Teacher shares her story so no student's time is cut short

DODGEVILLE, Wis. - Erin Bavery was about the age of her sixth-grade students when she started running. It started as a way to spend time with her best friend. Over the years, Erin got stronger and faster. The competition became a passion, and that passion turned into a spot on Ripon College’s cross-country team.

Just like any other day, Erin was running sprints with her teammates during practice. 

“I was keeping up with the girls, and all of the sudden something just flipped and my body stopped.  I couldn't move. Physically, I couldn't move forward,” Bavery said.  “And that was a terrifying experience, I was like, whoa what happened what happened?”

She had over-trained and peaked long before her season ended.  Her college career as a runner was over. Then, there was the impact on her studies. With the persistent pain in her back and knees, even sitting in class was uncomfortable. 

“I thought this is the end. I'm done. I'm done. What am I going to do?  Because running for me in high school was my outlet,” Bavery said.

Erin’s family had already struggled with mental health challenges, specifically involving eating disorders.  She was determined to not have the same diagnosis, but she needed an escape from the pain.

“When I lost my survival kind of instinct, when I lost my ability to survive, I didn't know what to do,” Bavery said.  “I was in so much pain, I just wanted the pain to go away.”

Erin started cutting, and then, during winter break of her freshman year – knowing she wouldn’t run with a Ripon jersey on again -- Erin laid out her plan for suicide.  Before it got to that point, she posted on social media.  Her roommate was the first one to reach out and help.  Then, her R.A. sat down with her. Her family got involved, and even school administrators responded.

“People do really care about me even though I'm like the shy, quiet one sitting back in the corner,” Bavery explained.

It will be 10 years ago this summer since Erin thought about taking her own life.

“I've hit a milestone, I've grown as an individual. I think it's necessary to have this conversation,” Bavery said.

As a sixth-grade teacher at Dodgeville Middle School, Bavery has always had a heightened awareness about students who need some extra support. Then, she thought her story might help those young people realize everyone struggles at some point. First, that meant opening up to coworkers. Then, her experience became the center of a school-wide assembly.

“I started my story by telling them how many days it had been since the last time I thought about ending my life or the last time it was going to be my last day, and I ended my story with saying that tomorrow was going to be the next day,” Bavery said.

Erin was surprised by the silence, as she and her colleagues know how difficult it can be to keep middle schoolers quiet.

“I think it's very eye-opening for me, and I hope it was eye-opening for the students that, that it can happen to anyone,” Bavery said.According to the latest statistics from the state Department of Health Services, more than 700 Wisconsinites die every year as a result of suicide. Mental health professionals stress that this time of year -- when winter is ending and spring is starting -- can be a particularly difficult time of year for people who are struggling.

It’s why people like Sue Judd spend her Friday nights in the Dodgeville Middle and High School gyms.  She’s not just a fan of the basketball teams. She is the head of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Iowa County, committing herself to handing out T-shirts, pens, and wristbands to anyone who will take one. All of those items have a phone number and website for mental health help in case those people or someone they know need it.

“You just never know with this who you're helping or when you're helping. You just know you are,” Judd said.

Judd lost her brother to suicide in 2012. She’s also made an effort to help the farmers in her community, the people she says have the highest suicide rate over any other occupation.

“There's such a huge need, and it's a taboo topic that people don't want to talk about,” Judd said.

Judd started going around to sporting events, speaking during halftime about the statistics and the need to open up the conversation.

“It's kind of fun to do the fun stuff to spread awareness and break down the stigma, the gloom and doom part, which is always hard,” Judd said. “But if you can do something positive and help others, it helps.”

Down the hall from where Sue talks to basketball families and Erin spoke to her entire school, there’s a collage saying “STAY” in large letters. Each of the colorful rectangles of construction paper surrounding that word were handwritten by students, all explaining reasons to keep going when things get tough.

“It just reminds them, even if they don't realize, they don't look at it, it's still there,” Bavery said.

Erin hopes her willingness to open up about her own experiences and pointing out positive aspects of her students’ lives will at least help her school start talking about difficult topics.

“That's all I really wanted besides reminding students that it's important, that we want you to stay here, that we need to start that conversation,” Bavery said, “and so if anything, that they can take away from our message is that it's okay to start.  You just got to start somewhere.”

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help.  Contact your doctor, dial 911, or contact one of the following resources for more information:U.S. Crisis Text Line

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