Editor's Note: This article deals with the topic of suicide. Reader discretion is advised.
JOHNSON COUNTY — Shelley Hughes can't help but smile when she talks about her son, Ryan Jones.
"Well, Ryan was a very special little boy," says Hughes. "He was always very much a perfectionist."
She says Ryan loved sports, and he loved cars even more. She says he couldn't wait to drive and so he got a job at the old Marsh location at a young age to start saving up his money.
His sister, Lindsay Szostak, says the two were very different but very close.
"We were very different. Ryan was a type A perfectionist and I was a type B free spirit, but we just got each other and understood each other," says Szostak. "He was the greatest teacher and coach that I ever had."
Together Shelley, Ryan and Lindsay were a close family unit.
"Being a single mom, he just was very much (that) he assumed the role of man of the house and was very protective of Lindsay and I always," says Hughes.
They say he never suffered from depression or anxiety that they know of, but he was a closed book. He kept to himself and did not like to be the center of attention, but he had a way of making others around him feel good.
"When he spoke," says Szostak, "Which wasn't often, people listened."
That's why Sept. 2, 2019, was such a shock to the two people who knew Ryan best.
"It was nothing we would've ever expected," says Hughes. "It's life-changing. It's just nothing you would ever see coming."
Ryan died by suicide that day. His loved ones left behind started a grief journey that they didn't know how to navigate.
"As a mother, it's a loss that's just incomprehensible," says Hughes.
"You lose a part of yourself. You lose a part of your childhood and your memories," says Szostak. "One of the most difficult memories of that first week was having to explain this to my son, Luca. He knew something had happened but having to walk with him to explain that Uncle Ry-Ry wasn't with us anymore was very, very difficult."
But in the days, weeks and years after Ryan's death, the pair work to stop the stigma of suicide and honor Ryan's life through their work.
"I don't want Ryan to be defined by his suicide," says Szostak.
So they talk about the best memories and the best parts of him as a person and Shelley is taking action by joining a newer organization in Johnson County.
Upstream Prevention is a nonprofit that focuses on system-level change for public health, and specifically focuses on suicide prevention and substance use prevention.
Executive Director Kathleen Ratcliff says it is all about raising awareness of warning signs for suicide, finding gaps in the system and creating curriculum and change in the local community.
Their new initiative is one of the few in the state that focuses on suicide loss survivors and breaking the cycle of suicide in families. They work in direct partnership with the Johnson County Coroner's Office.
"We get activated by the Coroner's Office when there is a death by suicide," says Ratcliff. "We'll send out one to two to three volunteers depending on how many people are there."
The program is called ATLAS or Assisting Through Loss After Suicide.
The volunteers are also suicide loss survivors who have been in their shoes and have also gone through specific training for these situations.
The response team does not provide counseling and they don't share their personal stories, but they let the loved ones know they too have been in their shoes and they provide immediate support at the scene while the Coroner's Office conducts the death investigation.
They provide resources for mental health support, housing resources if needed if the suicide happened in the home, activities for any children on the scene and more. The volunteers can also check back in with the family by writing letters or cards in the coming months.
Ratcliff says they understand that prevention and postvention go hand in hand.
"How can we provide that support because we know loss survivors tend to be at a higher risk for suicide themselves," says Ratcliff.
That got the attention of the Johnson County Coroner Michael Pruitt. Once he took office, he agreed to this unique partnership with Upstream Prevention.
His Chief Deputy Derek Wilson says that so far the partnership has been a huge help to their department.
"I kind of feel like we are really paving the way here partnering with these folks," says Wilson. " For them to know our role and we know their role, it's just a great thing. And it's been very, very helpful for the past 2 years that we've been doing it."
Wilson says while they determine the cause and manner of death at the scene, the ATLAS volunteers can provide that immediate support to the loved ones on the scene who are often in shock and going through one of the hardest days of their lives.
He says they hope the resources and support can help prevent more suicides within families in the future.
"If it helps just one person, the Johnson County Coroner's Office will do whatever it can do to see that the person gets the help that they need," says Wilson.
The ATLAS team currently has 11 trained volunteers and two staff members who can respond when called.
It is a process that started in January 2021, and they continue to look for ways to expand and serve the community.
That includes education and ending the stigma of suicide.
For Szostak, that also means encouraging people to reach out to the ones they love no matter what.
"Absolutely reach out," says Szostak. "There's nothing you will regret by reaching out to somebody to see if they are okay. But there is so much you can regret if you don't."
It is a difficult topic of conversation, but talking about it could save someone's life.
September is Suicide Prevention Month and there is a push to let anyone struggling know that there is help available.
The Suicide Prevention Hotline is 988 for anyone who is struggling or knows someone struggling.
To support more suicide prevention initiatives in Johnson County, Hughes and Ryan's friends will host Ryans's Ride on Saturday Sept. 17.
It is a motorcycle ride through country roads. The registration starts at 10a.m. at The Corner Bar on Indy's south side. The cost to ride is $25 per rider or $35 for a couple and that includes dinner. Kickstands go up at noon. The ride will wind down to Trafalgar and Brown County and eventually make its way back to The Corner Bar for a block party.
To find out more about Upstream Prevention and how you can help their initiatives in Johnson County, just visit UpstreamPrevention.org.
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