Suicide prevention: After NJ teen’s death, parents found lessons to help others
Isolation doesn’t have to be a way of life. If you're struggling with depression or another mental health issue, Kurt and Tricia Baker, founders of Princeton-based suicide prevention program Attitudes in Reverse, want you to know this.
Kurt and Tricia Baker's son, Kenny, has struggled with depression for years. His parents describe him as a kind-hearted, brilliant young man — tested at age 6 to have the long-term memory of a 29-year-old. He was a star swimmier, a lifeguard and a popular teen.
Kenny was also just 5 years old when he watched a Zoloft commercial and told his mother, "Mommy, I need that." He was 15 when he was formally diagnosed with depression. He fell deeper into his illness. Friends drifted away. Some educators couldn't understand his struggle and were curt or hurtful telling him to "just snap out of it," his parents said.
He'd followed treatment, but at the age of 19, just three weeks before graduation from high school, ended his own life on the railroad tracks at Princeton Junction. The story of the public death was widely reported.
Finding Hope In Loss
But Kurt and Tricia Baker, in their grief, found the strength to help others. In addition to founding Attitudes in Reverse, they've been public advocates for families who don't know how to come to grips with a a sometimes overwhelming struggle.
According to Kurt Baker, a quarter of the population is dealing with a mental health disorder, yet problems often go undetected because parents and kids don't know how to identify mental illness. For example, natural growth spurts and hormonal changes can mislead parents to believe a sullen mood swing is just a phase.
The Bakers, who became certified mental health instructors after losing Kenny to suicide, say education is crucial to helping the suffering.
"Mental illness is like air — just because you don't see doesn't mean it's not there. It's all around us," said Tricia Baker.
"Some of them don't even realize they have a mental health disorder, because for them, this is their reality," said Kurt Baker. "You have to have the children engaged, the parents have to understand it, the educators that come in contact with it have to understand, as well as the medical profession."
Attitudes in Reverse, helps accomplish this goal by informing others and dispelling the often negative social stigma surrounding depression, anxiety, and other conditions that could lead to suicide. The group takes both personal and community approaches to getting their message out, employing school assemblies, art installations on college campuses, animals, and even celebrities to disseminate their message that mental illness is treatable.
Tricia and Kurt baker urge anyone who thinks they or their loved one might be contemplating suicide to get help, even if it's uncomfortable to speak up.
"There's absolutely no need for shame," said Tricia. "If I broke my arm, I'd go and get it fixed. If I got sick, I'd go to the doctor. It's just like that."
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or struggling with a mental illness, help is only a call a way. The 24 hour national suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.