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Rebecca Hendin / BuzzFeed

How Parents Turned Their Grief Over Their Children's Death Into A Campaign For Suicide Awareness

“We want to remove mental health stigma and show kids and teens that there is help and hope, the resources are there.”

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Ellie’s Bus is a bright orange ‘78 Volkswagen camper van. There’s a Scooby-Doo decal on one side and Shaggy’s cheeky grin plastered across the other. Sixteen-year-old Ellie Leikin, of Severna Park, Maryland, didn’t mind the homage to Scooby-Doo's Mystery Machine when she bought the minibus secondhand, but the fake eyelashes on the headlamps came off.

The camper van was a gift to Ellie from her parents on her 16th birthday and as a reward for making the National Honor Society. She researched the bus herself and fell in love with it. Larry Leikin, Ellie’s dad, warned her it wouldn’t be easy to drive; it was hydro-powered and had a dodgy shifter linkage – not the kind of car a teenager would normally go for. Ellie powered through and got the hang of driving the van; in fact, “she mastered it”, Larry told BuzzFeed.

On 29 November 2015 Ellie killed herself, leaving behind her parents, Larry and Sherry, her two siblings, and that bright orange bus. The only sign Ellie was thinking of ending her life came afterwards, when her parents found her diary, a “10-day journey leading up to her death”, according to her father.

While Ellie’s parents were familiar with depression and bipolar disorder, it was “something we never saw in her behaviour or actions", the Leikins told BuzzFeed. “She wrote a lot about how she wanted to hide her depression from her friends and boyfriend.” The couple were shocked by the level of despair they read in their daughter’s writing: She knew she could ask them for help but she was making a choice not to.

After Ellie's death, her parents set up a foundation in the hope of raising awareness for suicide prevention and mental health resources in their local area. They were struggling to come up with a name when Sherry’s brother suggested they call it “Ellie’s Bus”. Larry told BuzzFeed it felt like a good fit: “The bus is open, appealing, but not too in-your-face. It gives our cause an image, a physical manifestation of what we’re trying to do.” The Mystery Machine stickers are still there. For Sherry, the Scooby-Doo stickers tie into what they want to achieve: “We’re taking the mystery out of mental health."

The bus will be stationed at a summer concert later this year to spread further awareness and educate young people. Larry told BuzzFeed: “We want to remove mental health stigma and show kids and teens that there is help and hope – the resources are there.” By taking the bus from place to place there’s a bigger chance for the vehicle to be “identified as a safe place to get information and ask for advice”.

In Hull, a city in the north of England, Dennis Graham set up a similar suicide awareness programme after his 17-year-old son Matt killed himself in 2010. "It took me three years to be able to talk about him without becoming a wreck," Graham told BuzzFeed. He now delivers awareness sessions in schools, talking to young people about keeping themselves suicide-safe and looking out for each other. Still, Graham admitted, "My talks take 15 minutes and I seldom get through my script without a tear."

Worldwide, a person kills themselves every 40 seconds. It is the second-biggest cause of death among teens in the US. In the UK every year between 600 and 800 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 take their own lives – a number equivalent to the population of a small secondary school.

Last year Joe Ferns, executive director of policy, research, and development for the Samaritans, said: “We need to see a greater focus at local and regional levels on the coordination and prioritisation of suicide prevention activity.”

Awareness isn't just needed for at-risk teens but for parents and peers too. “It might not be the parents or teacher who notice something,” said Larry Leikin. “It may be a friend or a peer.” Graham said it's important to "encourage dialogue, if not between the parent and their child but also with someone they trust or a charity like Papyrus". In his talks, Graham often discusses the signs a suicidal teen might exhibit, such as emotional statuses on Facebook, giving away personal possessions, taking risks, excessive drinking, and a sudden lack in personal hygiene.

Back in Maryland, Ellie’s Bus is currently waiting out the winter in the Leikins' garage. Larry and Sherry are both in therapy and taking the necessary steps to heal, as are their two other children: “We’re keeping as strong as we can for their sake, that’s our primary focus," Larry says.

The friendly orange Volkswagen van remains a bittersweet reminder for them. “I’d give anything to not have to do this interview," Larry said. “But since we’re here, we have to do the best we can.”

If you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide call HOPELineUK on 0800 068 41 41.

If you're in the United States you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

For more information on Ellie's Bus visit the website here.


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