As a chaplain’s assistant during the Iraq War, Josh Butts tended to the emotional health of his battalion members, some of whom have since died by suicide.
As a graphic designer in Tulsa, Butts is now using art to bring awareness to the scope of that public health issue.
On Friday, Butts used chalk to create an elaborate mural of an airliner. The mural, called “Too Big to Ignore,” comprises phrases used by those affected by suicide and images representing the pain of such loss. Drawn on the side of the Hardesty Arts Center (AHHA) in the Tulsa Arts District, the airplane represents the 123 people who die in the United States each day by suicide.
Since 2009, the number of Oklahomans who die annually by suicide has increased by about 45 percent, twice the national percentage increase during that time. Oklahoma has the eighth-highest suicide rate in the country.
Butts began drawing at 3 a.m. Friday. Using a lift loaned by Up With Trees, he spent about 12 hours chalking the side of the building.
“I want people to know that these real heavy emotions are (OK),” Butts said Friday morning. “You can talk to people about it. You don’t have to be scared of it. When you take off your mask and I take off my mask, it’s, ‘Oh, you’ve got stuff, too.’ We all have stuff.”
The mural contains images depicting the pain and disconnected feeling associated with suicide, like a mother’s outstretched arms that just can’t reach her child and tiny boats that can’t find one another. It also contains phrases Butts said are often felt by those who lose someone to suicide or those who are thinking about it: “I wish he would have called me. I would have answered.” “I just want the pain to end.”
At least 85 people died from suicide in Tulsa throughout 2017, according to preliminary data compiled by the state Medical Examiner’s Office. An additional 32 suicides were logged in the rest of Tulsa County.
Two names are written in the nose of the plane. One is the name of someone with whom Butts served who died by suicide. The other is Jon Haverfield’s sister. Haverfield, a meteorologist for KJRH, lost his sister to suicide three years ago. He joined Butts on Friday to share his story.
“It is a pain that just doesn’t go away,” he said. “And there’s a lot of doubt and a lot of guilt that goes with it, as well, and a lot of second guessing.”
Mike Brose, CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, noted that it’s difficult to discuss suicide, which kills almost three times more people in the U.S. than homicide. He said he hopes Butts’ mural encourages people to openly discuss mental health.
“We’ll never have enough mental health professionals,” Brose said. “It has to be our community coming together, looking out after each other and knowing what to do.”
Mental Health Association Oklahoma offers training to help people have those types of conversations. Called QPR — question, persuade, refer — Brose compared the method to CPR.
It teaches people how to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis, persuade someone to seek help and refer them to the appropriate resources.
“(QPR) gives people the confidence and the tools that they need to be able to know what to do,” Brose said.
Those wanting to host or attend a QPR class can contact Mental Health Association Oklahoma. Hosting or attending is free of charge.