Recent Teen Suicides in Thermopolis Part of State, National Trend (Part 2)

Family of Jordan Christian discusses impact of bullying, mental health and their son’s hidden struggles

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 second story in a series about recent teen suicides in Thermopolis. Check out part one.

THERMOPOLIS, Wyo.—It’s been four months since Amber DuVall lost her 16-year-old son Jordan Christian. He took his own life on the morning of April 4. Since then, DuVall and Jordan’s stepfather, Justin Popp, have been asking themselves hard questions as they grapple with their grief.

“The world literally goes on,” DuVall said. “It’s so hard and cruel.”

In the midst of their pain, she and Popp are learning things about Jordan they hadn’t known when he was alive. To them, he put on a brave face and didn’t complain or he acted out and refused to confide in them.

As hard as it is to speak publicly on the subject, DuVall agreed to an exclusive interview with the Wyoming Truth to address the larger, overarching problem of teen suicide in hopes of starting a conversation and helping other struggling teens and families.

Jordan Christian poses with Lyle Wiley, a Hot Springs County High School English, journalism and yearbook teacher, in Laramie after receiving the award for best yearbook in 2022. (Courtesy photo from Amber DuVall)

DuVall believes her son was being bullied by peers at Hot Springs County High School. 

Jordan, a member of yearbook staff, the wrestling team and the cheerleading squad, dreamed of becoming a professional wrestler, but he wasn’t good at the sport, DuVall said. He caught the bug after attending Wrestlemania 34 during a family trip to New Orleans years earlier.

He broke his hand during his first year on the wrestling team, but rather than stepping down, he continued to attend practices and became team manager.

Jordan loved cheerleading and was tight with the girls on the squad, DuVall said. He often walked them home from school or to their after-school jobs to make sure they arrived safely.

DuVall said Jordan’s peers called him a “wimp” despite his nearly 6-foot stature and muscular build and mocked him for being the only male cheerleader. He also was teased because of his long hair, she said—even though his hair was a nod to Popp, who was growing his hair for a third time to donate to an organization that fabricates wigs for cancer patients. Three of Popp’s female family members had cancer, and he saw firsthand how the wigs had boosted their self-confidence. Jordan respected that and wanted to help, too.

A school official, contacted for comment about the alleged bullying, did not respond.

On top of the bullying, DuVall said darker mental health issues lurked in her son, which she attempted to address when the family lived in Cheyenne. In 2020, Jordan was admitted for a 10-day stay and psychological evaluation at Denver Health after he told his now 12-year-old sister, Serenity, that he had knives hidden in the boards of his bunk bed that he planned to use against them, DuVall said. After confirming the knives were there, DuVall called the Laramie County Sheriff, and Jordan was put on an emergency hold.

During the psychological evaluation, Jordan reported having suicidal ideation. He was not formally diagnosed with a mental illness, but he saw a therapist after being released. DuVall said he resisted attending those sessions.

In 2021, DuVall and Popp moved the family to Thermopolis, thinking Jordan might do better in a smaller town. Initially, it appeared to help.

“He seemed so much lighter and like he was coming into his own,” DuVall recalled.

The toll of bullying

Though Jordan didn’t discuss his problems with his parents, he opened up to Sioux Craft, DuVall’s former boss at the Roundtop Mountain Vista Motel in Thermopolis. Jordan frequently helped his mom and Craft make beds and clean rooms. Craft, who suffers from depression, formed a connection with him, and the two would often talk.

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

Jordan spoke to Craft about being bullied, which is echoed in his social media posts that DuVall found on his phone after his death.

In an undated post, Jordan lashed out at his classmates: “Those of you who keep telling me to kill myself, yk [you know] who you are, I don’t believe you know the gravity of your words.” The post goes on to describe his suicidal thoughts, which, Jordan wrote, he’d had for seven years.

It’s not clear whether this post was turned over to school counselor Elisa Daniels or whether another student reported Jordan’s suicidal ideations. But Daniels created a safety plan for him in January 2023, DuVall said. 

The six-step safety plan includes identifying warning signs, internal coping strategies and things to do to make a safe environment, as well as people and social settings to distract negative thoughts. Step five contains a list of names of trusted adults in and out of school within the student’s support system from whom he or she can seek help.

The final step includes the name of the student’s clinician: Jordan left it blank. There also are  phone numbers and addresses for the national 988 suicide and crisis hotline and local law enforcement.

It’s also not evident if any follow up to the plan occurred, as Daniels did not respond to a request for an interview.

One of the trusted adults listed in Jordan’s plan was Lyle Wiley, an English and journalism teacher, who declined to be interviewed. 

“This year has been especially difficult. Losing two beloved students to suicide in the span of less than a month in April was an experience that I can barely attempt to verbalize,” Wiley wrote in an email to the Wyoming Truth.

Craft understood what Jordan was up against; she was bullied as a teen in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Jordan Christian mans the booth for his family’s homemade PB&J company at the farmer’s market in Cody. (Courtesy photo from Amber DuVall) 

“I didn’t want to live,” she said, noting that people who aren’t bullied don’t understand the toll it takes on a young person. “You get up every morning asking yourself, ‘What fresh hell am I going to endure today?’ Kids don’t think about the impact of their words, because they don’t have the emotional intelligence at that age, and their brains are still forming.”

A mother of three grown sons, Craft, 60, believes adults bear the responsibility for teaching their children that bullying is wrong. She also believes Jordan didn’t want to burden others with his problems.

“I want people to know it’s okay to reach out when you need help,” Craft said.

‘Legendary kindness’ 

By all accounts, Jordan was the student to whom others turned for emotional support.

DuVall heard this from the teens and adults who attended his memorial service. The condolence cards Jordan’s friends shared with his family capture their sentiments.

Several wrote personal anecdotes about the many times Jordan helped or complimented them; others described his contagious smile, how he was always a gentleman and his “legendary kindness.” Many more shared stories that encapsulated the ways he touched their lives.

In her grief, DuVall laments that Jordan never seemed to know how many people truly cared about him and his inability to reach out for help when he needed it. She pointed to the “tough cowboy culture” in Wyoming that makes it hard for teens and adults to appear vulnerable when they’re struggling.

“It’s a tough culture for these kids,” she said. “We need to be kinder to each other and respect differences.”

For DuVall, questions remain about what could have been done to save her boy: “I try to figure out what we can do better, so maybe a child later on doesn’t feel the same way.”

Check back for part three, coming soon.

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