Phippsburg Police Chief John Skroski stands with Stacey Manter in her kitchen in Bath. Skroski was a first responder when Manter's 17-year-old son, Christian, killed himself in 2012.

Phippsburg Police Chief John Skroski was on patrol in his coastal, 2,000-person town when he passed by a local teenager he knew well.

Christian Harrison was bicycling along the winding road toward nearby Bath, and Skroski, who was friends with the boy’s parents, slowed his police vehicle to check in.

The brief conversation that followed has haunted the chief for nearly four years now.

“He asked me if I’d take him fishing,” he recalled. But Skroski couldn’t, at least not for a while. The only other police officer on the small, two-person force was on leave and the chief was on a 10-day stretch in which he was working long shifts to cover the town solo.

Skroski never got another chance. Harrison, 17, took his own life just a few days later, on July 1, 2012.

“I should’ve dropped everything and gone to take him fishing,” the chief said, his eyes welling during a recent interview. “That digs at my soul. I love working with kids and coaching in the community. And I felt like I let him down.”

Skroski and Harrison’s mother, Stacey Manter, are talking publicly about the teen’s death now in hopes that they’ll convince others to act when they see warning signs of suicidal thoughts.

Between 2010 and 2015 there were 136 youth suicides in Maine, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human services. That’s about 20 percent higher than the national average. 

Maine’s overall suicide rate is 16.5 per 100,000 residents, compared with the national average of 13.4, according to The American Association of Suicidology, which notes that warning signs that someone might be considering killing him- or herself include substance abuse, withdrawal, recklessness and dramatic mood changes, among other indicators. 

In hindsight, Manter said she can think of little things that were different about her son in the days leading into his death.

His mood swung from unusually quiet to strangely angry.

“Looking back on it now, I can see that it was a different kind of upset than usual,” she recalled.

Manter, who previously held a hard line against smoking, had recently given in and let Christian smoke at the time, hoping to avoid fighting with him over it.

“He only smoked half of [the cigarette] that day,” she said. “He never only smoked half of it.”

By the time friends and family members began receiving text messages from Christian on the afternoon of July 1, effectively saying good bye, it was too late.

Manter was on the porch of her Phippsburg home when her ex-husband called from out of state. He’d received a text and told Manter to check on Christian. She rushed up to his room to find he’d already taken his own life.

Another family member there at the time called 9-1-1, and Skroski was the first to arrive.

Heading down Manter’s driveway, the police chief again came across a familiar boy on a bicycle, but this time the request was more urgent.

“[Christian’s younger brother] was pedaling his bike up to meet me,” Skroski said. “He said, ‘Please save my brother.’”

Skroski tried to revive Christian, as did local medical responders who followed, but it was too late.

“It bothers me a lot when I think about those little signs,” Manter said. “I think about that half a cigarette.”

Skroski wonders if he would’ve been able to change the boy’s outlook by taking him fishing.

“It’s been ripping me apart,” he said.

Now Manter, who has since moved to Bath and organizes the city’s annual Out of the Darkness walk, wants to tell her family’s story in hopes it’ll inspire someone else to have a hard conversation with someone showing warning signs, and maybe save a life.

“When a person gets to that spot [where they’re considering suicide], they’re … so miserable, in so much pain, they just want to make it stop,” she said. “It’s important to get people comfortable asking to help before that person gets that tunnel vision. If you notice something that doesn’t seem quite right about someone, talk to them.”

That’s something that experts say may help to prevent suicides.

“One of the myths around suicide, and there are many, is that talking about a suicide might plant that idea in someone’s mind and they’ll act on it, and that’s been shown to be so untrue,” Greg Marley, the clinical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maine, told Portland CBS television affiliate, WGME. “Talking about suicide to someone who may be struggling can offer them the normalization that other people feel this way and give them a roadmap for help and a message that hope is out there.

“If someone is trying to help a friend, [they need to] be gently persistent, because we all can be embarrassed and ashamed of those thoughts. That’s true of a 15-year-old [talking] to a friend or a parent talking to a 15-year-old. They may deny it,” he told CBS 13. “But if you’re concerned, be genuine to say ‘I’m worried about you, and this is why.’

“Talking about it is not going to make it happen,” Marley continued. “If anything, you will be preventing, or at least helping someone reach out and get help.”

Resources:

Maine Crisis Hotline, 1-888-568-1112: A 24-hour hotline to access crisis services for a range of behavioral health crisis situations including suicide assessment and intervention help. Calls are answered by trained behavioral health clinicians located in the crisis service center closest to the caller’s location.

Maine Warm Line, 1-866-771-9276: This is a peer staffed Intentional Warm Line operated 24 hours a day and offering telephone support for adults in non-crisis situations. Connect with trained peers who have experienced mental illness and recovery.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255): A 24-hour hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Home of the Veterans Crisis Line as well; press “1” for veterans.

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Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.