After her son’s suicide, a Draper mom shines a light on suicide prevention in her community
Shortly before Marion Norton’s 15-year-old son, Spencer, took his life, she recalled going into his room on two separate occasions to find his chair turned and his shutters opened. She asked Spencer if he had had difficulty sleeping. He told her he opened the shutters in the middle of the night because he needed to let the light in.
Two years later she remembers his need for light.
“That’s what kids need…they need the light,” Norton said. “It’s become a metaphor for me about the reason you should do something to help. People need a light in their life. . . someone to help lift their burden.” That light can come in many ways, she said—a kind word, a hug, listening without judgment and, she hopes, from a community that cares about teenagers’ mental well-being.
The people of Draper, including police officers, neighbors, and students at Corner Canyon High School where Spencer attended, made donations and brought flowers, balloons and kind notes to the Golden Spoon Frozen Yogurt store, which the Norton’s operated at the time of Spencer’s death and where the teen had been a regular employee.
“The outpouring of support we received from people in our community after Spencer’s death was overwhelming. I knew that I had to do something to give back,” she said.
Norton didn’t know how she wanted to serve the community until an opportunity arose at a Draper Communities That Care Coalition meeting she had been invited to. She listened to adults talk about drugs, alcohol and e-cigarettes. But what caught her attention was when teens in attendance spoke. They told the adults that while substance abuse is a problem, the underlying issue is that many of them suffer from depression and anxiety.
“That resonated with me,” Norton recalled. “These were kids who had known my son and knew some of what he was feeling and they were saying to all these adults in the room, ‘Please listen to us.’”
She joined the coalition and helped promote Take 5 to Save Lives, a program that focuses public attention on suicide prevention efforts. As the volunteer chair, a position she took in September 2016, she regularly helps organize events to help foster community connections and increase community awareness on teen suicide, depression and anxiety. Many parents, she believes, are in denial or unaware of the immense pressures faced by teens today.
“As a coalition, we are saying if we can educate youth and their parents about the issues that are affecting our community, then we can do something. That starts with making connections: getting to know your children, getting children connected to their community and the school community.”
While her son’s suicide served as a catalyst to act, service to one’s community was a concept instilled in Norton at a young age. Her father owned several convenience stores in Southern California and made the effort to know his customers—from children to grandparents. Norton remembers how her father anonymously helped to cover funeral expenses for families in the community who were struggling financially.
“He never wanted anything for it,” she recalled. “He taught us that if you see a need and you have the means or skills to meet that need, you need to do something.”
Her father’s philosophy lives on in her, as well as her three surviving children, Abigail, 21, John, 14, and Grace, 10, who took a difficult circumstance and turned it into something positive.
“They could have curled up into themselves [after Spencer’s suicide] and that would have been understandable,” Norton said. Instead, they all worked to address suicide prevention—through an Eagle Scout project, school presentations, and even a career change. Abigail, who was best friends with Spencer, went from a career in broadcast journalism to pursuing a graduate degree in public health.
Former customers and classmates of Spencer’s often stop Norton to tell her stories about how Spencer—an honors student and an award-winning DECA and debate team member—lifted their spirits with his kindness and quick wit.
People ask her how she is able to talk about Spencer’s suicide. “I can’t imagine not talking about it,” Norton said. “Suicide is a subject that needs to be openly addressed so teens aren’t ashamed or embarrassed to discuss their feelings,” she said. Norton wants to make sure that suicide is not treated as a taboo subject.
“Why should any child, any person, feel like they should suffer alone?” she asked. “There is someone out there who can help. You have to put yourself out there and be that person…the person who says, ‘If I can, I will help you in whatever way I can.’ There are so many ways to give back.”