Citizen of the Week: Jordan Burnham

Turning a suicide attempt into a motivational story for audiences across the country.

Citizen of the Week: Jordan Burnham

Turning a suicide attempt into a motivational story for audiences across the country.

18-year-old Jordan Burnham stood on the window ledge, staring out at the ground nine floors below. Behind him, his mother yelled from outside his locked bedroom door. His cell phone rang as his girlfriend tried calling, texting. But Burnham didn’t answer either of them.

Instead, he jumped.

What came later Burnham recalls in snippets: Hitting the ground; hearing the loud whooshwhoosh of a helicopter’s propellers; seeing the lights of a Phillies game below. When he woke up in the hospital, doctors and nurses asked him what had happened, wanting him to remember on his own. But he didn’t. Instead, his sister told him what he’d done.

“That’s impossible,” he said. “‘Who pushed me?’”

JordanBurnhamIt was a couple of weeks before Burnham could be honest about what had happened: He had tried to kill himself. Luckily, he says, “I didn’t have the thought of, ‘I failed at this.’”

A few months later, Burnham told an Inquirer reporter that he realized he had so much to live for. Now, he’s started telling his story at schools and conferences, hoping his experience will save others.

On Sept. 28, 2007, Burnham was like many high-achieving high school seniors: Stressed out. He dreamed of a career in broadcast journalism, and even self hosted The JB Show at school. But first he had to get through high school. In his case, he felt like he needed to match his sister’s achievements: Five years older, she’d been the valedictorian of her high school class and got a scholarship to Penn State University. He hadn’t even taken the SATs.

Two years earlier, Burnham was diagnosed with depression and prescribed antidepressants. But he wasn’t taking his meds consistently, didn’t take his therapy seriously, and took to drinking alcohol as a release. “I didn’t give my brain a fighting chance,” Burnham, now 25, says.

That afternoon, after a golf tournament, Burnham’s parents confronted him about a bag of alcohol they’d found in the trunk of his car. Already, Burnham had had three incidents with alcohol that started with an arrest for underage drinking in spring 2008, and he knew his parents were frustrated that he was still drinking. Still, they were understanding. “It’s OK,” his mom said. “We’ll get through this. You can call a hotline. Maybe you have a drinking problem.”

Whenever he and his parents had a disagreement, Burnham would lock himself in his room. This time, he wedged a chair underneath the door handle. “I don’t deserve to be alive,” he thought. “I don’t deserve to be their child. I don’t deserve to be a brother to my sister.”

Burnham says he had had these suicidal thoughts before, but had never made a suicide plan. And he doesn’t recall thinking the word “suicide” that day. But after he barricaded his bedroom door, he called his then-girlfriend, Allison Colatriano, and told her he had to “go.”

Colatriano told him she was going to call his mother, Georgette Burnham. “I’ll call you right back,” she said. “You’ll answer, right?”

Colatriano asked Jordan’s mom to check on him. “Jordan sounds like he’s in a dark place,” she said. Then she called Burnham back. While they were on the phone, she heard a knock on the door. Burnham said, “No, mom.” Then the line went dead.

He didn’t answer when she called and texted back.

Burnham suffered several traumatic injuries as a result of his 9-story fall including a broken right leg, broken pelvis and an inability to put much, if any, weight on his left leg. It was wholly possible he might never walk again. The road to recovery was long and painful, but Burnham graduated on time and walked up, across and down the stage. Two years later, he regained full mobility.

Before graduating, Burnham told his story in the Philadelphia Inquirer and then CNN, People magazine and others. At 19, he was asked to speak to Congress about the importance of suicide prevention and fighting the stigma of mental disorders. Burnham soon realized that sharing his story with audiences was similar to his dream career in broadcasting.

Many more speaking engagements have followed, and he’s now in his busy season. Schools hire Burnham to talk about his experiences at the start of the school year, when students may feel the most pressure and benefit most from Burnham’s story of overcoming obstacles. Between August and mid-December, Burnham often tells his experience to students and at conferences three or four times a week, all over the country. “When I started, I didn’t know how my story would help others,” Burnham says. Now, he’s met people who who say hearing his story kept them from going through with their own suicide plans.

Three years ago, Burnham was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He takes medication and sees a psychiatrist regularly. Still, especially when he’s traveling, Burnham copes with the same issues that he tells others have strong effects on mental health, including isolation and lack of sleep. He’s also learning not to take things too seriously. “I forgot my dress shirt today and you know what, that’s OK,” he says, noting that this is the kind of thing that used to make him unduly upset.

Speaking is Burnham’s full-time job now and because it requires so much traveling, he still lives with his parents. Until last year, they still lived in the apartment where his attempt took place. Unsure what the future holds for him, he’s taking it one day at a time. “At 20, I didn’t know where I’d be at 25, and now I don’t know where I’ll be at 30,” he says. “But I see myself still speaking for the next five years,”

Meanwhile, Burnham has discovered one other occupational hazard of traveling the country with his story: navigating airports. “There’s not a much greater test of our mental health than our airports,” he says with a laugh.

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