Mental illness plagued student who leaped from Niagara Falls

May. 17, 2014 @ 05:57 PM

All his life, Greg Young loved words.
He was reading by age 3, and well beyond the “Dick and Jane” level. As a boy, he memorized boxes and boxes of “word cards” — flash cards printed with a word on one side and its definition on the other — a task that came easy to him because of his nearly photographic memory.
As a young teen, Greg packed a dictionary for a family beach trip, studying it in his room at night and even down by the ocean the next day as girls in bikinis paraded past him unnoticed.
By high school, and more so by college, Greg had a penchant for using big, hard-to-understand words. Verbal doozies such as praxis, equiponderate and soteriological — the kind of words you’d hear at the National Spelling Bee — appeared regularly in Greg’s writings about theology and philosophy. And while his college professors may have understood them, they surely went over the heads of more casual readers who happened upon his writings. Even emails he sent from college required his mother to pull out a dictionary so she could understand what he was saying.
However, the words Greg wrote on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2013 — only a few minutes before his death — were words even a grade-schooler could understand:


I love you.
Thank you for all our times together.
I’ll be seeing you in eternity.
To those I love and those that love me, I bid you my goodbye.

Greg wrote those words — clearly meant as a suicide note — in a text message he sent from Niagara Falls, around 6 p.m., to a select group of friends. Then he hopped a fence, walked a hundred or so yards to the edge of the falls, and jumped. His body was never recovered.
The words in Greg’s text were simple, everyday words: Love. Thank you. Eternity. Goodbye.
And yet, more than a year later, to those Greg loved and those who loved Greg, his words are still achingly difficult to understand.

* * * *

Media outlets historically do not report suicides without a compelling reason to do so. But when Greg, a 21-year-old college junior from High Point, took his own life at Niagara Falls, Triad media deemed such a dramatic suicide compelling and reported the death.
Making the story even more compelling was Greg’s intriguing back story. By all accounts, he was an exceptionally smart young man. A brilliant student with a bright future. Musically gifted. Outgoing and well-liked. A devoted Christian, faithful to his friends, his family and his God.
That’s why Greg’s suicide rocked the community as it did. How could a guy who seemingly had everything going for him choose to take his own life? Were there warning signs? How could no one have seen this coming? Where was God?
What most people didn’t know, though, was that Greg — despite what everyone saw on the outside — for years had been tormented on the inside by a complex demon known as bipolar disorder. Only Greg’s parents and closest friends knew he’d been battling the disorder, a mental illness characterized by alternating episodes of mood elevation, or mania, and depression, thus explaining the disorder’s alternate name — manic depression.
“It’s like an emotional roller-coaster ride,” says Dr. Wayne Eastlack, a longtime High Point psychotherapist who treats bipolar disorder. “You have these extreme highs and extreme lows, both of which can be quite dangerous.”
Greg was diagnosed with the disorder during his senior year at Wesleyan Christian Academy. Prior to his death, he had been on numerous medications, all of which came with warnings that they could inspire suicidal tendencies in young men about Greg’s age.
“That’s one of the most appalling things to me,” says Greg’s father, Richard Young, a retired Baptist minister. “Gregory was fighting this disorder, and every drug they gave him to try to help him warned that it might cause him to commit suicide. That blows my mind.”
For the first time since Greg’s death, Richard and his wife, Judy, agreed to talk publicly about their only son — his life, his illness, his death and his legacy — in hopes of helping others with bipolar disorder. A few of Greg’s closest friends also spoke to the Enterprise about the young man they knew and loved, and the illness that claimed his life. The issue is critical because, according to national statistics, as many as 25 to 50 percent of bipolar patients attempt suicide at least once.
In Greg’s case — because of his age and gender — the medications he was taking were an added risk factor. Which is to say, honestly, Greg had been at the edge of the falls for quite some time.

* * * *

The irony of Greg dying so young is that he did everything prematurely.
Born a preemie, he learned to read early, excelled academically, matured more quickly than other children. He asked Jesus into his heart when he was only 4. In college, he was the rare student who plowed through assigned readings the night they were assigned, rather than the night before they were due.
“Greg started reading at age 3 — he could read any book you put in front of him,” Judy recalls. “He was brilliant. And he never gave us any difficulty. Never cried in a restaurant. He was almost like the perfect child.”
No child’s perfect, of course, but Greg clearly made his parents proud. In addition to his academic prowess, he excelled in tae kwon do (second-degree black belt) and became an accomplished musician (piano, guitar, flugelhorn and singing). He led praise and worship music at Wesleyan, where he also played the piano in the auditorium lobby as guests arrived for special events.
He grew into a handsome young man — dark hair and eyes, slim build, engaging smile. “He had no problems with the girls,” Judy says with a chuckle.
He was popular and made friends easily, without being cliquish.
“He never turned anyone away — if someone wanted to be his friend, he was very accepting,” says Tim Pamyanouvong, a close buddy from High Point.
“He could be really, really goofy at one point, and 10 minutes later we could be talking about deep theological and philosophical stuff. That’s exactly who he was, and it was great because we could have a ton of fun, then go back to his house and sit around just talking about life. You don’t find that in many people, who can have fun with you and get down to the nitty-gritty stuff, too.”
Greg loved people and wasn’t ashamed to tell them so.
“Love is all, it gives all, and it takes all,” he used to say, quoting the Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard — yet another indication of how learned Greg was. But whether or not friends cared how much he knew, they always knew how much he cared.
“So many people tell us, ‘Greg was my best friend,’” Judy says. “He made everyone feel like he was their best friend by the attention he gave them.”
As with his parents, Greg’s faith meant everything to him, and he often shared his testimony during performances of a Christian band he led. One night, Greg’s testimony saved a young woman’s life in a most ironic fashion.
“He got an email from her telling him that she was going to take her life that night, but after hearing him speak, she decided life was worth living,” Judy says. “That really means a lot to us now.”
It also makes what Greg did during his senior year of high school all the more compelling — he denounced his faith.
“I’ve decided I want to be an atheist,” he announced to his parents one day after school, explaining he was so disillusioned by friends who weren’t living out their faith that he wanted to wash his hands of Christianity. He even began looking at secular colleges to attend instead of the Christian schools he’d been leaning toward.
That dramatic episode of Greg’s life lasted about three months before he reverted to his old self, but it raised the first red flag hinting at his mental illness.
“That was the first clue to us, because his personality changed so dramatically,” Judy recalls. “We were, like, there’s something not right here. We think that was his first real episode of bipolar disorder.”
Sure enough, late in Greg’s senior year, his primary doctor referred him to a psychologist, who diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and prescribed for him what’s known as a mood-leveling drug.
Greg’s parents knew very little about the disorder at that point.
“We had heard of it,” Richard says, “but we had no idea that bipolar meant he was in great danger of suicide.”
They were about to learn, however, just how close to the edge of the falls their son was already walking.
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579