Greg and Courtney Ransom’s son James seemed to have it all. At twelve, he was a smart, driven, funny kid who was absolutely in love with the game of football. The California family, which included daughters Lillie and Julia, were as normal as could be.
Then, in a typical youth football game on September 12, 2015, James was hit in the head, very hard. He later told his dad that he had his “bell rung,” but Greg, who was also the team manager, didn’t see the hit, and no other coaches or team parents can remember a specific incident from the game. In an article for the Bleacher Report, Greg described seeing blood on James’ ear on the car ride home from the game, and noting that his ear lobe was smashed. All in all, James seemed normal throughout the rest of the weekend, and even went to practice as usual on Monday.
On Tuesday, however, he felt sick at practice, and his mom and dad took him to the pediatrician. There, he was diagnosed with a concussion, which is technically known as a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Doctors ordered him to lay off the football for an entire week. On Saturday, he watched his team play from the sidelines, but afterwards, he could not remember attending or watching the game at all. Concerned, the Ransoms took their son to a concussion specialist.
Testing showed that James had lost some short-term visual geometric memory. As an example, Bleacher Report says, “he was shown rectangles and squares, which were then taken away. A few seconds later, he was asked to draw what he just saw. He couldn’t remember the shapes.”
A concussion brings out frightening changes
Other negative effects of the concussion/TBI were soon apparent. He struggled with his balance and vision, specifically his two eyes not working together. Trying to do his homework gave him nausea as his eyes refused to track. More tests showed he lost 25% of his visual spectrum, and he had to wear corrective glasses.
But the physical deficits weren’t even close to the worst effects of the TBI. James’ happy, pleasant personality soon transformed. Bleacher Report describes the quick and devastating changes:
“Within two to three weeks of his brain injury, James began exhibiting signs of intense obsessive-compulsive disorder. He was consumed with ensuring the battery on his phone was always 100 percent charged, with making sure the software on his tablet was always updated. He made sure doors were always locked. Courtney says James liked structure and had always been a perfectionist—he cried because he scored a 98 on a test at age eight—but after his brain injury, his behavior was different. ‘He was doing things he had never done before,’ Courtney says. ‘It was disturbing.'”
Always an A student, James now struggled to complete his school work, and branded himself a failure. He began having violent outbursts and other aggressive behavior that he’d never had before the concussion. He became meaner, and harder, and craved isolation, when before he’d been and extrovert.
His family was understandably, terrified. They went to every kind of specialist you can think of, searching for a solution, and yet James still suffered. And then, just over three months after his TBI, in late December, his mother Courtney caught him, at just twelve years old, trying to end his life. He would later admit it wasn’t the first time he had done so.
A short psychiatric hospital stay ensued, but after James’ release, his parents were still terribly worried. Their mantra became, “Today, we have to keep him alive. We just have to keep him alive.”
Teens who suffer concussions are more likely to die by suicide
The timing of James’ personality changes and mental illness are simply too close not to be related to his concussion, and science says that having a concussion makes a young person three times as likely to die by suicide. Many kids and teens go through physical, personality, mental changes after a concussion, but these manifest differently in different people. For James, it was OCD and suicide ideation along with his vision and memory troubles; for others it may be anxiety, depression, or headaches.
Throughout 2016, the Ransoms kept on top of James’ progress; a few months after his hospital stay, he seemed to be doing better. When he started 8th grade in August, he had re-mastered academic skills and he had a lot of friends. “Everything’s going to be fine,” his sister Lillie thought at that point. “He’s going to get through this.”
But as fall continued on, old worries and behavior aberrations began to crop up. On a family Thanksgiving vacation to Hawaii, James at times seemed happy and other times seemed depressed. His mother worried anew.
A few days after returning to school, he got in trouble over a scuffle with another boy. He was upset at himself, his mom said, but he and his mom talked about it. It would be one of the last conversations they ever had. Bleacher report says that his mom “told him the kid who approached him was probably jealous of him and that James should act with kindness toward him. James agreed: ‘He probably is jealous of me.’ Courtney asked him why. James said: ‘Because I am smart, funny and people like me.'”
Bleacher Report details what happened next that night, November 30, 2016:
“Later that night, James came downstairs to talk to his mom again, asking about her work, her upcoming projects. He went upstairs to go to bed but then came down again pretty quickly. He said he needed a glass of water. Courtney reminded him to take his medication and his melatonin, so he could get his sleeping schedule back on track. He nodded his head, finishing his glass.
‘Goodnight,’ she said. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you, too.’
James went upstairs and never came back down.”
James died by suicide that night. He was 13 years old.
Parents need to learn about concussion care and spread awareness
Though it’s been over two years since James’ death, his family’s grief still feels fresh. They have thrown themselves into trying to find answers, and have found many, many cases where mental illness in teens ensued very soon after a concussion. They share James’ story as much as they can to spread awareness, and have created the James Henry Ransom Foundation to raise money for other teens and adolescents and families struggling with mental illness.
Moms and dads, concussions happen, and the fact is, most do not result in a traumatic brain injury as severe as James’…but it’s still very important to watch for changes in your child in the weeks following a concussion. Do your part to learn about concussions and concussion care, especially if your child plays a contact sport. You can read more at KidsHealth.org. Let’s honor James Ransom’s memory and his parents efforts by making ourselves aware and spreading the word about the impact concussions can have on our kids mental health as well as their physical well-being.