Jordan Burnham, a 23-year old Pennsylvania man, first gained notoriety in most unusual fashion.
He jumped out the window of a ninth floor apartment.
The building wasn’t on fire. And Burnham, then 18, was stone cold sober.
He was, however, severely depressed.
Despite suffering injuries too innumerable to list, Burnham survived his suicide attempt and upon his recovery, became a professional public speaker. He now travels the country talking about both mental health and suicide prevention.
This week, he lectured in Big Pine, Bishop, Mammoth, Lee Vining and Coleville schools.
He was brought to the Sierra by Ana Danielson, who works out of the Mono County Office of Education. Danielson is working on a statewide mental health initiative funded by Proposition 63 (The “Millionaire’s Tax”), passed in 2004.
She decided to bring in Burnham after hearing him speak at a convention last fall.
The recently created North Star Counseling Center (with offices in Bishop and Mammoth) is also a product of Prop. 63. North Star offers mental health counseling services at a rate of just $35/hour. The service is open to everyone. According to Danielson, Al Sasuga, M.F.T. oversees the Center, serving as oversight to three interns busy fulfilling their 3,000 hours of required clinical work to gain accreditation.
Back to Burnham
There is nothing in Jordan Burnham’s manner and appearance to suggest that he would have the capacity to leap out of a 9th story window. And perhaps that’s the true message – that parents and educators can’t just let teenagers get by without poking at their well-constructed facades from time to time.
He was a class president, a member of the homecoming court, a star athlete, a class cutup. His older sister had graduated with honors and received an academic scholarship to Penn State University. Jordan appeared to be on the same trajectory.
Burnham was diagnosed with depression during his junior year of high school and after an incident where he locked himself in his room and wouldn’t come out, forcing his worried parents to call the police, he was checked into a mental hospital for several weeks.
Burnham maintained that more than 20% of young adults will suffer from a mental health disorder and 19% of young adults contemplate suicide at some point. Those with depression are five times as likely to go through with it.
At the outset, said Burnham, all he knew about mental health and mental hospitals is what he saw in the movies (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was referenced more than a few times). So there was a stigma to it. And he also had a pervasive sense that somehow his problems were not as pressing or severe as those around him.
This led him to perhaps take his diagnosis less seriously. He would take his medication, stop, self-medicate (drink) with friends, bottom out, get back on the medication … it was a rollercoaster.
And it also led him to make bad decisions; cheat on a girlfriend, drink too much – leading to an ill-advised house party and athletic suspensions for Burnham and his friends, and finally, his parents finding a duffel bag full of liquor in the trunk of his car, that ultimately brought him to window’s ledge. He felt like he’d let everyone down. As Burnham observed, “Hurt people hurt people.”
The doctors gave him 24 hours to live. Then another 24 hours. Then another. He emerged from a coma. He survived.
While his body is still recovering from his assorted injuries, he has resumed playing golf, and this summer, five years after his fall, he finally participated in some pickup basketball.
Among his observations …
1.) You don’t have to settle for the first therapist you meet. It’s important to find the right match. On a personal level, Burnham has found he’s more comfortable talking to a fellow man versus a woman.
2.) Awareness. “I needed to have this type of speaker [someone like himself] in high school.” Also, awareness in what services are out there. Burnham said that not enough people know that you can call a suicide hotline just to talk.
3.) “There’s no better feeling than knowing you’re not alone in the process of recovery.”
As to what happens next, Burnham is like most typical 23-year olds. He doesn’t have a clue. His story, however, may hit the big screen soon – he’s signed away the details of his life to Hollywood. This prompted a few critics to suggest that his suicide attempt was nothing but a publicity ploy to make him famous. At this, Burnham just shakes his head. “No one falls nine stories [out a window] with the intention of becoming famous.”