After reporting on the suicides of four young men within two years, including three who were Eden Prairie High School students, and learning that suicidal ideation in young women was rapidly increasing, Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) began working on Silent Struggles in April 2023. Beginning today, EPLN presents an eight-part series on the important issues surrounding mental health and suicidal ideation through the eyes of survivors, and provides resources available for families, friends, and those who serve our young people in Eden Prairie. Follow our weekly reports at eplocalnews.org.
Nancy Wagner is convinced that her son Jonas’ brain was tricking him.
No matter what she and her husband did, they couldn’t convince Jonas that life would go on after he and his girlfriend broke up.
“You can keep filling (his brain) and filling it with all the love and attention, everything that good parents will do,” she said. “And it’s like it has a hole. That’s how it was described to me. That you can give as much as you give him, there’s a hole in it and it just goes out. We couldn’t have loved him more and we thought we loved him in all the right ways and gave him everything that he needed.”
And so it went for four months beginning in February 2021. In desperation, Nancy lay at the foot of Jonas’ bed for weeks. She was there to prevent her greatest fear.
Despite all of her efforts and those of her family, Jonas Wagner died by suicide on June 11, 2021.
In the past two years, three young men with ties to Eden Prairie High School (EPHS) died by suicide. Jonas and another boy, Aaron Husmann, were juniors at the time of their deaths, while the third, Zane Stranger, had graduated in 2018. Jordan Markie, 19, of Edina, ended his life by stealing a gun and shooting himself in an aisle at the Scheels store in Eden Prairie in August 2022. Another man inexplicably used a machete to destroy merchandise at Jerry’s Foods in October 2022.
Alarmed by what appeared to be a growing trend, Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) began looking into the massive and complex issue of mental health, suicidal ideation, and violent behavior in young adults, nationally, statewide, and right here at home.
A small group of reporters and editors has worked for six months talking to mental health experts, school officials, nonprofit organizations, law enforcement, and perhaps most tellingly, to three mothers who have lived the nightmare of trying to save their sons’ lives while navigating the mental health system.
Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, who represents Eden Prairie in the Minnesota State Senate, taught government at EPHS. He witnessed firsthand the challenges facing schools and students and never felt fully prepared to handle those situations.
“I taught for 33 years and never once did I have a workshop or a one-hour training on how to recognize the signs of suicidal thoughts or mental illness in a kid,” he said.
“When I first started teaching, this wasn’t talked about,” he said. “There was shame associated with it. It was a sign of weakness.”
A new law in Minnesota requires teachers to have professional development in recognizing key warning signs for early-onset mental illness in children and adolescents in order to renew their licenses.
Solutions to suicide and suicidal ideation or the mental health issues that surround them are elusive.
We asked Tonia Teasley, executive director of PACER — a Bloomington nonprofit that aids parents and educates mental health professionals — for her thoughts on what success might look like. She shared some basic observations.
“Making it OK for people to talk about the topic and giving people as many avenues for action as you can would be two really good results,” she said. “And then, ‘What can I do?’ And the easier you make it for people to (do something), whether (they are) a parent or a community member who can volunteer as a mentor at a school.
“I think it’s a topic that has to be talked about. It has to be.”
The statistics are unsettling.
Seventeen percent of female Eden Prairie eighth graders and 18% of female ninth graders said that they had seriously considered committing suicide in the previous year, according to the 2022 Minnesota Student Survey (MSS).
Three percent of eighth grade males and 12 percent of ninth grade males said the same.
Nine percent of 11th grade females and 4% of males reported considering suicide in the same time period.
When EPHS students were asked about their mental health in the 2022 student survey, 39% of 11th grade females and 19% of 11th grade males said they had long-term (six months or longer) mental health, behavioral or emotional problems. Thirty percent of eighth grade females and 36% of ninth grade females also reported long-term issues.
When female students were asked if they had purposely injured themselves by cutting, burning, or bruising themselves in the previous 12 months, 32% of eighth and ninth graders, and 23% of 11th graders said they had.
All of these numbers are up from the 1999 survey. The Minnesota Student Survey (MSS) has been administered every three years to students in regular public elementary and secondary schools, charter schools, and tribal schools since 1989.
So, what are the answers? In EPLN’s conversations with experts who serve Eden Prairie, it is apparent that part of the answer is more education and eliminating the stigma of talking about suicide and asking for help.
Eden Prairie, surrounding communities, and Minnesota are home to dozens of programs and resources that you will read about that exist to help teens, their parents, friends and others address the often complex issues of mental health and suicidal ideation.
“It is up to each one of us to do more to educate the public about suicide prevention, she told EPLN in an email. “We can prevent tragic deaths by raising awareness of mental health and normalizing asking for help.”
AFPS suggests the following:
- Learn the signs of someone who may be at risk for suicide. Often, there are changes in behavior such as mood swings, angry outbursts, or loss of interest in activities they love.
- Reach out to someone who you think may be struggling. Trust your gut if you are concerned. Ask directly if they have thoughts of ending their life – research shows this is helpful and does not make them susceptible to the idea.
- Connect those who are struggling to help. Share the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline as well as general and other resources for minority communities.
Why do these stories matter to you and other Eden Prairie residents?
You and your neighbors are living in the midst of a mental health crisis.
Statistics indicate that Eden Prairie’s middle and high school students are mirroring trends in mental health issues that frequently result in serious suicidal thoughts or actual attempts.
Many experts we consulted confirmed that trend. Our reporters also found that mental health service providers face financial and staffing challenges.
EPLN will publish each story in our eight-story series on Thursdays until the end of November. We will skip Oct. 19, the week of MEA, and move the Thanksgiving week installation to Nov. 21.
- Next week, I will tell the story of Nancy Wagner. Her son, Jonas, died shortly after he finished his junior year at Eden Prairie High School. We asked Nancy if she would be willing to share her story — and Jonas’ — and she graciously agreed. She hopes, as do we, that by sharing her emotional and tragic journey, others facing similar challenges, now or in the future, will find help.
- On Oct. 26 and Nov. 3, education reporter Juliana Allen will report on the important role played by Eden Prairie Schools. She has spent many hours talking to students, families, teachers, counselors, therapists, school staff, and district officials. Her first piece focuses on what is behind the spike in mental health issues for Eden Prairie’s youths and young adults. Her report will include ways that students, families, and the community can work together to improve teen mental health. Allen’s second story focuses on mental health and wellness services available through Eden Prairie Schools. She will report on how student mental health is prioritized and what financial and staff resources have been allocated to address this issue.
- Co-editor Stuart Sudak spoke with Renee Klein for a Nov. 9 report about her son, Zane Stranger. A 2018 Eden Prairie High School graduate with a gift for music and a remarkable talent for languages, Zane died by suicide on March 29, 2023, at age 23. Beneath his brilliance lurked struggles. This story goes beyond personal loss, highlighting the broader, often overlooked mental health challenges many face. It stands as a call to action, a plea for understanding, and a testament to a mother’s enduring love in her search for clarity amid heartbreak.
- On Nov. 16, reporter Mark Weber will tell the story of how, as psychiatrists call for national standards on how police interact with juveniles in mental health crises, the Eden Prairie Police Department is leaning into mandatory officer training and interagency communications as the best local approach to lasting, positive outcomes. In his second report on Nov. 21, he will be reporting on help in our own backyard: Working on the front lines of teenagers’ mental well-being are Eden Prairie nonprofits that offer safe, local places to get support and counseling without the long waits and financial barriers often found elsewhere.
- Finally, on Nov. 30, EPLN will publish a mental health resources guide, a collection compiled by contributor Amy Nylander dedicated to mental health and suicide prevention. These resources (local, state and national) offer immediate support, guidance, and hope, whether you’re seeking help for yourself or someone you care about.
While compiling these stories, EPLN reporters have gathered information from mental health experts, educators, law enforcement, nonprofit agencies, and more. The stories of mothers dealing with the loss of their sons are heart-wrenching and provide lessons for the future.
We hope you will take the time to learn along with us about how some of our neighbors are hurting and that the community cares about its young people and their families.
Editor’s note: This EPLN project is partially funded by grants from the Eden Prairie Community Foundation and the Eden Prairie A.M. Rotary.
If you or a loved one is in crisis, please call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text “MN” to 741741. Trained counselors are available to help 24/7/365.
If you or a loved one is at imminent risk, please contact 911 and ask for a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officer.
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