Amanda Matis snapped a picture of her three children on Aug. 15, 2020. A photograph she holds dear, it shows Mallory, Evan and Hattie smiling during a beautiful morning on the patio before Mallory moved to Hammond to attend Southeastern Louisiana University. As fate would have it, the photo ended up being the last one Amanda would take of her three kids together — as it was captured just four hours before her 16-year-old son committed suicide.
That day, Amanda and her husband Bart helped Mallory move into her new place while Hattie attended a friend’s birthday party, allowing Evan to spend some time at home alone.
As he was calling his father for cooking instructions, Evan seemed to be fine, Amanda recalled. “He actually fixed his lunch, ate and cleaned up the kitchen after himself — like he always does,” she added. However, Evan was asking specific questions about when his family would be leaving and returning, which he normally didn’t do, she said.
Ten-year-old Hattie, who was dropped off home after leaving the party early, was the first to find Evan. “She thought he was joking at first. She said she just kept shaking him and saying, ‘Evan stopped being stupid,’” Amanda said. “And then she saw the gun.”
The 16-year-old had used his father’s service weapon to shoot himself in the head, resulting in him dying within 10 seconds.
“He did leave a note, and the note was very simple,” Amanda shared. “It just said: ‘Mom and dad, it’s not your fault. This is the decision that I made. Get over it and move on. Love y’all.’”
A family left to wonder
The second page of Evan’s note contained his passwords to all of his electronics. Detectives searched through everything but found no clues to what led to his decision, leaving the teenager’s family to wonder what caused their loved one to harm himself.
A student at the Virtual Academy of Lafourche, Evan maintained a 4.0 GPA and was on track to be a valedictorian of his 2022 graduating class. He loved history, reading novels, playing video games, researching, traveling and discussing politics, and his family also remembers him for always having a huge smile on his face.
Amanda remembers her son being selfless. At just 8 years old, the Chackbay native came up with the idea “Evan’s Baseball Drive,” a program that collected used baseball equipment, cleaned it and then donated it to children in need in the Thibodaux area. At his funeral, a girl she didn’t recognize approached Amanda and said, ‘You don’t know me, but I sat behind Evan in eighth grade and he was so nice to me. I felt like I had to come.'”
“He was just a great kid,” Amanda said. “He never got into any trouble. He was very respectful.”
Evan didn’t have any social media except for Snapchat, which he only kept to communicate with 14 of his friends in a group chat. He mainly stayed in and would play video games or read; nonetheless, he would get out of the house every now and then, his mother said.
But Evan’s social interactions were forced to be limited once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shutting down schools and discouraging people from gathering. Having in-person instruction every day prior to the pandemic, his charter school switched to completely virtual, and Evan was no longer able to learn in a classroom with his peers.
“He was ready to go back to school, and he hated that he was doing school on the computer,” Amanda remembered. “They had to stay on Zoom while they were doing their class, and he just hated that…He said ‘I feel like people are just looking at me.’”
Amanda and her family believe the pandemic affected Evan’s mental health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fear and anxiety about a new disease, such as COVID-19, can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Actions just as social distancing and other prevention measures can make individuals feel isolated and lonely and can increase their stress and anxiety, the organization says.
An October 2020 report by the Psychiatric Times used the findings from parents and students who were surveyed in multiple countries where quarantines were implemented during the pandemic to conclude that “COVID-19 is affecting the mental health of children and adolescents and that depression and anxiety are prevalent.”
“Suicide rate in the state from ages 16 to 24 has increased dramatically since COVID,” said Amanda, who along with Bart, went speak at a State Senate special session in October to advocate for opening back up the state, emphasizing the need to do so to improve the mental health of children. “We don’t think that COVID had everything to do with his decision. But we do think that it was like the final straw.”
Another factor in her son’s mental state, Amanda said, could possibly be how invested he was in what is happening around the world, which, in addition to the global pandemic, saw wildfires, civil unrest, social injustices and major hurricanes and earthquakes, among several other afflictions this year.
“He said a few times: ‘Mom, I don’t know why anyone would want to raise kids in this cruel world,’” she remembered. “And I didn’t think anything of it because it’s true. I didn’t look at that as a sign of anything. I just thought, ‘You’re right: It is a cruel world. But you have to find the best in it; you have to make the best of it.”
Amanda feels that his suicide was planned because her son was not an impulsive person. But even in hindsight, it’s hard to see if there were any signs at all he actually displayed.
“I went through the signs of suicide in teenagers, and basically you can’t differentiate the difference between a mental illness and what is typical teenage behavior,” she shared. “When the signs say they sleep a lot, is it because they are suicidal, or is it because they are a typical 16-year-old child?”
Despite suicide having a stigma attached to it, with others feeling as though it is a shameful act, Amanda shared, her family could never be mad at Evan for the decision he made. “It hurts, but we’ll just continue to love him as we did before,” she continued.
The community comes together in honor of Evan
After the news of Evan’s suicide hit the area, the Louisiana Eastside Riders, a bicycle club that engages in charitable acts, decided to host an event in his honor to raise suicide awareness.
For “Ride to Fight Suicide,” local cyclists launched from 404 N. Canal Blvd. in Thibodaux and made their way down to Peltier Park, where a candlelight vigil was held and Chad Pruitt, the organization’s president, gave a presentation on suicide statistics in the country.
Around 200 members of the community came out to support. “It was truly amazing,” Pruitt said. “The community came together for Evan.”
“Suicide is such a bad word; people don’t talk about it. There are lots of people that commit suicide in our community. And many times, people don’t know because people don’t like to use that word because it has a stigma to it,” Amanda said. “And to see that people knew that he did that and they still came out to support us as a family and to support him is just amazing.”
With the proceeds from the bike entry fees and T-shirt sales, the Matis family was able to create a scholarship for the Louisiana Baseball Academy — which Evan played for, purchase an iPad for a Lake Charles child with autism who lost his in a flood and buy uniforms for local students who wanted to return to in-person classes after being in virtual but their family couldn’t afford uniforms.
“All the proceeds have been used in honor of him just to give back to our community,” Amanda said.
Amanda and Pruitt said they are aiming to make the bike ride an annual event and expand it.
“If we can just come out and just ride and bring awareness to it and if we could just save one life it’d be worth it, whatever we do,” said Pruitt, who shared that he too lost a family member to suicide.
To save as many lives as she can, a mother uses her voice
Today, Amanda hopes Evan’s story and what she learned from the experience could bring light to suicide and mental health with local youth and help other parents.
“Just talk to them; talk to your kids,” she said. “Evan was normally pretty open; he would talk to us. But he was obviously hiding some kind of pain.”
“Make them join you for dinner. Make them get out of the house,” she continued. “Because our kids are going through so much right now, we don’t even realize the things that our kids are going through with social media and school and the effects it has on them. We have no idea.”
Amanda and her family aim to use proceeds to possibly bring a program to the area that assists teenagers, such as the Hope Squad, a school-based peer-to-peer group that utilizes trained students to listen to their classmates who might be struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.
“They can relate; they’re on the same page at that age,” she added. “It’s a great program, and we would love to see that here.”
Going through such a tragedy can hold a family back for months, even years. Yet, the Matises knew right away they had to not let their loved one’s death not go in vain, doing what they could to make sure no other family goes through what they went through as it is what their son would have wanted: for them to help others.
“We have to keep going. We have to honor him. We have to do good things for him — if we can just save one person,” Amanda said. “And we’ll just continue doing good and giving back to our community because they were just here to support us.”
The 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.