Jordan Binion intently stared out his kitchen window, fully expecting Drake or Justin Timberlake to arrive on his doorstep, whisking him away to a musical career that would make him famous.
Instead, Binion’s increasing mental illness drove him to take his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot in 2010 just days after the Washington state boy turned 17 years old. His parents Deb and Willie Binion of Graham, Washington, were outraged that under the law at that time, a clearly psychotic Jordan had been able to sign himself out of a Seattle hospital without the treatment that might have saved him.
“Jordan Binion was just the kind of lost and hurting teenager who might have found help if laws and hospital requirements were different,” family friend Peggy Wright says. “(His parents) have successfully lobbied the State of Washington for change in this law.”
Jordan’s parents say officials at the hospital told them they could not make Jordan stay and neither could the hospital. They later found out they did have the power to make him stay and get treatment. The new law penalizes facilities that do not provide this information to parents trying to get help or their mentally ill children.
The Binions weren’t content with simply changing laws to protect the rights of parents in the evaluation and treatment of children with mental illness. The couple decided to do more with The Jordan Binion Project bringing awareness to mental health through education of high school students.
Approximately 1 in 5 youths aged 13-18 (21%) experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their life, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. The Atlanta-based Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention lists suicide as the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34.
“Before we could get our son the help he needed, he took his own life,” Deb tells PEOPLE. “You do a lot of self-searching, what could we have done differently that might have stopped him from doing this.”
Jordan played the guitar and was an avid snowboarder. His mom describes him as a smart young man with a keen sense of humor who dreamed of joining the Civil Air Patrol or becoming an Air Force Pilot or maybe even a rock star. Looking back, Binion felt as her son became overwhelmed by his growing schizophrenia. He had lost a sense of hope that he could at some point be productive, successful or just happy.
“The stigma attached to mental illness is the biggest reason why these kids don’t get the help they need,” Deb Binion says. “Because of that sense of shame, Jordan hid a lot of his illness until he couldn’t hide it any more. “
So the Binions stepped in to develop an hour-long mental health presentation for high school students that would make them comfortable talking about their own mental well-being. The organization provides free presentations that focus on early warning signs and symptoms, taking away the stigma of mental illness and offering hope to those who suffer from mental illness or those whose lives are impacted by people with mental illness.
To date, they have provided mental health education to more than 50,000 high school students in Pierce and King Counties in Washington state. They have received thousands of letters from students who have found the educational tools helpful to deal with personal and family issues, showing their mission is working.
“I admire that they started from the two of them, because they didn’t want this to happen to another family,” says Jill Sulkosky, a teacher at White River High. “To build a program like this from the ground up to become curriculum is amazing and it means so much to our school. It would make Jordan proud.”
Mental illness, like cancer, is something no one should be ashamed of, says Deb.
“You are not a weak person, you didn’t cause it, it’s just a transmitter in your brain that isn’t working properly,” she says. “By talking to kids and having a dialogue, it will decrease that stigma and they can understand that with effective treatment, there is hope.”
Deb says she’s encouraged by seeing the open mindedness of students after their presentations and she offers up scores of letters from high schoolers who have benefitted from their message.
“This presentation changed my life. I have attempted suicide twice. I have bi-polar disorder and have struggled with the idea that I will ever be successful in life,” wrote a student from Oakland High School. “After hearing this presentation I may still struggle, but I now have hope.”
Suzanne Doyle, a teacher at Bethel High School, was the first to invite the Binions into her classroom when the project was started. Early on she recognized the need for this kind of information for her students.
“What touched me was that they wanted people to have an understanding of mental illness and open conversation and they made a real connection with the kids,” Doyle says. “The kids got on board right away and every class, my kids stayed after to tell their stories because they wanted to be heard.”
Prior to Jordan’s illness and suicide, the Binions had a perfectly good life with their three children. Deb was a paralegal prior to her work at their non-profit and her husband Willie, a former Army medic, continues as a physician’s assistant. Enjoying family activities has always been a big part of their life.
“After the tragedy, it brought my husband and I even closer, because something like this can either tear you apart or pull you together,” Deb says. “Life is good, although I miss my son tremendously.”
The Jordan Binion Project is a family organization, with help from Jordan’s older brother Anthony, now 27, and sister Mercedes, 32. Binion says she was in a dark place when her son died, but God planted in her head to do for others because” nothing makes you feel better than to do for others.”
“Jordan would say, ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m going to change the world.’ His name is on this project,” Binion says. “And he is changing the world and he is making a difference.”
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