CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. (WVIR) - In Virginia, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15-to-34-years-old. No parent should have to bury their child, but more and more are facing this sad reality.
Ginger Germani lost her son Austin in April 2017, just days before the end of his first year at Christopher Newport University.
The 19-year-old had always dreamed of attending CNU, but Ginger said he struggled to make it there. Austin’s difficulties started young, with a phone call from the nurse at his middle school: “Austin’s having way too many stomach aches,” Ginger recalling the conversation with the nurse. “I know there’s actually nothing wrong with his stomach, and she goes, ‘You know, have you talked, you know, talked about this at all?’”
Austin was eventually diagnosed with anxiety, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and depression. He took medication, went to therapy, and grew into a well-rounded teenager Austin hung out with his brother and friends, acted silly, competed in robotics, all while hiding what was tormenting him.
“He finally… he came home one day in the fall - his senior year of high school. He came home, came in the door, slammed the door, kicked something across the room, went upstairs, threw his chair across the room. He was like, ‘Mom, I’m not good. I can’t take it, I can’t do this,’” Ginger said. “He said, ‘Mom, I…’ He said, ‘I feel terrible, I don’t… You know, I’ve tried to take my life before, and I feel like I want to do it again.'"
Ginger rushed him to his therapist, then to Virginia Treatment Center for Children for a 10-day stay. Afterwards, she bargained with her son: “First step, the minute that, you know, when you feel that, can you talk to me first," she said.
Austin graduated high school, and jumped hurdles to make it to CNU.
"He got wait-listed, it was a long ride. He got in there, and you know, you would think that I would be, like, scared leaving him there. I was so happy for him,” Ginger said. “I didn’t think he… I didn’t think he could leave the people he loved.”
At the end of his second semester, with only final exams to go, Austin contacted his mom. “He’s like, ‘Mom, things are not good.’ And I was like, ‘You know buddy, you are home in five days,” she recalled. “’Knock these exams out, and I do not care how you finish, I do not care. Finish them, because that’s not… What matters is get through that week, and get you home, and let’s just work on you.’ And I did not know to ask in that moment, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’”
“The last thing I heard from him was I love you," Ginger added.
That evening the school called Ginger to come to the hospital in Newport News.
Austin had hanged himself.
“He was alive, essentially. His brain was without oxygen long enough to shut down pretty much everything but his breathing,” the mother explained.
After five days, when he should be home for summer break, Austin’s breathing slowed, and doctors removed the ventilator.
“At this point we take it off and see if he can live without it. If not, we call it. But then we got to hook him back up, because we need to save the organs. That…That’s the cold reality of it,” Ginger said.
Afterward, his friends wrote letters to Ginger remembering Austin.
“If there’s any gift you can give someone in that situation, that’s as good as it gets: It is people who can talk to you about your kid,” she said.
Looking at a picture of Austin as a child, Ginger said, “That’s one of my absolute favorites. One bright blue eye, and you know what’s interesting is that when I… When I donated his organs, I couldn’t donate his eyes.”
After Austin’s death, Ginger studied how colleges and universities care for students with mental health issues.
“The more and more we learned, college counseling centers cannot… They don’t have the capacity, and they cannot hire enough to serve the entire student community’s mental-health needs,” she said.
“And what she went through really inspired us to try and do something about that demographic in particular, and bring better access, and more access to college students for mental-health care,” Sime said. “We’re piloting the software with Washington and Lee University right now in Lexington to help their student health center provide mental health counseling to students remotely when they can’t make it in to the student health center.”
Paige Long recently graduated CNU with a psychology degree. While at school, she served as president for the campus chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“I actually struggled with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
Paige didn’t know Austin, but when she heard of his death, she sent Ginger a letter. The outreach sparked a friendship, and the mother helped Paige land a job working on UniWellness.
“It takes more people to go into the field, it takes more people to talk about it openly, and it takes more people to want to take an interest in how do I help this be better?” Ginger said.
WebRTC Ventures is hoping to grow UniWellness to the rest of the commonwealth, and beyond.
Information for parents and children can be found at the Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Children, Teens and Suicide Loss, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: I’ve Lost Someone, and Suicide Prevention Resource Center: Programs and Resources.