WOONSOCKET — Jalen Charles Coulbourn was an outgoing, gregarious young man who loved being involved in competitive sports and “battle” rap.
As a sophomore at the University of Nevada in 2014, he’d polished his rap art to the point where Snoop Dogg was thinking of recruiting him for a new “rap league,” says his step-mom, Ilanna Ball Coulbourn.
No one expected him to commit suicide.
“It was just devastation for us,” says Coulbourn. “It was deeply upsetting, especially for his oldest brother. You have to tell him his brother has died and he’s not coming back. It’s a very difficult conversation to have.”
Jalen was just 19 years old when he died. He left three brothers in all as well as his stepmother and father Charles Coulbourn.
As uniquely personal and shattering as their son’s death was, the Coulbourns soon learned, sadly, that they were hardly alone. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, for example, says suicide rates have been steadily rising in the U.S. since at least 2008 and that in 2019, it was the second-leading cause of death among males aged 15 to 34. Males are nearly four times as likely to die than females as a result of suicide, which claims an average of 129 lives a day.
Now the Coulbourns are hoping they can shine a light on the scourge of suicide while paying tribute to their late son with a memorial basketball tournament later this month. They’ve gotten permission to use both gymnasiums at the Woonsocket Middle School campus for a Suicide Awareness and Prevention Basketball Tournament on Saturday, Feb. 29. Teams will pay a $200 registration fee to raise money for the first-ever Jalen Charles Coulbourn Memorial Scholarship.
Coulbourn says she and her husband are in the process of forming a nonprofit group with a board of directors that will oversee the distribution of at least one $1,000 scholarship for a graduating senior from the area who has somehow been touched by suicide. If all goes according to plan, she said, the award will be made for the first time this spring.
This isn’t Coulbourn’s first foray into charitable causes in the city. If her name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s the founder of the Christmas Eve Dinner for the Homeless, an event which has taken place for the last several years. The Coulbourns also run Finest Real Estate and Total Asset Solutions, a property management company, in the city.
For the Coulbourns, the scholarship initiative is a way of continuing to heal from an event that left them with deep psychic wounds and, hopefully, to foster something positive from the tragedy of their son’s loss.
The upending of their world began with an early morning phone call on Oct. 9, 2014 from police in Reno hours after their son had been found hanging in his apartment near the University of Nevada campus.
There had been no forewarning for the Coulbourns. By all outward appearances, their son provided no clues that anything was troubling him so intensely that suicide turned out to be his preferred avenue of relief.
Coulbourn says she and her husband knew Jalen was drinking a bit and he wasn’t as focused as he should have been on academics, but they figured his behaviors were fairly typical for a college sophomore. They offered him a number of options that would have made it possible for him to pursue his studies back home, possibly at Providence College, where his cousin, Ed Cooley, is the basketball coach.
“We knew he wasn’t thriving and we gave him a lot of options,” says Coulbourn. “But you can Monday-morning-quarterback this a million different ways. There was no indication things were dire.”
There’s no way to tell whether the death of his biological mother in 1999, from cancer, when he was just four years old, had been a source of the internal strife that may have helped drive Jalen to suicide.
But it wasn’t until after their son’s death that the Coulbourns discovered how deeply troubled he had been for quite some time, and the great effort he had expended into keeping his pain a secret.
And their son wasn’t the only one keeping Jalen’s secrets. So was his girlfriend.
It was from her, said Coulbourn, that she and her husband learned that Jalen committed suicide only after several prior attempts to take his own life.
“In speaking to his girlfriend later, we found out that this was his third or fourth attempt,” she says. “This was the time it was successful.”
In educating themselves about suicide, the Coulbourns believe that it’s likely their son didn’t want to open up about his problems because of the stigma attached to those afflicted by depression or suicidal ideation. Especially for a man, says Coulbourn, the prospect of reaching out to others for help might seem like a sign of weakness.
“Mental health issues carry a lot of stigma, especially for boys,” she says.
One reason the stigma is so hard to change is because suicide is so challenging to talk about, especially for those affected by it. And that’s one important reason for holding the basketball tournament – to get a difficult topic out in the open, so that it’s no longer seen as so threatening.
It took a loss in her own family for her to realize that it’s not just okay to talk about suicide, it might just be a lifesaver.
“I can think of a dozen people we actually know who’ve lost someone or know somebody who lost someone,” she says. “It’s something nobody wants to talk about, but once you start talking about it people come out of the woodwork.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo
To sign up for a basketball team in the Suicide Awareness and Prevention Basketball Tournament, call or text Ilanna Ball Coulbourn, 419-7116, or email email@example.com.