Recent Teen Suicides in Thermopolis Part of State, National Trend (Part 1)

Family of Jordan Christian grapples with their loss, searches for answers

The recent suicides of two teens in Thermopolis in April 2023 shook the small community. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

The following article discusses teen suicide and contains details about those who have taken their own lives. If you are having thoughts of suicide, or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources can be found here.

This is the first story in a series about recent teen suicides in Thermopolis.

THERMOPOLIS, Wyo.—Amber DuVall remembers the last weekend of her son’s life in painful detail. Jordan Christian, 16, had been in a defiant mood and wasn’t acting like himself. The two had fought that Friday morning after she confiscated his phone when he refused to shovel snow at the request of his stepfather, Justin Popp.

That Jordan hadn’t done his chores was odd in itself, DuVall said. Typically, he was eager to please. A straight-A student. A congenial teen who memorized and greeted all of his classmates by their first names. He was a joker and a hard worker who took pride in being the lead salesman for his family’s homemade peanut butter company, PB&J’s.

Tom Butler, owner of the Flying Eagle Gallery and father of two teen boys, serves as a surrogate parent to many of the youth who find refuge in his gallery. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher) 

But in the days leading up to his death in early April, Jordan no longer was eager to get out of bed in the morning, so he could arrive at school an hour before classes began to work out in the gym. Instead, he had been dragging himself out of bed. Unbeknownst to his parents, he’d been staying up most of the night playing video games or chatting online with friends. Jordan’s grades had begun to slip. For the first time, DuVall received notices from teachers that he failed to complete assignments. Her once-cheerful child seemed to have fallen into a dark abyss.

In retrospect, the signs were clear that Jordan was struggling, Duvall said.

“It all happened so fast,” she said by phone from her home in Thermopolis during an exclusive interview with the Wyoming Truth. “I just thought he was being a teenager.”

The first weekend of April culminated in a fight between mother and son in which Jordan threw a punch that caught DuVall in the side of the face. After the altercation — Popp intervened to calm Jordan down — he remained in his room for the rest of the weekend, refusing to apologize or discuss what happened. He also refused to eat dinner with the family, instead taking a plate to his room.

DuVall and Popp tried to engage Jordan in discussion, but he declined to speak to them. 

When DuVall went to wake Jordan up on Monday, April 3, he was already gone. DuVall was worried, but relieved later to find out he’d made it to Hot Springs County High School.

That morning, the couple met with school principal Catelyn Deromedi and counselor Elisa Daniels to discuss Jordan’s recent behavior. Daniels gave them pamphlets listing therapists and other resources to help Jordan, DuVall said.’

Jordan Christian, 16, celebrates being admitted into the National Honor Society in 2021. He took his own life on April 4. (Courtesy photo from Amber DuVall) 

But they didn’t have time to follow up. The following day, April 4, Jordan took his own life in a local church; he shot himself with a gun he’d stolen from an unlocked car, DuVall said. She has no idea to whom the gun belonged.

Deromedi declined to be interviewed for this series, and Daniels did not return an email request for comment.

Rising trend in Wyoming, elsewhere

Jordan’s suicide was the first of two in Thermopolis in April. Stephanie Petty, 19, took her life on April 25. The deaths are indicative of a national and state trend: Between 2007 and 2021, teen suicides skyrocketed 62% nationally, rising from 6.8 deaths to 11 per 100,000. The rate was even higher for youth between the ages of 10 to 14, which tripled during the same period after a decline in deaths between 2001 and 2007.

In Wyoming, the teen suicide rate has been trending upwards for the past decade, according to a 2021 report by the Wyoming Department of Health. Between 2010 and 2020, the suicide rate among 10-24 year-olds was 19.7 per 100,000 youths—nearly double the national average.

Twenty-two adolescents in Wyoming under age 18 took their lives between 2021 and 2022. Of these deaths, the vast majority involved firearms, as was the case with Jordan and Stephanie. 

The question remains: what is driving Wyoming teens to end their lives?

Increasingly, young people are reporting elevated levels of distress. The 2023 Youth Risk Behavior survey by the CDC indicates suicidal thoughts and mental health issues are a growing problem. The report also shows many of the same behaviors and experiences that were moving in the wrong direction before the pandemic, like poor mental health, continue to worsen.

Among the issues facing youth are bullying and sexual violence, as well as substance abuse.  In 2021, according to the CDC report, 22% of high school students nationwide seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year, including 30% of female students and 14% of males.

The group most impacted are LGBTQIA+ students, with 70% reporting increased feelings of sadness and hopelessness, the CDC report noted.

There’s no doubt Wyoming faces an uphill battle when it comes to providing mental health resources for youth, said Cathy Hoover, program manager for the public health division at the Wyoming Department of Health. Most mental health providers throughout the state have long waitlists, particularly in rural areas like Thermopolis. Schools often have a limited number of counselors, Hoover said, and there may be only one psychologist for an entire district.

Hoover noted social media has definitely added to bullying and feelings of distress among youth, because it can’t be turned off. Prior generations may have dealt with bullying at school, but they could escape it when they went home. Now, students carry bullying with them 24/7 via their phones.

“They’re constantly inundated with it,” Hoover said, “and I definitely think it bogs them down.”

A 2021Wyoming Behavioral Health Snapshot report by the Wyoming Department of Education and other agencies indicated  80% of teens polled know where to seek help for mental health challenges—most of which did not involve talking with an adult. The survey polled 3,412 students in 2021 from Campbell, Fremont and Park county school districts on myriad topics, including mental health and substance abuse.

Courtesy image from the Wyoming Department of Health

Forty-five percent said they listened to music to help them cope with negative emotions, while 35% said they ignore their feelings completely.

Hidden stressors

This tracks with what Tom Butler sees in the youth who come into his store. Butler, the owner of the Flying Eagle Gallery in downtown Thermopolis and father of two teenage boys, has become the de facto trusted adult for many struggling teens. The gallery, which includes a frame shop and art supply store, has a large table where teens play games, create art, do homework or just hang out together in silence.

“I want to provide teens with a safe spot where they can relax and be themselves,” said the soft-spoken Butler.

He believes a number of variables are causing mental distress among teens in Thermopolis and elsewhere. In the cases of Jordan Christian and Stephanie Petty, bullying may have had an impact on one or both of them, he said. But there’s much more to the underlying stressors plaguing many youth.

“In my opinion, that issue is simply a touchstone — false flag — that adults can talk about without implicating themselves,” Butler said. “Fact is, there’s a whole complicated myriad of factors that led to both of these deaths, not the least of these, a pervasive Wyoming culture of spurning apparent weakness, as well as a national issue of adults having created both an existential crisis and a crisis of faith for ‘kids these days.’” 

Finding a solution, Butler said, ultimately depends on creating a culture where young people can thrive.

In the end, only Jordan Christian knows why he took his own life. But in his mother’s mind, there were mitigating factors that made him vulnerable.

Check back for part two of Jordan Christian’s story, coming soon. 

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