PLEASANT HILL -- Janis Doughty makes people uncomfortable.
It's not that she's loud or overbearing. Quite the opposite; Doughty is reserved and soft-spoken.
But her heart-wrenching account of her teenage daughter Amanda's suicide is hard to hear. Doughty shares her story unflinchingly with college students, police officers and parents as part of her volunteer work with the local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a national research and advocacy group.
She does it for Amanda. And she does it because she wants to spare other families from experiencing the grief and pain of losing a loved one to suicide.
"I guess it's keeping our daughter's memory alive. We tell people we do this because we hope, in our hearts, that we save somebody," said Doughty, 59, who lives in Pleasant Hill with her husband, Gordon.
"Most people pick what they volunteer for; this one picked us."
More than 38,000 deaths in the United States in 2010 were suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among Americans ages 15 to 24. In Contra Costa County, 123 people died by suicide in 2010, including 17 ages 10 to 24, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Amanda Lyn Doughty was 10 years old when she was diagnosed with clinical depression, which is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Her psychiatrist put her on antidepressants for a year but later weaned Amanda from them, concerned about the long-term effects of the drugs on children, Doughty said. As she grew older, Amanda had a depressive episode every couple of years. When Amanda reached adolescence, Doughty struggled to figure out whether her daughter's mood swings and anxiety were caused by the illness or typical teen angst.
But Doughty says there were no warning signs that Amanda was contemplating suicide. She didn't withdraw from friends or family, change her activities, rebel or talk about hurting herself. But something was wrong.
Oct. 26, 2004, began like any other day, Doughty recalls. Amanda, then 18, went to class at Diablo Valley College, came home and ate lunch with her older brother Kenneth, who was in the police academy. At some point that afternoon, Amanda slipped away. Using Kenneth's gun, which she had taken from the locked case in which he kept it, Amanda went outside and shot herself in the head. Kenneth reached Doughty as she was leaving work.
"Mom, you need to come home. Amanda's dead," he told her.
When Doughty arrived, police cruisers lined the street, and her house was cordoned off with yellow tape. She stood quietly across the street and watched the surreal scene. Then the coroner's van arrived.
"I turned my back because I didn't want my last thoughts of my daughter to be in a body bag," she said.
Six years ago, Doughty and her husband found information online about a community walk at Crissy Field sponsored by the Greater San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The fundraising walks bring together those who have lost a loved one to suicide, survivors and those living with mental illness.
The couple immediately felt welcome. Joined by Amanda's friends, the Doughtys walked as the "Blue Moon" team to honor their daughter. After two years of organizing the walks, they joined the chapter's board. As its education chairwoman, Doughty has spoken to community groups and to classes at Diablo Valley College, Napa Community College and UC Berkeley.
Doughty is passionate about erasing the stigma associated with suicide and mental illness. She bristles when people use terms such as "crazy" and "psycho." She tells audiences that -- just like cancer and diabetes -- depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are illnesses, not character flaws. She urges parents and peers to look for the symptoms of depression and suicide warning signs in their loved ones, and she encourages people to seek counseling, insisting there's no reason to feel shame or guilt.
For the past two years, Doughty has visited Mary Hughes Stone's adolescent psychology and child behavior classes at San Francisco State. By blending Amanda's story with facts about depression and suicide, Doughty demystifies mental illness and shines a light on a difficult, poorly understood subject, Stone said.
"I think of my own children, and I think that Janis offers such a legacy of her daughter by doing this, and it can't be easy," said Stone, a mother of five. "I think what she does is courageous and just great, and I think that the community is better off because of her."
Doughty also speaks about suicide as part of the crisis intervention training for Alameda County law enforcement officers. Oakland police Officer Doria Neff, who coordinates the training, said officers appreciate Doughty's candor and honesty. Amanda's story, Neff said, puts a face on suicide statistics.
"We are trained not to be emotional while at work. It can become dangerous for us to become overly empathetic," she said. "So we have a tendency to become a little colder, and I think (Amanda's story) is just the best reality check of we're all human and we're all susceptible to this and we all have to take care of each other."
Over the years, Doughty's grief has subsided. But reminders of things she will never do again with Amanda, and of experiences she will miss altogether, such as her daughter's wedding, are difficult. And that nagging, most basic question is always there.
"When you lose somebody to suicide, you're searching for something because there's always that question, 'Why?'" she said. "And it's a question that's never really answered."
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.
Hometown: Pleasant Hill
Claim to fame: Education chairwoman and board member with the Greater San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Quote: "Always take any kind of (suicide) threat seriously, even if it does become an idle threat. Ask (the person threatening), 'Do you have a plan? Do you know how you're going to do it?' "
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. Read about a new Hometown Hero every other week and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes. Do you know a Hometown Hero? Let us know about the work they do at HometownHeroes@bayareanewsgroup.com.