On March 15, 2023

‘The medical community failed us’

Teen launches business to raise mental health awareness after losing friends to suicide, mom seeks help

By Katy Savage

On the surface, Eli McDermott seemed happy.

The 18-year-old had just graduated from Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine and was a rising snowboard star. He was just about to attend college in Utah.

“I definitely thought he was well loved, he was well taken care of,” his mother, Jennifer McDermott, said. “He had a world of opportunity to explore and create and live.”

But it wasn’t enough. 

McDermott committed suicide on April 8, 2021, two weeks before his 19th birthday. 

Now, his mom is speaking out against the lack of resources.

“I really, really feel the medical community failed us,” she said.

McDermott grew up in Wells, Vermont with his older brother, Wyatt, and younger sister, Addison. He spent a lot of time at Killington Resort, where his father worked at the ski school. He started snowboarding at age 7.

“Once we put him on a board he just took off,” Jennifer said. “He loved it. He adored it. He lived for snowboarding.”

McDermott attended an academy for snowboarding and frequently traveled for contests. He mostly competed in slopestyle — a combination of rails and jumps.

“He basically played in the park,” she said.

McDermott made it to the U.S. Revolution Tour and Junior World Championships in 2019. 

Looking back, Jennifer said there were some warning signs the year before he died.

He was good, but not good enough to be a full-time professional snowboarder.

“He realized he wasn’t going to be able to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish,” Jennifer said. 

His mother noticed his highs and lows.

When he learned a new trick, he felt better, but a week or two later, he felt low. 

“He started to have a lot of pressure and anxiety,” Jennifer said. “We assumed that it had a lot to do with being a high level competing athlete. He was getting higher up there and he had a lot of competition.” 

Covid hit during McDermott’s senior year of high school. Competitions were canceled and McDermott moved back home to Vermont.  

He was taking a gap year from college due to Covid and planned to move back West in the fall for college. 

“He was super nervous about that,” his mother said.

McDermott was placed on antidepressants. He had appointments with a therapist, but “Honestly, he was bad at keeping those,” Jennifer said.

Still, nothing about his behavior seriously worried Jennifer. “He just seemed to be anxious and nervous,” she said.

McDermott had started producing snowboard videos. He seemed happy.

“He was always smiling. He was always happy,” Jennifer said. “He made everyone else happy and laugh. He was a light to a lot of people.”

Just before he died on Feb. 24, 2021, he placed 18th in the U.S. Open competition at Aspen Mountain Ski Area in slopestyle and 17th in big air on Feb. 26, 2021. 

Then, in March 2021, he “basically had a breakdown,” Jennifer said. He and his older brother Wyatt, who was 20 at the time, were on a rock climbing trip in Utah with some friends when Wyatt called his mom and said, “Mom, you have to bring (Eli) home,” she remembered. 

When McDermott came back to Vermont, there was no help available. It took two weeks to get an appointment with his primary care doctor, who immediately referred him to the emergency room. McDermott stayed in the hospital for less than 24 hours before he was released. Five days later, he committed suicide. 

“There are not enough providers out there,” Jennifer said. “That’s an overall general problem that everybody is facing, all around is facing.”

Jennifer compared her son’s mental illness to her diagnosis of breast cancer in 2019. Jennifer noticed a lump and had surgery immediately after seeing her doctor. 

“There was follow through because it was something that could be seen,” she said. “It was a physical ailment that could be acknowledged. Eli had something more dangerous than cancer and it was not dealt with.”

McDermott’s not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published survey results in March 2022 that showed 53% of teens reported they were “persistently sad or hopeless,” and about 26% saying they had seriously contemplated suicide.

In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, saying children were experiencing “soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, and their communities.”

Vermont launched a 9-8-8 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline in July 2022 to connect those experiencing emotional distress with counselors who are trained to treat and address suicidality.

Part of the problem is that the state doesn’t have enough beds or staff. Brattleboro Retreat, which has experienced financial woes, is the only hospital in the state with psychiatric beds for children and adults. 

The Vermont Department of Mental Health has sought to add more psychiatric beds and put out a call to health organizations. The University of Vermont Medical Center responded with an ambitious plan to open a 40-bed unit, before backing out due to financial reasons. 

Jennifer is still trying to piece together what happened to her son.  

“There was no note, nothing,” she said. “We don’t know what the final straw was. I don’t know if there was any defining movement. It was a cumulation of feeling bad about life.”

The day he died, McDermott went to work with his father. He had just visited friends days before.

“Nobody realized anything was wrong,” Jennifer said. 

Jennifer remembers her son walked out of the house on a Thursday around 6 p.m. He didn’t come back that evening.

“We searched for him for a bit and figured he went out to clear his head,” Jennifer said. 

The next morning, he still wasn’t home, but the family wasn’t concerned because they realized his sleeping bag was gone.

“We were thinking for that first 12 hours that he walked out into the woods and took a breather, connected with nature, slept,” Jennifer said.

McDermott still wasn’t home Friday evening. That’s when they started searching for him. Jennifer’s husband called the crisis hotline. 

“He wasn’t answering phone calls. He didn’t have a car, wallet or anything,” she said.

Vermont State Police issued a missing person’s report on Saturday. Jennifer’s cousins found McDermott in the woods the next day. He hanged himself close to home.  

“He was well loved. He wasn’t a kid that should have ever happened to,” Jennifer said.

McDermott was adventurous and outgoing. He liked to play tricks on other people to make them laugh. He also liked to bake.

“He was renowned for his breakfast french toast cut up with bananas on it,” Jennifer said. “He was always smiling. Inside he wasn’t.” 

McDermott’s death shocked his peers.  

“He was a huge part of the snowboard community,” said Pippa Scott, 16, who was one of McDermott’s best friends. “I think that it really showed us that we really had to check in on one another.” 

Pippa heard about McDermott’s death from her snowboard coach. She didn’t know how to react. “There was no emotion. I remember my initial reaction being in denial,” she said. 

Pippa grew up in Boston and has been attending Killington Mountain School since she was in seventh grade, where she’s now a sophomore student.   

McDermott was one of three friends she lost to suicide within three years. All of them were competitive male snowboarders in their teens. 

“They were all male snowboarders competing in pretty much the same competitions and they all died,” Pippa said. 

On the outside, all of them seemed fine. 

“I didn’t know they were struggling,” she said. “I think that’s why mental health became such a big thing for me because no one was having conversations about mental health so no one was talking about struggling.”

Pippa Scott wanted to have deeper conversations with her friends. She launched a business in January called Ride for Mental Health where she sells sweatshirts commemorating her friends. She’s pledged all her proceeds toward mental health awareness. So far, she’s raised  $3,960. 

“I kept talking to people around me and it didn’t seem like there was really room in our sport to talk about such heavy topics,” she said. “It was more like surface level connections, even though we’re such a tight-knit community.” 

Next month, she plans to sell her sweatshirts at the National Championships in Colorado to raise mental health awareness. 

Following McDermott’s death, she said people have started opening up more. 

“No one’s life is simple and easy,” she said. “That was my one goal to see if I can help at least one person,” she said. 

Pippa regularly talks to Jennifer about her efforts to raise awareness.

“Mental health is still stigmatized and it shouldn’t be,” Jennifer said.

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