This month marks six years that Charlene Mabins has lived without her beloved son, Christopher. On September 16, 2007 Christopher, 18, committed suicide.
He was a smart kid whose behavior began to change around age 13. Mabins tried everything—doctors, counselors, mentors, hospital. Finally, at age 16, Christopher was diagnosed with depression. And still, Mabins could not save her son.
Christopher left a suicide letter. “I kept reading his letter and him telling me to be happy. He didn’t know he was my happiness,” said Mabins.
Today, to help educate others about depression and to help those who suffer from it or who may be suicidal, Mabins has created Christopher’s House of Hope. She doesn’t like to say she saves anyone, noting that “God saves.” But the organization educates people about depression, facilitates workshops and holds art classes that allow young people, ages 13 – 24, to express their feelings.
According to the American Association of Suicidology, suicide was the third leading cause of death among African American youth (ages 10 –19) between 1999 – 2010. Shooting was the choice method in more than half of the cases.
A few months after Christopher’s death, Mabins started giving away his college fund money to help others.
“I didn’t want it. I had saved it for him since he was eight…,” she said.
She was a hairstylist then and she started offering free haircuts to children through various nonprofit organizations also because it reminded her of all the Saturdays she cut Christopher’s hair. She learned a lot while cutting the hair of the kids she met. For one, she discovered how many children were homeless.
“I remembered when I was losing my home and didn’t know what to tell Christopher,” said Mabins, who lost her home after an illness. “I wasn’t worried about me but couldn’t see him out there with me trying to find shelter. That’s what made me try to help youth at risk more.”
She said while she cut hair, “I talked to them about their family life, school, their future, how were they surviving on the street.”
If she spotted an issue she thought needed follow-up, she notified their counselors.
A year after Christopher’s death, she started talking more about depression. She was immediately embraced by most organizations, but the community that was hardest to reach was the black community.
“Nobody wanted to talk about anything related to killing yourself,” said Mabins. “It was like a taboo.”
Often black parents called her after their children had attempted suicide or were hurting themselves. Mabins was glad they called her, but she said, “Our goal was to try to do PREvention, not INTERvention.”
She still finds that it takes longer to build trust and respect with the black community. But she has also learned to be strategic in her approach.
“Talking about depression is still the main factor but we may host a dinner or do a giveaway—maybe hygiene and safe sex products,” she said. “That gets us in the door.”
Christopher’s House puts on workshops educating both parents and youth about the signs of depression.
“I also offer a workshop where youth can come and express themselves through art,” said Mabins. “I show them how to write books and express their feelings rather than suppress their feelings.”
In 2008, Mabins wrote a book, “Message for the Week—Getting Through the First Year of Grieving,” to help finance her nonprofit. Right now, Christopher’s House is headquartered in Mabins’ home and she and volunteers go to the nonprofit organizations, churches or wherever invited to hold the activities. Counselors are always on hand in case a youth needs more in-depth professional care.
Mabins’ dream is to buy a building where she can hold workshops as well as have a drop-in center with services for youth.
As far as identifying children who may be suicidal, one tip she gives is: “Pay attention to youth’s routine. That is the biggest thing. They have a routine. You need to know it. Then you will notice changes automatically.”
During what turned out to be Christopher’s last month’s of life, Mabins noticed drastic changes. “He went from I care to I don’t care,” she said. “He went from dressing neat to wearing black clothes.”
She secretly made plans to take him to a hospital. It would not be the first time.
Mabins was a single parent most of Christopher’s life, though he had a good relationship with his father. When he began misbehaving in school around age 13, she went to talk to his teachers. She asked male relatives to mentor him. She moved to another neighborhood when she thought her son might be getting involved with a gang.
Then at age 16, Mabins caught her son tearing up his clothes and cutting himself with a knife.
She took him to hospitals. Eventually, they got the diagnosis of depression. Christopher was in an outpatient program, briefly. She had hoped he would be hospitalized.
He did well for a while, even playing on the high school football team. But she noticed when football season ended, he grew depressed. At the recommendation of a counselor, he attended a program for at risk youth about 125 miles away from Chicago and did well, earning his high school equivalency and getting As and Bs.
In January of 2007, he enrolled in Wilbur Wright College in Chicago. That August, he entered his second semester. In early September, Mabins saw the signs of depression returning, so she searched his room and found that he was tearing up his clothes again. That’s when she secretly made plans to take him back to a hospital.
But it wasn’t to be. She was cooking on September 16, 2007 when she heard a gunshot upstairs. She ran into the bedroom, but it was too late. In the blur of life that followed, Mabins went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree, then got a scholarship and earned her Master’s in Social Work.
As she prepares to mark the sixth anniversary of her son’s death, she is thankful for her work with Christopher’s House of Hope.
“In the beginning, it was to fill a gap. As a parent, when you lose a child, you feel as if you’ve lost half of yourself,” said Mabins. “Now I feel a sense of fulfillment. I have no words to explain how it makes me feel. I just don’t want to see what happened to me happen to another parent.”