A Lesson on Living

UPDATED 06/07/2010 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/07/2010 at 01:00 AM EDT

On the surface, Jordan Burnham seemed to have it all. He was a popular high school senior, a varsity golfer with loving, supportive parents. But what few people knew was that Jordan had been struggling with depression for years. In September 2007, after an argument with his parents, Jordan jumped out his ninth-floor bedroom window in King of Prussia, Pa. "I was tired of being on this earth and feeling this way," he says.

Somehow Jordan, then 18, survived that 90-ft. leap. A miracle? Jordan sees it as a chance to help other young people. Since his suicide attempt he has become a leading voice on teen suicide and depression, traveling to colleges and high schools five times a month to tell his story to other young people struggling with mental health issues and testifying before Congress about the stigma of mental illness. With statistics showing 1 in 12 teens attempts suicide a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jordan's story strikes a chord. His message is simple: Don't be afraid to tell someone about how you are feeling; get help, and once you do, stick with it. "After Jordan spoke at our school, the guidance counselors, our principal and vice principal were approached for days after by students seeking assistance," says Krista Rundell, a teacher at Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, Pa. "He opened the door for conversations about depression." A 47-year-old woman from Broomall, Pa., insists Jordan saved her 13-year-old nephew's life. After the boy grabbed a gun, locked himself in his bedroom and threatened to kill himself, she shoved a newspaper article about Jordan under his door. "[My nephew] came out 15 minutes later, crying," she says. "He would not be alive today if it wasn't for Jordan."

But there was a time when Jordan had a hard time dealing with his own confusion and sadness. By age 13, Jordan didn't have the motivation to get out of bed. By his sophomore year in high school, Jordan started drinking and began lashing out at his parents. He eventually was diagnosed with depression and sought counseling, but he says he could not even open up to his therapist about his feelings. "When you have depression and suicidal thoughts, you become a master of masking it, which is what I did," says Jordan, now 20 and studying communications at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa.

Meanwhile his depression deepened. "His grades had started to drop. He wasn't finishing his assignments, but I just figured this was a part of what was going on with him as a teenager," says his mother, Georgette, 52, a first-grade teacher. The day Jordan jumped out of his bedroom window started out like any other day. But that evening his parents grounded him after finding a duffel bag of liquor in his car. Jordan stormed to his bedroom, locked the door, barricaded it with a chair and called his girlfriend. "I remember saying something along the lines of 'I'm letting everyone down,'" says Jordan, who does not remember jumping out the window. "I felt like there was no reason for me to be on this earth anymore because I didn't want to feel like this anymore." Minutes later his mom received a call from his girlfriend. "She said she didn't like how Jordan sounded," says Georgette. "I knocked on his door, but he wouldn't let me in."

Jordan now takes an antidepressant and goes to therapy once a month. His physical recovery hasn't been easy. He shattered his left leg, broke his jaw and pelvis and had extensive internal bleeding. Many operations and hours of physical therapy later, Jordan is able to walk with a cane. Today he sleeps under the same window, but he doesn't view it as a painful reminder. Instead he looks at it as a symbol of how far he's come. "I look out and I see not only a miracle but something that opened up a conversation and has saved lives."

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