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A Young Man's Fall to Grace

There was no ledge beneath the window of his apartment, nine stories up. No concrete place for 18-year-old Jordan Burnham to stand even for an instant and sort through the chaos in his mind. No space to breathe for a moment and quietly consider the words his mother had just told him: "No, you're not a mess-up." How could he be? Jordan was a popular senior at Upper Merion High in suburban Philadelphia, where he'd been voted onto the homecoming court, qualified for a golf sectional and pitched for the varsity. He was a pleaser, with a loving, successful family—his dad, Earl, was the athletic director at Upper Merion; his mom, Georgette, was an elementary school teacher; and his older sister, Tara, had been a high school valedictorian. Yet Jordan was desperate to escape. Depression can do that; it can suffocate joy, bully perspective and intensify pressure until a nothing-I-do-is-good-enough belief crosses the threshold to an I'm-not-good-enough hopelessness.

It's impossible to know if Owen Thomas also felt that way—distraught minds aren't interchangeable—but at 21 he was a second-team All—Ivy League defensive end and team captain at Penn, a redheaded junior known for his humility and disarming charm. He was a devoted pleaser, too. On April 26, after hinting at anxiety over trying to sustain his high grades, Thomas hanged himself in his off-campus apartment in Philadelphia. Were the signs of his despair camouflaged by the walk-it-off culture of athletics? Did he feel it was a weakness to reach out? The response to his death was shock, as everyone who loved Thomas struggled to comprehend the why? behind his suicide.

Some answers, at least, aren't far away. About 30 minutes from Penn there is a patch of grass outside an apartment complex where Jordan's body landed on Sept. 28, 2007, after falling 90 feet and hitting the ground at 50 mph. Leaning on a cane, last week Jordan, now 20, sat down at a table in Champps sports bar. Yes, he survived. "I never could have saved anyone before I tried to commit suicide," he said during a two-hour lunch. "But maybe now, if I can tell people that, yeah, I have depression and I fell nine stories, but I'm here and I'm happy to be here ... maybe that starts a conversation that can save someone's life." That's not a maybe. Five months into his recovery, which had been detailed in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jordan was at a physical-rehab center when a woman approached him to say thank you. Her teenage nephew had locked himself in his room with a loaded gun. In a panic the parents slipped the Inquirer story under the boy's door. About 45 minutes later he came out and handed the gun to his parents. "He was crying," Jordan said, relating the woman's account. "But he said, 'O.K., let's get help.'"

Jordan talks candidly about his life, now and then. "I was struggling with different expectations," he said. "I was in a predominately white school and felt like I had to be the best at sports because I was black. I felt the pressure to go to an Ivy League school to be considered successful in people's eyes. You ask high school students what their biggest fears are, and one of the top three will be fear of failure." Jordan was in treatment—his parents had noticed their son's troubled state—but he didn't tell his therapist about the suicidal thoughts he was having. Besides, he didn't believe he would ever kill himself. It was a macabre fantasy, until the September day he came home from a round of golf. His father walked into the living room with a duffel bag he'd found in Jordan's car trunk while retrieving his son's clubs. He silently put the duffel down at Jordan's feet. Jordan heard the sound: beer cans clanging against a half gallon of Captain Morgan's and a fifth of Smirnoff vodka.

His heart sank at his parents' dismay over his drinking. "I'm just a mess-up," he told his mother, who was in tears. No, she assured him, he was not that at all. "But all I thought was, What's the point of me being here if all I do is disappoint?" Jordan recalled.

He is proof that the mind can protect even as it heals, for this is where his memory goes blank. According to the police report and family accounts, Jordan went to his room, barricaded the door, called his girlfriend and told her, "I'm sorry for letting you down. I have to go." He crawled out of his window; his body pancaked onto the ground. When he awoke after a five-day coma, he had a broken jaw, a fractured pelvis, steel rods around his shattered left leg, a breathing tube from a tracheotomy and his left wrist wrapped as big as a boxing glove. For four weeks he didn't know how he had been injured. Jordan still couldn't speak, but using a spelling chart, he asked his sister, "What happened?" Tara teared up and told him he'd fallen from his window. "Who pushed me?" Jordan asked. "No one was in the room," she said. He was in disbelief. What? Suicide? "I never thought it would get to that point," Jordan said, "but that's how powerful depression is."

There is power in confronting depression, too. Jordan still sleeps in the same room, next to the same window. When he stands by it, he says, "I don't see negativity. I look down and see a miracle." Earl Burnham has placed Jordan's trophies on the windowsill as a reminder of what Jordan has accomplished. He calls his son "the messenger of hope." Jordan now speaks at schools, trying to help people confront depression. To make the hopeless take a breath in a fit of crisis. To give the distraught pause before they take that fatal step.

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"If I can tell people I have depression and fell nine stories, but I'm happy to be here," said Jordan, "maybe that starts a conversation that can save [a] life."