Memorial illustrates toll of mental illness, suicide

From The Oregonian, May 2, 1999. Not available elsewhere online.

They came to bear witness for lost loved ones, to speak out despite the grief and pain, to break through the guilt and shame that keeps mental illness and suicide in the shadows.

A plaque in Washington Park remembers Wesley Hewitt.

A plaque in Washington Park remembers Wesley Hewitt.

They came to celebrate the short life and mourn the death of Wesley Robert Hewitt.

About 60 people attended a memorial for Hewitt on Saturday evening, two years to the day after the 31-year-old took his life in Washington Park.< Hewitt , suffering from bipolar disorder and apparently homeless, doused himself with gasoline and lit a match. "He was unnoticed," said Tamara Hancock, president of the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. “He made a very powerful, terrible statement that day and we ignored it.”

The careworn faces and the ready boxes of tissues among Saturday’s crowd illustrated the emotional toll of both mental illness and suicide.

June Somers of Portland lost her son Danny when he was 23. “Nov. 20, 1995,” she rattles off the date.

Danny left Portland for California and went to work for a company that conducted trade shows. He traveled a lot and didn’t get home much, but seemed to be enjoying it.

But then Danny quit, and Somers saw even less of him. She suspects that her son was clinically depressed. She hadn’t seen her son in two years when he killed himself.

She warned parents not to turn away from signs of trouble.

“There are some really tough things that people have to face that I wasn’t willing to face,” Somers said. “As a mother, I was loathe to look at the issues. And there were plenty of issues and warnings.

“It was a reflection on me. I wasn’t perfect; my son wasn’t perfect.”

Margaret Roeter’s pain is different, though still intense. Her 35-year-old son, Brian, is still alive. But he’s serving 71/2 years in the state penitentiary for arson. Suffering from depression and schizophrenia, he torched two motel rooms, a car and part of his mother’s house.

Roeter believes the stigma of mental illness was too much for her son to face. “You try to help and they’re in denial,” she said. “My son would rather go to jail than to admit he’s got a mental problem.”

The memorial was organized by Wesley’s mother, Lou Ann Hewitt, a 4-foot-11 dynamo whose tiny frame is topped by a brilliant shock of white hair. The plain-spoken Hewitt called on society to stop turning its back on people like her son, those “walking quietly into the night.”

She is furious with a system that allowed her son, who displayed obvious psychiatric problems, to slip through the cracks, become homeless and eventually hopeless. The Maryland resident said Oregonians should be doubly concerned about suicide, given the state’s higher-than-average suicide rate.

“Look, we have problems in our society, and it’s going to be your problem if you’re not careful,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, it can happen. Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

READ – Washington Park and Wesley’s Bench, Portland Public Art