WEIGHING IN – Two months before Melissa Jones died of suicide, she nearly jumped off the top of a mill.
At that time, Jones, then 16 years old in September of 2016, had already made multiple suicide attempts. Her mother, Elisheba Frasier, was hoping to get Jones placed in a residential treatment facility and had met with caseworkers to start the process. But unbeknownst to Frasier, the process had stalled because Jones had refused to provide consent.
Jones died Nov. 30, 2016.
Frasier, 45, of Perth, is sharing her family’s story coinciding with the anniversary of her daughter’s death because she wants to inspire action. She’s hoping that the system can build in more parental overrides when it comes to teens being admitted into residential care.
The current system allows parents to request 16-year-olds be admitted to residential treatment facilities. But the facilities cannot hold 16-year-olds against their will, and teens have the right to submit a letter essentially requesting a discharge. In addition, the facilities themselves control the admission process, and if leaders of the facility determine the adolescent isn’t ready to consent to treatment, it’s likely the facility will choose not to admit the teen, according to the New York State Office of Mental Health.
In addition, Frasier is hoping that some school districts will consider placing her 2022 self-published book “Through Her Eyes,” in their libraries as a way to prevent bullying, which contributed to Jones’ demise. The 600-plus-page book, which Frasier has sent to more than 50 districts in the Mohawk Valley and Capital Region, details Jones’ life and includes chapters from Jones’ perspective that are based on her own words, letters and notes, as well as on medical and school records, and other sources.
“My goal is to make kids think twice about what they say to other kids. Because words really do hurt, and they stick with you,” Frasier said. “In my daughter’s case, she might have looked like this fun-loving, happy girl who was always trying to make people laugh — but, at home, she was struggling.”
We must listen to moms like Frasier.
Jones struggled from the moment she was born.
“She was a crier,” Frasier said.
Then again, Jones was born into very difficult circumstances. By the time Frasier found out she was pregnant with Jones, Frasier and her ex-husband had separated. It was not easy to navigate. In the early days, the family still lived in Florida, where they had ended up as a result of service in the U.S. Air Force. Frasier’s ex-husband lived in an apartment 45 minutes away, which required constant shuttling.
The physical gap only widened when Frasier moved back to upstate New York, where she had attended school in the Broadalbin-Perth and Fonda-Fultonville school districts. Her ex moved to Texas and to Colorado before going back to Texas. As a result, Jones divided time out West and back East – summers with her dad, the school year with her mom.
To cope with her daughter’s long absences, Frasier said, she put Jones out of her mind.
”My dad said, ‘pretend like she doesn’t exist,’ which probably wasn’t the best idea,” Frasier said. “But that’s the only way I could mentally live without my daughter.”
In some ways, Jones likely felt forgotten. Because as she was passed back and forth, both parents found new partners and had more children, and those children had the benefit of much more stable lives.
As a result, Jones never really bonded with either set of siblings. Her relationship with both parents remained strained.
Meanwhile, Jones, always a skinny child, started getting bullied at school, in part, because of her physique, Frasier said.
Frasier, who was raised with the mantra that you should be able to suck it up — she was tough enough for the Air Force, after all — says she wasn’t as sympathetic as she should have been.
Then, after Jones’ 13th birthday party, Jones pulled her mom aside and said she needed to talk.
Frasier feared her teenage daughter was pregnant.
Instead, Jones pulled up her sleeves and revealed the scars.
“She said she was cutting, and I was like, ‘What?’ I didn’t even really know of such a thing,” Frasier said.
After that, Jones got help. Over the next several years, she saw private therapists and was in and out of short-term stints at facilities in Utica, Saratoga and Schenectady, as well as in Colorado. She developed a talent for drawing – particularly pencil sketches. But she also had delusions, although she was never diagnosed with any official disorders, Frasier said. In one of the more haunting moments, Jones told Frasier there was a woman in her room who was touching her foot. Jones told her mother the woman was telling her to harm herself.
Kids from school sent Jones similar messages of self-harm, according to Frasier.
After school, Jones would lock herself in her room and spend endless hours on her phone and on the internet.
In the end, life never improved for Jones.
Every year, more than 1 in 5 New Yorkers has symptoms of a mental disorder, according to the state’s Office of Mental Health. In addition, 1 in 10 of adults and children experience mental health challenges serious enough to affect their daily lives.
Meanwhile, even though 1 out of 10 children has a serious emotional disturbance, only 20% of children with an emotional disturbance receive specialty mental health treatment, according to the Office of Mental Health.
About a year before her death, Jones and her family filled out a Single Point of Access application, and Jones was admitted into the mental health care system in an official capacity. The single point of access system allows a county coordinator to help individuals and families connect with community-based and cohesive mental health care.
At the start of Jones’ junior year at Broadalbin-Perth High School, she went to live with Frasier’s brother, Tim, as the family worked toward finding long-term care options. Frasier actually thought her daughter was doing better, but then came the incident in which Jones threatened to jump off a mill.
Frasier wanted to enroll her daughter in a residential treatment facility, where state-certified professionals provide fully-integrated mental health treatment services to seriously emotionally disturbed children between 5 and 21 years old. The care is less intensive than what’s offered in a hospital, but it is more intensive than in other settings.
Problem was, Jones privately told her caseworker that she didn’t want to go to a residential treatment facility, and the caseworker halted the application process, Frasier said.
Frasier wishes she’d had more control. She wishes a 16-year-old’s expressed unreadiness for treatment wouldn’t factor so heavily into admissions decisions. At the very least, she wishes she’d been told about her daughter’s refusal, believing that, as a mom, she may have been able to convince her daughter that a residential treatment facility was the right option.
While I believe the mental health care system should give agency to older teens — as it currently does in the form of granting them access to prescriptions and some services without parental consent — I’m also with a mom like Frasier, who felt helpless in a situation that was truly dire. Especially in cases of severe mental health affliction, a 16- or 17-year-old’s will shouldn’t be able to so easily derail access to treatment. I know these situations are incredibly complicated and a variety of factors have to be considered, but it’s impossible not to have sympathy for a mom such as Frasier.
On Nov. 30, 2016, Frasier messaged her daughter and didn’t get a response. Frasier thought about leaving her shift at Nathan Littauer Hospital, where she is a senior x-ray technologist, but she convinced herself that Jones was asleep, even though it was in the middle of the day.
Frasier was dropping off another daughter at basketball practice when she got the call from her brother, Tim.
“This is a phone call I never wanted to make,” Tim told Frasier. “She’s gone.”
At first, Frasier thought Jones had run away again, like she’d done earlier that year, walking nearly 10 miles to Amsterdam and spending a night in an abandoned house.
But reality quickly set in.
“My world just stopped, and everybody else just kept going about their life like usual,” Frasier said.
MARKING THE ANNIVERSARY
On the first anniversary of Jones’ death, the family held a large gathering at the cemetery, with everyone lighting flame lanterns and sending them skyward. Only, the wind gusted and the burning lanterns drifted toward trees. Everything turned out fine, but what should have been a moment of peace resulted in a shudder of panic.
“Oh, my god,” Frasier recalled. “This is going to start a fire.”
Each year that passes gets a little easier, Frasier said. But the milestone days — Jones’ birthday, the anniversary of her death — are always difficult. Typically, Frasier does what she can to avoid other people on Nov. 30, and she doesn’t visit the cemetery because she doesn’t believe that’s where Jones’ spirit lives. Frasier does eat Taco Bell, though, since that was Jones’ favorite.
Writing “Through Her Eyes,” was cathartic, Frasier said, and now she’s hoping the book can have some kind of impact, spark some kind of change in a dark world.
“What I remember the most about my daughter was her sense of humor and boisterous laugh,” Frasier recalled. “She just wanted happiness in her life, even if it was someone else’s.”
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.