Call it a mother's intuition.
Five months ago, Sharon Banks knew something wasn't right when her daughter turned down her offer of a trip to New York City to celebrate their January birthdays. Lauren Jackson said she couldn't get time away from her job as a San Francisco Sheriff's deputy but her mom sensed that wasn't true. Banks suggested a shorter trip to Palm Springs, but her daughter wouldn't commit. Then, one day in September, Jackson announced out of the blue that she had been diagnosed with mental illness. Banks asked if she was taking medication and getting therapy. Jackson said she was. Her mother tried to find out more about the illness, but Jackson was a private person and wouldn't divulge much more.
A month later, Jackson committed suicide in her San Bruno apartment. She was 27.
Banks didn't hold back when she spoke at the funeral. She said her daughter had killed herself because she was mentally ill. The Castro Valley resident urged anyone who was suffering from mental illness or who knew anyone who was to seek professional help.
"I wasn't going to hide anything in the dark because I thought maybe there is someone in this audience right now that is in pain and needs help," she said. "To help another daughter not suffer the same tragic fate is important to me."
The stigma of mental illness stops a lot of people from seeking help before it is too late. As sad as it is, there are people who would more readily admit to having a relative serving prison time for a violent felony than to having one who is bipolar.
People with severe mental illness also far too often don't get treated before they decide to end their lives because those who they come in contact with don't recognize the warning signs -- which can often be subtle.
The California Mental Health Services Authority has just launched a mass media campaign ¿to help Californians recognize the suicide warning signs and teach people how to broach the sensitive subject with family, friends, co-workers or anyone else who they suspect needs help.
In 2010, 3,823 Californians took their own lives, and 16,425 people were hospitalized for self-inflicted injuries.
"These facts are a grim reminder of the need for prevention and early intervention programs in California," said Stephanie Welch, senior program manager for the California Mental Health Services Authority.
Looking back, Banks realizes that her daughter's lack of interest in going to New York or in shopping for household items for her apartment the week before she died were all warning signs.
On the exterior, nothing seemed to be wrong. Jackson was pretty, bright and witty. She rode horses competitively.
She was pursuing a career in law enforcement -- following in the footsteps of her mother, a former homicide investigator for the Oakland Police Department, and her stepfather, also an OPD officer. Jackson was on the SWAT team and could out shoot most of the men.
But none of that was enough. She was plagued by dark moods and feelings of worthlessness. She was always saying that people hated her.
Banks began to notice Jackson's profound dissatisfaction and lack of self-esteem when she was about 15. She was going to Holy Names High School, an all girl's school in Oakland. She complained that she didn't have a boyfriend like her friends who went to coed schools. Her parents got her involved in horseback riding and modeling to shift her focus onto something positive.
Jackson went to Dillard University, a historically black college in New Orleans. Banks said it was the worst decision of her daughter's life.
Jackson was exposed to a rough crowd. She was raped.
She withdrew after a year and a half and returned to the Bay Area.
Against Jackson's will, her mother made her see a rape crisis counselor who told Banks that it had taken her 20 years after her own assault to realize she wasn't OK. "I don't know how long it will take Lauren to realize she's not OK," she'd say.
But Jackson did a good job faking it. She got a job working with guide dogs for the blind at a veterinary clinic. Then, two years ago, she got on at the sheriff's department. She was talking about returning to college to finish her degree.
But something inside snapped.
She left her parents a note that said she was sorry. That no amount of parental love could save her from mental illness. That she felt like a stray dog on the corner waiting to be picked up.
"She had everything. A good job, an apartment, people who loved her," Banks said. "But she didn't have what she thought all of her friends had. A husband and babies."
-- Reckless behavior
-- Increased alcohol or drug use
-- No sense of purpose
-- Feeling hopeless, desperate or trapped
-- Sudden mood changes
-- Giving away belongings, putting affairs in order
-- Changes in sleep patterns
-- Talking about wanting to die or suicide
24-hour area suicide hot lines: Crisis Support Services of Alameda County, 1-800-309-2131;
Contra Costa Crisis Center, 1-800-273-8255; Santa Clara Suicide & Crisis Hotline, 1-855-278-4204; National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255