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. EPLN presents an eight-part series on the critical 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. This is Part 2.
Jonas Wagner was planning to end his life on June 1, 2021 — his 17th birthday.
His parents learned of his plan in late May and were able to convince him not to kill himself. After that day, “I literally slept on his floor every night,” Nancy Wagner, Jonas’ mom, said. “Until that night I didn’t.”
On Thursday, June 10, by all accounts, Jonas had a fun day.
“He had been waterskiing and tubing and wakeboarding with friends,” Nancy said. “His dad (Bill) took him and some friends out on the lake all day, and I thought he was tired. So, I thought, well, he’ll sleep through the night tonight because he’s tired. And I said, ‘Are you OK?’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m just tired.’”
Jonas died by suicide in the early morning hours of June 11, 2021. He was scheduled to enter a mental health treatment center later that day. “He didn’t want to go,” Nancy said.
Jonas was born on June 1, 2004, in Guatemala. Twenty months later, Nancy and Bill Wagner brought Jonas and his 4-month-old sister Anna home to Eden Prairie.
As he grew up, he never forgot his homeland. “He was probably in his teens and I asked if he wanted to go to like Disney World or back to Guatemala and he just wanted to go back to Guatemala,” Nancy said. “He’s very proud of his country and to be born in Guatemala.”
He grew to love his new home, as well.
“We have a place on Lake Vermilion,” Nancy said. “That was Jonas’ happy place. Loved it. That’s where he learned to water ski and wakeboard, tubing and all kinds of stuff.”
Jonas tried hockey, volleyball, and soccer, And he loved music, his mom said.
The Wagners knew Jonas as a happy, active, and involved junior at Eden Prairie High School (EPHS).
“He wasn’t perfect, but he was a normal kid,” Nancy Wagner said.
Life changed suddenly on Feb. 11, 2021. “We got an email from a social worker at the high school saying somebody had a concern about Jonas with self-harm,” Nancy said.
“Our jaws dropped,” Nancy said.
That email set in motion a frantic four-month search for answers and solutions. Most never came.
Nancy and Bill acted quickly. A therapist told them they should take him to a hospital emergency department.
“We talked to him every day. Got him into a therapist, who said it sounds like he needs to go to an ER to be seen,” Nancy said. “Twice we went into the ER. It was a horrible situation. I don’t think I would do it again. Maybe the timing was bad, but he was in the ER for four days, almost five, before they could get a room in a mental health facility for him.
“And it was just miserable. He’s wearing scrubs, confined to his room. He got very little, if any, mental health support. They wheeled in a social worker, I think on a computer, once or twice. He kept saying, ‘I don’t belong here.’ And I agreed.”
Unsettling things were happening in Jonas’ life at that time, Nancy said. “His first girlfriend broke up with him and that was really, really hard on him,” she said. His grandpa had died a year prior. “He was really close to him. It was really hard on him,” she said.
Jonas also struggled with his adoption and the choices his birth mother had made, Nancy said. His sister, Anna, has autism and requires a significant amount of care, which Jonas felt took time away from him.
“He just had all these things lining up,” she said. “It’s never one thing. That I’ve learned clearly. It’s never one.”
Wagner also thinks COVID-19 played a role in Jonas’ struggles. “When everyone went back to in-school learning, Jonas wanted to do that because he’s social,” she said. “His friends that he’s had since kindergarten, his good friends, the ones that I knew their parents, they all stayed home.”
Things changed when Jonas made new friends. Wagner didn’t know them or their parents. When she told an EPHS social worker who Jonas was hanging out with, he said, “Oh, that explains a lot.”
“That kind of shook us,” Wagner said.
“He had music he liked to listen to that I thought was just pure evil,” she said. “It was about suicide. And we shared a Spotify account, so I would go erase it, and then he would put it back in, and I would erase it because I hated that song. I hated whoever sang that song.
“He was a different kid. He yelled, he swore,” she said. “He just was not himself.”
Jonas had not been diagnosed with depression, Nancy said. “We knew that he didn’t like that things weren’t fair,” she said. “Justice was like a big, important thing to him.
“He liked animals better than people because he saw the bad things that people did. And it really bugged him.” Then, his parents learned that he was cutting. “I found out more than I needed to about how many students are cutting. I didn’t know it was a thing,” Nancy said.
Treatment plans, including therapy, inpatient care and medication, weren’t effective for Jonas, Nancy said. “For the most part, none of it worked,” she said.
Jonas even began to outsmart safety checks that the Wagners were supposed to do during the day. Jonas learned that if he gave too high a number on a 1 to 10 scale, it recommended “eyes on.”
“Well, you got to a point where he’s not going to tell us that he wants my eyes on him and he doesn’t want me to sleep on his floor.” Nancy said. “So, the safety plan was useless because he didn’t buy into it.”
Nancy has long believed that Jonas’ brain was tricking him. “I don’t know how it happened in what seems like such a short amount of time,” she said. “Maybe his brain was tricking him in other ways all along.”
While Jonas was never diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a rare but serious condition in which an infant or young child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers, Nancy’s grief therapist noted characteristics that Jonas shared with the disorder
Nancy and Bill had always been concerned about attachment issues because it took almost two years to complete Jonas’ adoption in 2006. Until then, Jonas had spent his entire life in an orphanage.
Jonas’ demons came at night.
“During the day, he was completely functional,” Nancy said. “Except when his first relationship ended. “That was (during) the day. I just sat down with him while he cried and talked about that breakup, and not understanding it.”
While Jonas had been talking about suicide since February, the breakup “might have been the straw the broke the camel’s back,” Nancy said. She noted that Jonas’ girlfriend “was often on the other side of the text when Jonas needed help.”
Jonas worked at a pizza restaurant and sharpened skates at a small private business, jobs he loved, Nancy said. Even during difficult times, he showed up on time and did good work, she said.
“He was getting straight A’s,” Nancy said, choking back tears. “I rarely had to get involved with homework. Since he was little he would do it on the bus. Teachers and students thought he was really nice and funny and helpful and engaged.”
When Nancy learned about Jonas’ new circle of friends and the negative influence she felt they were having on him, she asked a high school social worker to send her contact information to the parents of one of them and ask them to contact her. Her request wasn’t formally denied, “the conversation just didn’t go anywhere,” she said.
“They could have given them my number. I wouldn’t have expected them to give me any information on them,” she said. “I did tell him this is Jonas’ life. I remember saying that to the social worker. This is Jonas’ life. I was feeling like it was life and death. And I was thinking, ‘Can’t you break some rules?’ Everyone is under such strict privacy, understandably. And yet, sometimes I think, well, if it’s life and death, can you make an exception?”
In a statement to EPLN Wednesday, Oct. 11, Dirk Tedmon, Eden Prairie Schools’ executive director of marketing and communications, said the first response of district or school administrators in a situation like this would be “to care for the impacted student and support their wellbeing by connecting the family with resources.
“We would also like to investigate the situation and take appropriate steps to support students and respond based on our student handbook,” Tedmon continued. “If a parent requested their information be shared with another parent, an administrator would generally honor that request based on their professional judgment of the situation. If contact information was shared, it would be up to the other family if they responded to that request.”
Nancy said she understands the need for policies and procedures, whether mandated by law or not. “It’s all official and necessary to protect the administration, staff, and students,” she said.
While she experienced frustration with school district officials, Nancy always felt they were doing their best. She also recognizes that districts can face litigation if they fail to follow policies.
“I just pushed for them to recognize (suicide) more,” she said. “I wanted them to say something at graduation or baccalaureate. Say something about mental health or just, like, take care of yourself, whatever, as you go to college. I wanted them to acknowledge (what happened). I wanted it for Jonas, obviously. I don’t want him to be forgotten, but I also wanted his experience to change other people.”
Nancy said she has even questioned her own expectations about what more the district should have done.
“I don’t really know what the role of a school should be,” she said. “Jonas had a lot of his issues that happened at school; a lot of his influences were at school. I don’t know what a school’s responsibility should be.
“Not one of them wanted anything like this to happen. I’m sure they would have done whatever they could to (have) a different outcome. They’re human. They’re nice people.”
What she would like to see are some systemic changes in how the district addresses mental health and crises. “Anything to lessen the stigma,” she said. “Just talk about how, if students don’t want to go to adults, then they have a mechanism in place that they can go to.
“There’s something that is holding us back (from) making a breakthrough here. Within the school district, for example, mental health is run by committee. I wonder what happens if one person is designated king of mental health, you know, just so there’s accountability. Just so the buck stops somewhere. I don’t know where the buck stops.”
While the failures of the mental health system and unclear school responsibilities are ongoing issues, Nancy has an even more emphatic message for young people who are aware of friends who need help.
“Don’t promise to keep a secret,” she said. “Do not keep this a secret. You might lose your friendship, but you have to tell somebody. Tell an adult, tell your parents. Tell your pastor, tell a teacher. You have to tell somebody, because kids aren’t equipped to do it.”
Maddie Bonkowske didn’t keep a secret. She met Jonas in their middle school band class. “We both played the saxophone, so we always sat next to each other,” she said.
Maddie, 18, and now a student at San Diego State University, said she wasn’t the best saxophone player, so Jonas would tap out the rhythms for her. “He was just such an outgoing, funny, like goofy guy and so it kind of formed a friendship from there.” The pair even went fishing together.
Maddie quit band in her sophomore year, so they didn’t see each other as often. Jonas would text her occasionally. But the texts’ contents became increasingly worrisome to Maddie.
Then, one night in February 2021, she received even more disturbing messages.
“It was more specific of things that he was planning on doing,” she said. “And I remember me and my mom were just kind of in a very panicky state, because we both really didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have his parents’ contact information.”
Because schools were closed, they began searching on the district website for someone to call. “It seemed like a, we need help right now, kind of thing. And we didn’t know when to call the police because we didn’t know where to send them. We didn’t know where he lived.”
Eventually, Maddie’s mom, Ann, found a social worker’s phone number and left a message. “He actually (called) a few minutes later,” she said. “And he just said that he would take care of it.”
Not long after, Nancy and Bill received the email that changed their lives.
On July 11, 2021, Maddie went to Miller Park, the closest park to her home, to journal. It had been a month since Jonas died. While journaling about Jonas, a squirrel approached her in the middle of the field where she was sitting.
“And it sounds silly, but the squirrel was doing things that squirrels don’t normally do,” she said. “It was acting super weird. It would come so close to me and it would like run around or make a bunch of noise. It would just like climb up the tree and come back and would come really close to me.”
Silly as it may have seemed, Maddie saw the squirrel as a messenger. “In my mind that was just like a sign from Jonas or God or you know, whatever,” she said. “I don’t know. It did feel like it was a message from Jonas and I went back multiple times after that.”
The squirrel came back, as well. “It would come so close to me and make these noises and it was, like, to just make me laugh,” she said. “And it just reminded me of Jonas.”
She knows her story seems far-fetched. That’s why she didn’t tell anybody about it – even her mom – until she met with Nancy this summer. “I don’t care what anybody thinks about it,” she said. “It just felt almost like an intimate thing between me and Jonas or me and myself.”
Nancy’s message to parents: This can happen to you. “And I don’t mean to be on my high horse about how wonderful we are, because certainly there’s plenty not perfect in our life,” she said. “But we just think if it could happen to Jonas, it could happen to you.”
She urges parents to talk to their kids, ask them questions, even about a topic as difficult as suicide.
“You know, we worry that saying the wrong thing will make it worse,” Nancy said. “So, we don’t say anything. Suicide is a topic that hides in the shadows. Know the warning signs, the risk factors. I’m an advocate of talking about this, as much as it hurts me.”
Jonas was convinced that he would not be missed when he was gone.
“I remember a conversation when he said, ‘No one will miss me ,’” Nancy said. “And I sat and I told him, ‘Everybody will miss you.’ His brain was not taking it in. My grief counselor described reactive attachment disorder as if he’s got a bucket. You can keep filling it and filling it with all the love and attention, everything that good parents will do. And (the bucket) has a hole in it.
“There’s a hole in it and it just goes out. We felt like we couldn’t have loved him more, and we thought we loved him all the right ways and gave him everything that he needed.”
Nancy has a picture of the day when Jonas took Maddie Bonkowske fishing. In the photo, Maddie is holding up a fish she just caught, and Jonas is in the background, smiling broadly.
“He was just helping her do all of it. And this wasn’t that long …” she said, hesitating for a moment. “You know, I have pictures of him playing volleyball with all his family surrounding him days before he died. And at his birthday party on June 1. With all of us there just days before he died. He’s smiling. I just don’t get it.”
Nancy and Bill Wagner joined with the Foundation for Eden Prairie Schools and the EPHS DECA program to create the Jonas Wagner Viva la Vida Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship is awarded to an Eden Prairie High School senior who contributes to the mental health and wellness of others at school struggling with mental health challenges. The $1,000 per academic year scholarship is awarded to two students each year.
Editor’s note: Due to MEA, Part 3 of Silent Struggles will be published on Oct. 26. Education reporter Juliana Allen explores what is behind the spike in mental health issues for Eden Prairie youth and young adults. 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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