WESTERLY — The same week the world learned about the suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report about the soaring increase in the national suicide rate, a small group of mourners met by a tree in Wilcox Park to talk about a young local man who took his life on April 20.
The tree, covered in colorful yarn, with the words “Love U Mean It” knitted inside a purple circle at the top, is dedicated to the memory of Shawn Matthew Hassan Gooding, who was 29. Since the tree was decorated in late May, for the Virtu Art Festival, so many of Gooding’s friends have stopped to snap and post selfies that it’s “gone viral on Facebook,” according to Kelsey Lyon, 27. Lyon, a freelance graphic designer who worked with Gooding at Paddy’s Beach Resort in Misquamicut, said that Gooding was her best friend.
By his family and friend’s accounts, Shawn Gooding was a friendly, outgoing, larger-than-life young man with a personality and heart to match. His son adored him, his friends cherished and relied upon him, and his family couldn’t get enough of the smiling guy they described as charming, funny and good-looking.
He was the real deal, according to the five people who stood in front of the tree Thursday morning.
“And he wasn’t just a hail-fellow, well-met guy,” said Gooding’s mother, Julie White-Gooding of Westerly. “He was committed … he was a committed friend … he made commitments to people.”
“And he had so much personality,” added White-Gooding, whose husband and Shawn’s father, Antonio Gooding, was a former assistant vice president and community development officer for Liberty Bank.
Gooding was a loving father, fiancé, son, brother and friend, said the others. And then there was his laugh.
“It was contagious,” said Mariah Blanchard, 26, of Norwich, who met Gooding when she was 14 and remained a close friend. “His stupid laugh,” she said with a slight smile.
“He was a rock for everyone,” continued Blanchard, who works at Valenti Subaru. “He was there for anyone who needed anything. His lust for life and adventure was inspirational.”
People were drawn to him, said Tony Nguyen, 28, a tattoo artist who works at Irish Rose Tattoo in Pawcatuck and was Shawn’s roommate for a half dozen years.
“Shawn was super random and adventurous … spontaneous,” said Nguyen. “And he loved his son, his girlfriend and his family.”
Gooding was engaged to be married to his fiancée, Amanda Kolesar, when he made what his mother called “a forever decision.”
Angela Thoman, the business manager at Paddy’s, where Gooding worked on and off for the last five years, said, “He always had a smile. He was friendly to everybody and always seemed so lighthearted and carefree.”
Lyon, speaking from Greeneville, S.C., where she moved recently, said that Gooding would do anything for anyone. “He actually saved lives. He was always there for everyone.”
“Love you mean it” was his catchphrase,” explained Lyon, whose mother, Linda Lee Mossberg, a Preston-based artist, created the design for Shawn’s tree. “He used to help my mom decorate the tree each year and he always used that phrase.”
Purple was his favorite color, she said.
“Shawn believed his purpose in life was to make people happy and to be there for them,” his obituary read. “Whether they needed a ride to work, emotional support or someone to take charge during a crisis, Shawn was the go-to guy.”
A happy-go-lucky guy. A smart young man. Engaged to be married. Always there for his friends. So why did Shawn Gooding take his own life on the morning of April 20?
“I think I missed some clues,” said Gooding’s mother Thursday morning as she stood with Shawn’s friends in Wilcox Park. “I think so many things got right by me.”
The report issued Thursday by the CDC said that suicide rates rose in nearly every state between 1999 and 2016, with increases seen across age, gender, race and ethnicity. The report cited a 2015 survey in 27 states that found that 54 percent of the decedents did not have a known mental health condition. Nationally there were nearly 45,000 deaths by suicide in 2016.
In Rhode Island there was been a 34.1 percent increase in suicides between 1999 and 2016, although its rate of 11.9 per 100,000 population is among the lowest in the country, ranking 43rd. (Alaska was first at 26 per 100,000; New Jersey is lowest at 7.7.) In Connecticut, suicides during the 17-year period rose 19.2 percent; its rate of 11.5 per 100,000 puts it at No. 46.
“Suicide is a leading cause of death for Americans — and it’s a tragedy for families and communities across the country,” said Anne Schuchat, CDC principal deputy director. “From individuals and communities to employers and health care professionals, everyone can play a role in efforts to help save lives and reverse this troubling rise in suicide.”
The study noted that suicide often seems to happen without warning. Deborah Stone, a behavioral scientist at the CDC and the lead author of the new study, told NPR. “Instead, these folks were suffering from other issues, such as relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems, job or financial problems, and recent crises or things that were coming up in their lives that they were anticipating,” she said.
As White-Gooding said, “It’s an epidemic. … Washington County has the highest suicide rate in the state … I think we are just starting to undertstand it.”
Like AIDS, or the flu, or any other epidemic, she said, people need to be educated about the warning signs and about how to help prevent suicide. And, she added, the time has come to erase the stigma about mental health.
“We’ve got to get people to talk,” she said, “and we’ve got to educate people.”
White-Gooding said people such as bartenders and hairstylists, especially, who deal with a variety of different people in the course of their work day, need to be armed with knowledge. Suicide cuts across all demographics, she added.
“Rich, poor, famous or not,” said White-Gooding. “Look at Kate Spade … fame doesn’t matter.”
On Thursday, as White-Gooding, Blanchard, Nguyen, Thomas, and Mossberg stood together sharing stories and memories of Shawn, they were also asking the same question: How did they not see it coming?
White-Gooding is an accomplished, caring woman who is sensitive and compassionate. She was the dean of institutional advancement at the Community College of Rhode Island. She spent part of her career as director of programs for special populations — students who were most at risk for attrition because of low income, inadequate language skills, or single parenthood. She has three degrees, including a Ph.D from the University of Connecticut, and was instrumental in founding Opening Doors for Westerly’s Children in 2013. The nonprofit group works to create opportunities for schoolage children from low-income families .
These days, she said, she mostly identifies as “Shawn’s mom,” and her mission is to promote understanding of suicide, support for people at risk of taking their lives, and support for the survivors. “We want to help as many people as we can,” she said. “We want to help people recognize the symptoms.”
White-Gooding praised Shawn’s friends, and his brother, Shann Gooding, for “doing the yeoman’s share of the frontline work.”
“I’m facilitating and supporting them,” she said, but the younger people — “smart and energetic” — were organizing the effort and serving on a steering committee that is leading a local charge for local suicide prevention.
White-Gooding has also been working with Dr. Robert Harrison, a Westerly Hospital physician active in suicide-prevention education, to enroll residents in a program called QPR. “We’ve all heard of CPR,” she said, “Well, there’s a program called QPR, which stands for ‘question, persuade and refer’ … it’s a proven suicide-prevention training program and we want people to know about it.”
Harrison, who was on his way to Block Island to teach a QPR class on Friday, said he’d go anywhere to tell people how to recognize the signs of suicide, and how best to talk about it. Classes are free, he said, thanks to a grant from the state.
Nationally, a suicide occurs once every 12 minutes, Harrison said, and he reported that there have been three suicides in the last six weeks in this area, not including two deaths attributed to opioid overdoses.
“Twenty-five to 45 percent of overdose deaths are suicides,” Harrison said. “And 90 percent of suicides are directly related to a treatable mental health problem.” He also noted that 60 to 70 percent of people with mental health problems are also dealing with substance abuse.
“The good news,” said Harrison, “is that suicide is preventable.”
Both Harrison and White-Gooding pointed to Seattle, where efforts to to train citizens in CPR and educate them about signs of cardiac arrest have considerably reduced deaths. “There’s no reason we can’t do the same,” Harrison said. “There’s no reason we can’t cut down on suicide deaths.”
“We believe that when you bring together people like this, and draw upon their kindnesses and strengths, we can make a difference,” said White-Gooding.
Nguyen has a small black tattoo on his neck that says “Reckless,” and Shawn Gooding had a matching one in the same spot. Nguyen said he is determined to make sure Gooding’s son, Jake, “always knows how much love his father had for his him, his friends and his family.”
“I want to make a point of making sure that Jake remembers his dad,” said Nguyen, who also shares the “Bro Rose” tattoo worn by Gooding and Blanchard as a symbol of their friendship.
Thoman said a fundraiser is scheduled for June 29 in Gooding’s honor. Proceeds will be donated to a fund being created for Gooding’s son.
“Paddy’s is sponsoring the Shawn Gooding Memorial Foam Party,” Thoman said. “It’s a great big dance party. Shawn was the ruler of the foam at Paddy’s. He really took it to heart.”