The story behind a local teen’s suicidal jump off high school roof

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Ryan Friedrich, 16, of Mount Hope, jumped from the second floor roof of Prairie du Chien High School on Dec. 2. He broke vertebrae in his middle back and shattered his right arm. He’s been recuperating at home and meeting with physical and mental illness experts ever since. He, and his mom Heather, decided to speak out about his suicide attempt in hopes that his story can save the lives of others. (Photo by Correne Martin)

By Correne Martin

Ryan Friedrich can’t recall his exact thoughts but he does remember the desolate moments before and after he jumped from the second-floor roof of Prairie du Chien High School, attempting to commit suicide.

“I walked to the edge, sat down and pushed myself off,” he reflected, when asked to describe his actions that morning, Wednesday, Dec. 2. “I was thinking about my life. There was just no point to it.

“Afterward, I laid in pain for awhile. The next thing I remember was waking up at the hospital. I was still depressed, and drugged up.”

When you meet 16-year-old Ryan Friedrich, of Mount Hope, he appears to be just another shy, indifferent teenager who likes playing video games, listening to music, drawing and reading, and participating in Boy Scouts activities. This is, of course, aside from the new torso brace he wears whenever he’s awake to support the broken vertebrae in his middle back. Ryan also shattered his right arm upon impact from the jump; he’s undergoing occupational therapy for both.

But there’s much more complexity to Ryan’s soul than a simple, reserved nature.  

Every single day, he battles with mental illness, more specifically major depressive disorder, which is defined by WebMD as feeling a constant sense of hopelessness and despair. Though depression can develop at any age—and it is unknown when Ryan began dealing with it—he pinpoints being bullied throughout elementary school as a trigger of his condition.

“They called me names and took my stuff,” he explained, noting that he told adults at his elementary school about the bullying, but “they didn’t do anything.” Ryan attended public school through fifth grade, was homeschooled and then went to Prairie du Chien public school from eighth grade through now, his sophomore year.

For the past year, in particular, Ryan struggled more than normal with his daily routines, especially school. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. He has been taking medication for that as well as his depression, for which he also sees a counselor.

Dec. 2 began as yet another, all-too-familiar, awful day for Ryan. “I was feeling very depressed,” he said.

He was supposed to be in GED (general educational development) class at Prairie du Chien High School. Instead, he wandered to an open maintenance closet, where he found a ladder leading up to the roof of the second floor. He made his way up there and, calmly, without too much contemplation, jumped to the ground.

Mom Heather Friedrich, who was home at the time of the incident, described what she learned from school officials about what happened next. She said one of the teachers and some students “saw him go by the window.” So the teacher called Principal Andy Banasik’s office. Banasik began looking for Ryan. In the meantime, Ryan picked himself up and staggered to the front of the high school, where Banasik found him.

Banasik wouldn’t comment on the school incident directly, but he said the school district encourages all bullying situations and mental illness struggles to be brought to the attention of the school staff. “Face-to-face communication and education is important. We’re all different and that’s OK,” he said.

Tri-State Ambulance and the Prairie du Chien Police Department responded to the scene, where Ryan was treated and transported to Crossing Rivers Health. Later that day, he was taken by Medlink Air to Gundersen Health System in La Crosse. He spent four days in the pediatric unit, where they tended to his medical needs, and then he was transferred to the adolescent psychiatric unit for five days.
“This was the seventh time he’s tried to commit suicide and his third hospitalization,” Ryan’s mom pointed out.

Since he was released from the hospital on Dec. 9, Ryan has been home, with his family, recuperating. In addition to visiting an occupational therapist twice a week, he sees a licensed clinical social worker once a week, a psychologist once a month and a pediatric neurosurgeon once a month. Heather stays home with him because the family was unable to receive home care.

Ryan also has a coordinated services team (CST) through Wisconsin Family Ties, which advocates for and supports children and families dealing with mental health issues.

Though Ryan was supposed to start school again Monday, at River Ridge High School, his parents and team of advocates decided he needed to be readmitted to Gundersen in La Crosse. The hope is that he can get back on track with school soon.

River Ridge’s director of special education, Trudy DeSimons, and other relevant staff in the school district, have met with the family to see how they can assist in reintegrating him most effectively. They have been planning in advance of Ryan’s first day, which will include connecting Ryan with a counselor and teacher who make him feel comfortable.

“His diagnosis is very important to drive our focus,” DeSimons said. “When we know things like depression or behavior are at the forefront, we can’t get to the education until we work, individually, on his self-advocacy skills, like how he can understand what’s happening to him and how he can communicate that to somebody else.”

Heather is nervous about Ryan’s return to school, but she’s more worried about his daily well-being in general.

“I want people to be more aware and cautious with what they say and do. Don’t wear blinders in life,” she commented. “Stop and listen to a child instead of assuming it’s just another outburst from an angry child. Depression is an illness just like physical illnesses.”

She has tried to start a mental illness or suicide support group in Grant County. However, when she held an initial meeting, she said no one attended.

“People need to speak out and talk about it,” she stated. “You can fight it. I was suicidal at one time and I realized I had more to live for.”

Though he knows suicide is an ugly, disastrously damaging choice in dealing with the difficulties of life with mental illness, Ryan was quick to note that depression is not as easy to defeat as those not battling the condition might believe.

It’s going to be a long road. It seems that Ryan knows that. He said he’s happy to have another chance and he wanted to tell his story in hopes that someone reading it chooses life over death.
In his own quietly expressive way, Ryan added, “I’m glad I’m still here, for my family.”

A Survivors of Suicide (SOS) support group meets at 303 W. Chapel St., Dodgeville, the second Thursday of each month, from 7 to 9 p.m. All are welcome.

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