Mental health professionals are helping those who witnessed a gruesome public suicide in Oregon, last week when 19-year-old Kipp Rusty Walker stabbed himself to death on stage with a six-inch knife.
The keyboard player had just finished singing a song called, "Sorry for All the Mess." At first the audience clapped, thinking it was part of the act, then reacted in horror.
"It was an impromptu open mic night and he got on stage with his electric keyboard and performed a song," said Lt. Brian Kindell of the Bend Police Department. "At the conclusions he cut himself with a knife at heart level a number of times."
"At first, people didn't realize what happened," he said. "They thought it was part of open mic night, but the harsh reality was it wasn't."
The public suicide occurred last Tuesday night at Strictly Organic Coffee Company before about 15 patrons, many of them young, according to co-owner Rhonda Ealy.
Walker collapsed in a pool of blood and the audience began screaming, some trying to get on stage and help.
"Something like this doesn't happen in any realm of reality," said Ealy, who enlisted the help of the fire department's emergency counseling services. "Our concern is taking care of our folks and others who are affected to get what they need. Also, rebuilding a feeling of safety here."
"We try to be an inclusive place where people can come and get away from the traumas of life," she said.
In a meeting to decompress with counselors, witnesses were told they might experience sleeplessness or nightmares, irritability or hyper-vigilance in the days ahead, all symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Ealy said no one at the coffee house was familiar with Walker.
"No one had ever served him a drink and he had never played at open mic before," she said.
Numerous patrons called the police department after the on-stage suicide. Walker was taken by ambulance to St. Charles Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead, police said.
Bend, Oregon, Reports High Suicide Rate
Walker, described in some local reports as a "transient," was originally from Anchorage, Alaska, and police said his family flew in after the incident.
Deschutes County health officials and Bend police said they have seen a significant rise in suicides, climbing from about 20 a year, to 30 to 40 or more in the past few years.
Bend, once known as Farewell Bend, is a city of about 76,000 in the high desert about 17 miles from the Cascade Mountains that has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Kindell said his department gets five to six calls a day for suicides and attempts.
"We are right in the center of Oregon, a beautiful location, but over the last few years, coinciding with the economy, there has been an increase in suicide attempts," Kindell said. "At one point our officers were getting suicide calls five to six times a day."
The city grew from 50,000 to 76,000 in 2000, until the economy "came to a screeching halt," he said. Tourism, a major source of income, suddenly dropped.
Just seven months ago, 36-year-old Daniel Carter disappeared in a wooded area around Mt. Hood. Three days later, a hunter found the body dead and police later ruled in a suicide.
Carter was said to have been bothered by some large medical bills, due to a heart condition.
"At first we thought it was a homicide, then we found he had stabbed himself," Kindell said. "A lot of our suicide calls are a call for help. But he never made a call for help."
He said using a knife for suicide is "hardcore" and not the usual method.
According to local press reports, Walker had been treated by mental health authorities when he told friends he was thinking of killing himself.
Coffee house owner Ealy said that so far about 10 of the audience members had already availed themselves of the counseling services, provided as part of the Central Oregon Critical Incident Stress Management Team.
Mark Taylor, deputy chief of training and safety for the Bend fire department, said they had teamed up with the hospital's mental health behavioral unit to help witnesses and their families to understand what they might expect.
"They are all together in one room and they have shared that horrible event," Taylor said. "These people now share a horrible bond, whether they like it or not. It's not unlike war. ... We warned people that if they have alcohol issues or a drug dependence, this is a great trigger and it could get worse."
The session was just a "foot in the door for people," and witnesses were given information on where to seek more help, Taylor said.
"We are not trying to make people whole again in one session," he said. "A lot of people just need to put a voice to the trauma and what they are going through."