Message from family after son takes his own life: Don’t delay treatment of mental illness

By Allison Levitsky
Daily Post Staff Writer

A Palo Alto family reeling from the loss of their 17-year-old son to suicide sent a strong message to parents of depressed teenagers yesterday: don’t delay treatment of worsening mental illness.

Alec Turner died Tuesday (Aug. 15) morning, the second day of his senior year at Gunn High School and less than three days after spending two weeks in Hawaii with his parents and his two younger brothers, students at Gunn and Terman Middle School.

“Any, any discussion of suicide should be taken so seriously,” said Alec’s father, David Turner, calling his son’s death an “unimaginable tragedy” and a “great loss.”

“He was loved very, very much by his family,” David Turner said.

The Turners moved to Palo Alto from St. Joseph, Mo., in 2014. David Turner is a software engineer at Uber.

Alec was “first and foremost” a Christian, his parents agreed. He loved physics class, and his hobbies ranged from Airsoft and Boy Scouts to politics, surfing, his church youth group and Mustangs. When one of Alec’s friends was sick, he sat with him all day in the car, said Jennifer Turner, Alec’s mother.

“He definitely was very tender to animals, just obviously tender,” David Turner said.

“He was kind and extremely loyal. He was loving and, at times, very charismatic, very smart,” Jennifer Turner said. “If he was passionate about what he was talking about, he knew it inside out.”

“Well-researched. He surprised me with how in-depth he knew topics,” David Turner said.

A complex problem

But this changed when Alec was depressed.

“His interest in things kind of slid. He just didn’t seem as interested,” David Turner said. “Getting out of that hole is very complicated.”

“And definitely not to be minimized,” Alec’s grandmother, Carol Neidhardt, added. “These two did everything within their power to assist their son in resolving whatever was bothering him.”

“I hate to use this word, but I felt like at one point in the school year last year, it was almost like he quit life,” said Jennifer Turner. “Nothing was really bringing him joy. A numbness, I guess.”

Alec had talked about his thoughts about suicide last year, but was in counseling and on antidepressants, which he was set to begin tapering off of next week.

Transition from summertime to school

His father speculated that Alec’s severely depressed state made him hypersensitive to physical and emotional transitions, like west-to-east jet lag and the start of the school year.

“Coming back from a vacation like that with all that freedom, all that fun, returning to a school that he didn’t really enjoy, it was probably too much,” David Turner said. “We don’t know if there was some other incident that may have triggered this as well. It’s all yet to be revealed.”

Alec also loved military-themed online role-playing games and the online community around them. He planned to join the military after graduating from Gunn, but his father worried about his ability to cope with the challenges of military life and severe depression.

Still, wanting to protect his son from the stigma attached to mental illness, David Turner said he worries that he delayed admitting Alec into inpatient treatment for depression when he was at his worst. Mental illness can also disqualify would-be military recruits.

“If you go into these clinics, in my mind, you’re marked,” David Turner said. “Maybe we should have had him admitted long ago.”

An organ donor

Alec was also an organ donor, David Turner said, urging other parents to make sure their children have the same designation.

“He’s probably saved a few lives,” David Turner said. “It saves mothers and fathers like me from losing their loved ones.”

Alec had become an Eagle Scout in June. For his Eagle project, he and his troop used a technique called air layering to propagate a dying apple tree at the preschool of Grace Lutheran Church in Midtown Palo Alto, which his family attends.

“I’m going to go back and cut them and pot them, and then they’ll have, basically, brand-new clones of the tree,” David Turner said. “You can see them now.”

Help is available

There are many hotlines available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to anyone feeling depressed or suicidal, including the 24/7 Teen Crisis Hotline at (888) 247-7717, the Santa Clara County Suicide Crisis Hotline at (855) 278-4204 and the Crisis Text Line, which can be reached by texting “hello” to 741741.