Second Place Feature Writing - North and East Texas Press Association, Spring 2021 - by Autumn Owens
After losing their 12-year-old son, Hayden, to suicide on April 17, the Hunstable family, of Aledo, is making it their mission to share his story and tell the world that conversations matter.
“Hayden took his life, which has absolutely devastated our family and is a complete travesty. He was truly a special person and the love of my life, my best friend,” Hayden’s father, Brad Hunstable said. “It was a beautiful sunny day — my dad and I were preparing our well, Hayden was helping us — and everything was fine. Then during a 30-minute window, he had broken his Fornite monitor for a second time in a couple of months by accident. I can only imagine, but afraid he’d get in trouble, mad at himself, embarrassed, stressed out about everything — he could be hard on himself a little bit — he went in his closet and took his life.”
Hayden was a student at Aledo Middle School who had a passion for sports, fishing, the outdoors and playing Xbox with his friends.
Following his death, Brad contacted the parents of Hayden’s friends to break the news and the Hunstable family mourned while trying to find out what happened.
“The first two days we had no idea what happened. It was like, ‘Where did this come from?’ We had no idea about the monitor at that point, and it was probably the most painful part, the unknown. As we learned what happened, it was a little more accepted, to say, in knowing why,” Brad Hunstable said. “As we started learning, I spoke to one of his friend’s dad, who is also my friend, and they told me a situation where their son had had some thoughts, and they had actually gotten him some professional help over the years. I was shocked by that. Hayden never said anything to us and we never saw anything other than the occasional moping around like any kid might do — normal pre-teen stuff.”
Soon after, the Hunstable family was contacted by Aledo ISD and asked if they would issue a statement because the district was receiving a lot of questions about Hayden. With school districts being shut down since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brad Hunstable decided to issue a statement about what had happened to Hayden.
“Obviously in the wake of that tragedy as we mourned, I had a split second decision about how we go about talking about it. Most families, as I’ve since learned, and most news reporters don’t report on suicide, and I’m increasingly convinced based on the data and all I’ve learned, that’s probably not the right approach,” Hunstable said. “I do believe Hayden passed from a whole list of factors, but I believe isolation was the trigger. I do believe isolation will amplify any underlying conditions around mental health. My thought process was that we need to talk about this and I want parents to know.”
On April 29, Aledo ISD sent out a reminder email with resources for families and students that might be struggling, which included counseling support that can be located through the district’s website at aledoisd.org or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Aledo ISD counselors are ready and available to help support all Bearcat families related to any matters that come up while schools are closed. This includes, but is certainly not limited to COVID-19 help, mental health support, connecting with community resources, suicide conversations and prevention efforts,” according to the email from AISD. “Counselors are available to help families however necessary during this time.”
The Hunstables then created Hayden’s Corner to bring awareness to suicide.
“So we formed Hayden’s Corner with the idea that conversations matter and my belief is that we can’t brush this under the rug anymore. Suicide is a taboo subject. Many brush it under the rug, some may even be embarrassed about it and it’s hard to talk about, and what I saw I can tell you, I don’t think there’s anything more tragic in life,” Brad Hunstable said. “Social and emotional development in kids, particularly 10 to 14, is critical and that’s what Hayden’s Corner is going to be focused on. The data around this is horrendously sparse, horrendously fragmented and delayed significantly.”
Since March 1, there have been at least five suicides in Parker County and 52 in Tarrant County, according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Hunstable said he hopes that by creating Hayden’s Corner, they can help solve some of the problems.
“I’m trying to raise $100,000 immediately for an emergency public safety announcement for parents and have about $20,000 of that, so we have a ways to go. We shot a documentary and that’s being finalized and it’s really going to be educational, plus a document of Hayden’s story. There’s a trailer at haydenscorner.org, and it’s tough to watch, but I did it on purpose,” he said. “In full disclosure, there are probably some people who disagree with me on this, but to me it’s a national wake-up call for parents.”
Gary Rodriguez, known as the “People Mechanic” and co-founder of Unblock, a consulting agency that provides training and coaching on ownership, self-leadership and communication, will be working with Brad and shared some of his decades of knowledge, saying it’s critical that parents have conversations with their children as they move into their teen years.
“Suicide is a complex, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional aspect that I personally have not really heard anybody talk about. This is something that I’m super passionate about. My mission has been to help people heal the hell between their ears and be able to lift themselves out of that. When a child reaches their teenage years, especially now with the amount of information on the internet and all the different platforms and the apps and TikTok and everything, kids are developing their own sense of, ‘I’m not my parents child only, I’m evolving to be my own personality with my own beliefs and my own sense about what’s right and what’s wrong,’” Rodriguez said. “The parents are not having conversations with their child as if their child has a legitimate different point of view and so the child is going to self-isolate, the child’s going to disassociate from the parent and then the parent really loses the influence to be able to help that child directionalize themselves. They must hold critical conversations and listen to their children.”
Since creating Hayden’s Corner, Hunstable said he’s received thousands of messages from people all around the world.
“There’s a couple of significant underlying themes that come across, which is, ‘I’m seeing the same things in my kids, thank you for opening my eyes. I’m leaning in more, I’m taking my kid out more, we’re going for walks, thank you.’ The other big theme is, ‘I have checked in on my kid and had a deeper conversation with no judgement and I found out my daughter was a cutter, I found out my son tried to commit suicide, I found out my son or daughter was depressed,’ so my premise is about how conversations matter,” Brad said. “Particularly conversations amongst parents and kids, but also amongst kids and kids. At Hayden’s funeral, I said, ‘You see something, you say something.’ Talk amongst yourselves because most of the time kids will tell their friends about this first and then the kids don’t tell anybody. You’ve got to say something if someone’s hurt, and they need to be educated on this.”
According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suicide was the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 14, 596 deaths; ages 15 to 24, 6,211 deaths; and ages 25 to 34, 8,020 deaths, in the United States in 2018.
Hunstable said he isn’t sure where the line is to start having conversations, but talking is not a bad thing.
“This is a tsunami, it’s taking over the nation — combine that with the unemployment rate and combine that with isolation and we’re creating the perfect storm — so we have to lean in aggressively. Not talking about it is absolutely the worst thing you can do,” he said. “I’m not sure where the line is to start having these conversations — you can have them differently with younger people than older people — but I’m convinced that having some conversations around this at a very young age is not a bad idea. It’s a good thing. You have to worry about it now and if they say anything, immediately go get professional help because there are a ton of resources out there. There’s nothing wrong with counseling. Talking is not a bad thing.”
Rodriguez said he will be helping Hunstable provide resources through Hayden’s Corner.
“We’re going to be working very closely with Hayden’s Corner and providing a lot of free resources to people and I want to build out a strategy for having critical conversations so people can have that right out the gate and then all the subtleties of how to start helping parents and teenagers,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve done a lot of coaching with teenagers on the verge of suicide and I haven’t lost anybody. It’s been an incredible ride and the one thing I discovered is kids really do see their parents clearer than they did when they were younger.”
For more information or to donate, visit haydenscorner.org or www.gofundme.com/f/haydens-corner.
“The world’s changing so fast, technology is changing so fast, we’re not property equipped. You want to parent like you know it all, but get help,” Hunstable said. “Parenting is just like anything, you have to build a skill set and you have to learn what the best practices are.”