NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WSFX) - Suicide is a serious public health issue, but one that many times stays in the shadows. In this story, we shine a light on the suicide of a young man and the family he left behind.
On April 12, 2015 Forrest Johnson, 20, intentionally crashed his SUV into the trees at Snow's Cut Park. His vehicle immediately caught fire, but Forrest somehow survived. As firefighters responded to the crash, Forrest climbed up a ramp to the top of Snow's Cut Bridge. He yelled at firefighters to watch as he jumped, landing on the rocks below.
Forrest later died at the hospital.
His mother, Holly Potter, is sharing her son's story in hopes that it will prevent others from feeling her same pain.
"I think about him growing up, me having to live without him," Potter said, looking down at the rocks at Snow's Cut Park.
Potter's son was an Eagle Scout, graduated from Hoggard High School and was studying mechanical engineering at Cape Fear Community College. But for some reason, Forrest didn't want to live anymore.
After his death, Potter said many people wanted to know if Forrest had been under the influence of drugs the day he died.
"He wasn't on anything," She said. "He didn't drink, he didn't do drugs, he didn't overdose. Not once did anyone say well what was wrong. It's always, 'what was he on?'"
Potter said Forrest was bullied growing up—mainly for his size. At 6'3" and nearly 200 lbs, he towered over almost everyone. She believes the bullying stuck with him, even after graduating from high school.
"There was something in his mind that he couldn't overcome and we don't know what that was," Potter said.
Potter believes her son was depressed. She remembers him spending hours alone inside his room, but at the time didn't give it much thought.
"After the fact, there's a lot of signs but at the time you just think it's a normal kid growing up," Potter stated.
Forrest also leaves behind a sister, Lille Gifford, who was just 8 years old when he died.
"Why did he commit suicide? she asked. "Why? And sometimes I get really mad," Potter added.
To help cope, Potter said counselors encouraged Lillie to write out her thoughts and fears.
"I feel afraid he wouldn't love me after he passed away," Lillie read from her journal.
"Anger, a sense of loss -- they will feel like they could have done something and how could they have not seen this coming," said Antonio Roper, a licensed clinician in Wilmington and clinical coordinator for RHA Health Services who explained suicides are on the rise.
"We're seeing a tremendous increase in terms of suicides in our county," he said
According to the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics, in 2010, there were 22 suicides in New Hanover County. In 2014, that number nearly doubled to 40 suicide deaths.
In 2014, the suicide mortality rate for New Hanover County was 18.5 per 100,000 persons. That rate was higher than both the state rate (13.5) and higher than rates in counties similar to New Hanover if population and demographic, like Brunswick and Burke counties.
It's been more than a year and a half since Forrest died, but Potter's loss hasn't gotten any easier.
She often goes to Snow's Cut Park to think about her son's final moments, but also to remember the better times.
"I look up and then down – take it all in again," Potter said. "Watch all these people go by, not thinking about anything. Wish I could be them."
Underneath the rumbling of traffic driving over the Snow's Cut Bridge, life goes on – while Potter's stands still.
"They have no idea why I'm here or what I'm doing or what I'm thinking," she said, as boaters drive by. "Makes me jealous sometimes that I don't have my baby."
"Just be kind," Potter said. "Be kind."
If you're worried about a loved one, there are several warning signs to look out for.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a sharp change in behavior or the presence of new behaviors can be a warning sign. Other things to look for: a loved one talking about suicide, withdrawing or isolating themselves from family or friends, or are depressed.
Mobile Crisis Management Services
24/7/365 Crisis Responding Services for Individuals with Mental Health, Substance Use and Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities
RHA Health Services
Mental Health and Substance Use Services for Adults and Children
2023-1 S. 17th St.
Wilmington, NC 28401
Trillium Health Resources Managed Care Organization
Provides Linkage to Various Community Providers
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Support Groups and Education for Mental Illness