the divorce pushed him over the edge. Maybe I could have saved him. These were the thoughts that troubled Flatt for years after Paul’s suicide.
“I had this internal thing that said I was a bad mom,” she says today.
It would take years to overcome the guilt and self-recrimination, but it was through this struggle — and because of this struggle — that Flatt would become one of the state’s most significant forces in addressing the state’s suicide rate. She retired Jan. 1 as Southern Nevada’s suicide prevention trainer and networking facilitator, capping a 20-year career of activism. Over those two decades, Flatt helped take Nevada — which has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation — from having no government apparatus to dealing with suicide to a statewide program credited with raising awareness and prevention of suicide in schools and communities across the state. The seed of Flatt’s desire to share, help and comfort came from a need to heal herself — and prevent this tragedy from happening to others.
The lesson of Paul
Linda Flatt was raised in a military family. She lived a structured life. She followed the rules, was self-reliant and colored inside the lines. She married an Air Force pilot, earned a business degree in college and became an office manager for a dental specialty practice. Soft-spoken yet firm, Flatt often chided the younger female dental staff on their appearance and punctuality. Reserved politeness and decorum were paramount. Her proper life, however, was shattered when her husband of 26 years divorced her. She was still reeling from that blow to her reality when one year later, in 1993, her 25-year-old son, Paul, committed suicide.
In that moment, a storm of self-recrimination, guilt, anger, shame and incredible grief entered her life. She was mad at Paul, mad at herself, mad at her ex-husband — and even mad at God. This prim, disciplined woman kept it all inside. How could she feel so much rage at someone who took his life? Why did he consider this the only solution? She felt guilty for being so angry at her only son.
“I didn’t go out of my bedroom for a week,” she says. “The first time I went to the grocery store, I can remember standing in front of the Ragú spaghetti sauce and having a panic attack.” Like many adult children are prone to do when they’re young and broke, Paul used to come to her house and leave with her Ragú. “You feel so fragile, initially. I felt like I would break if anyone bumped up against me and that I’d fall apart.”
There were red flags — the warning signs — she felt she overlooked.
“I wasn’t educated enough to recognize them,” says Flatt. For instance, after some girlfriend problems, Paul had threatened to kill himself. “I confronted him,” she says. “Twenty years later, I can almost hear him, ‘Ah, Mom, I was just kidding. You know I would never do that.’” She believed him — because she wanted to believe him.
Eventually, her stalwart military upbringing kicked in, but her edges and boundaries were forever softened. It was not an easy process for someone with an emotional life shaped by military discipline.
“The whole trajectory of my life changed,” says Flatt. “I learned in the aftermath of (my) divorce that I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed to start connecting. I needed to start trusting people. I needed to start opening up and letting people in and letting people help.”
How do I survive?
“My M.O. after Paul died was to educate myself about how I was going to survive,” she says. She looked for a support group to help her deal with her son’s suicide — and found none. After three years of what she characterizes as “leaning into the grief,” she formed a survivors’ support group at her church. She attended out-of-state workshops and conferences to learn more and help the people in her group. In addition to the absence of resources near at hand, there were cultural and generational barriers to contend with as well.
“My mother thought that I shouldn’t be ‘airing my dirty laundry’ in terms of my kid committing suicide,” she says. “There was such a stigma attached to suicide back then.”
At a conference in Colorado Springs in 1997, the co-founder of an organization called Suicide Prevention Action Network USA spoke about the efforts taking place in Washington, D.C. to increase suicide prevention funding. Petitions were passing from hand to hand; people were becoming community organizers. They needed volunteers to go to Washington to talk to their representatives and advocate for suicide prevention. Flatt had no intention of getting into the prevention arena. Actually, the very idea made her bitter.
“I really didn’t want to hear it. In fact, I got angry because (they) said most suicides are preventable,” she says. She learned that research showed that 70 to 80 percent of people who commit suicide have given some kind of clue and have communicated their intent.
The change came when she stopped clinging to the past and embraced the future. Flatt remembers thinking, “I didn’t prevent Paul’s suicide. Now there is nothing I can do for him, but there is something I can do for somebody else out there.” She became a community organizer for Suicide Prevention Action Network USA and made six trips to D.C., using her own money to finance what gradually became a passion — and a crusade.
[HEAR MORE: How should the media report on suicides? Hear a discussion on “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”]
Bringing it home
An early supporter of Flatt’s efforts was U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. Because his father had committed suicide, he understood the issue from a very personal perspective. In May 1997, Reid sponsored a resolution in Congress to recognize suicide as a national problem and encouraged prevention and support. Reid became her champion at the federal level and he acknowledged her contributions to the effort.
“Countless Nevadans have benefited from Linda’s important efforts over the years,” Reid writes in an email. “Linda has worked hard to ensure Nevadans receive the care they need, and our state and our communities are stronger because of her leadership, expertise, and dedication to suicide prevention.”
But there was a complicating wrinkle to Reid’s support. With federal money earmarked for suicide prevention, Flatt knew that only states that had existing suicide prevention programs would receive the monies. “We (Nevada) had nothing — and I mean nothing — so I came back from D.C. and started working on Carson City,” she says.
She found an ally in former state Sen. Ann O’Connell. Together they crafted a resolution that mirrored Reid’s federal proposal. In 1999, the Nevada Legislature passed a resolution “expressing support in the State of Nevada to develop more effective suicide prevention programs.”
In the final days of the session, unexpected state funding went to the Crisis Call Center in Reno to manage a statewide suicide prevention hotline. The center still receives state and federal funding for managing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255, suicidepreventionlifeline.org). The center’s Lifeline is the only crisis hotline in Nevada with a large percentage of their calls coming from Clark County. “Linda personifies the saying, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’’’ says O’Connell. “It just goes to show that one person in this state can make a difference.”
After commissioning a study, the legislature created a statewide program for suicide prevention in the 2003 session — but without any funding. Finally, in 2005, Gov. Kenny Guinn fully funded the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention. Coordinator Misty Vaughan Allen was hired in northern Nevada, and Flatt was hired in 2006 as the Suicide Prevention Trainer and Networking Facilitator in Southern Nevada.
Highs and lows
In 2007, a year of highs and lows, Flatt lost her father in January and her mother in March. Her second husband, Jerry, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in May. In the same year, the national conference of the American Association of Suicidology recognized her work with the Survivor Services Award for her “tireless efforts and tremendous accomplishments to improve suicide prevention in Nevada.” The conference stated, “a tireless advocate whose mission has been to educate people about suicide prevention measures and assist with support for family members who experience a suicide, Flatt played an instrumental role in passing legislation that led to the creation of a certified statewide suicide prevention hotline, and eventually the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention.”
She hopes that even in a time of a tight state budget and economic uncertainty — perhaps especially in such a time — the state office continues to expand, add more staff and reach more people.
“This office exists in huge part due to Linda’s grassroots efforts,” says Vaughan Allen. “(With her) support, knowledge and tenacity to improve circumstances in Nevada, she has been a national force for advocacy.”
Nevada has the 4th highest suicide rate in the nation, according to the American Association of Suicidology. More Nevadans die by suicide than by homicide, HIV/AIDS or automobile accidents. In 2010-2011, there was almost one suicide a day reported in Clark County. However, there is gradual but solid progress: In 1993, the year Paul died, Nevada was ranked No. 1 in the nation for suicides.
Flatt has come full circle. She began as a survivor of suicide, formed a survivors support group, sought state and national recognition for suicide prevention, and trained teachers, police and others in prevention techniques.
And now that she’s retired? Well, she’s hardly retiring. Flatt will continue to lead her Support for Survivors of Suicide Loss, which meets on the first and third Tuesdays at the Barbara Greenspun WomensCare Center (survivingsuicide.com). For Flatt, her work has brought her satisfaction knowing there has been a seismic shift in the perception of suicide prevention.
“People are more vulnerable, more willing to talk about this and bring it out into the light,” she says. As for what she’ll do with all her new free time, her answer isn’t surprising, given her passion for connecting with people: She plans to spend a lot of that free time with her daughter, Tracy, and her grandchildren.