Barbara is on a mission of hope. After losing her eighteen year old son Michael to suicide in 2005, she’s spreading the word on teenage depression and spare other families the heartache she has experienced. “It’s so important to emphasize that although depression is a life threatening illness, it is a treatable one,” she says.
Michael’s first episode of depression emerged when he was 14 years old. A huge sports fan, it had been his dream to one day play football for Penn State University. But during a preseason game, he was sidelined with a knee injury.
“Michael was one of the captains of the football team,” recalls Barbara, “so he would still go to all the practices and help the coach.”
Barbara admired his dedication, but soon noticed changes in Michael, who started to withdraw, cut back on eating and obsess about exercising. When his weight dropped from 120 pounds to the high 90’s, Barbara had him admitted to an inpatient treatment program for eating disorders.
Upon completion of the program, Michael was discharged, although he continued to take an antidepressant and see a therapist. He was weaned off the medication after six months and seemed to be doing better. Barbara thought high school would provide him with a fresh start, but soon Michael began having new problems with his knees. He underwent surgery in order to remove growths on his kneecaps that were most likely the result of his over-exercising.
Only in looking back does Barbara now understand what triggered Michael’s depression. “He was watching everyone do what he wanted to do but couldn’t,” she says. “It was his dream to play football and it didn’t happen for him.”
She saw the signs of depression coming back during Michael’s senior year and it scared her. “In my mind, I thought it was an isolated incident. I didn’t think it would come back,”she says. “They had diagnosed Michael with major depression and obsessive compulsive disorder when he was in the hospital, but they didn’t explain enough to us.”
Barbara consulted with a new pediatrician who started Michael on the antidepressant he had taken previously. But he started exercising and losing weight again. Barbara soon noticed marks on his neck. “He was at an age where you don’t want to pry into everything,” she says. “I thought he and his brother had been horsing around.”
Michael later confessed to his parents that the marks were from trying to hang himself. “I knew we were in crisis mode,” says Barbara. “We called the pediatrician and asked for the name of a psychiatrist.”
The family consulted with the new psychiatrist the next day and Michael admitted to trying to take his own life. Barbara was surprised the doctor only prescribed a new antidepressant, and didn’t recommend hospitalization, given Michael’s history.
The family didn’t see any improvement in Michael, but rather an increase in his anxiety. Sadly, Michael took his life before the next psychiatrist appointment. It was three days after his high school graduation.
Surviving a suicide loss
Barbara has relied on her faith to help work through her grief. “Michael fulfilled the purpose of his life and that was to show people that depression is a serious illness,” she says.
Having lost two other family members to suicide, her uncle and recently her brother, Barbara is all too aware of the tormented lives these loved ones had lived for so long and she finds strength in the knowledge that “God spared Michael a lifetime of suffering.”
Now she’s spending her lifetime educating others about adolescent depression. “There’s still the stigma,” she says. “People don’t want to be attached to the diagnosis. But if family members can get comfortable talking about depression, then the loved one who is struggling will hopefully come to accept it.”
She stresses the importance of learning about medication, understanding the different types of depression, and not taking anything for granted. “If you’re not comfortable with your first psychotherapist, take the time to find a better match,” she urges.
In an effort to raise awareness, Barbara held a Sweeet! Baking for Healthy Minds bake sale to benefit Families for Depression Awareness at a local high school flea market. “When Michael had his first bout of depression he would withdraw to his bedroom. I was able to persuade him to make cookies with me,” she says.
Barbara also distributed the organization’s Teen and Parent Depression and Bipolar Wellness guides. “They’re very informative resources for understanding these illnesses, ” she says.
Between her faith, grief therapy, and support from her family and friends, Barbara is able to find purpose in her son’s death. “As tragic as it is, I know he’s at peace and I’ll see him again some day,” she says. “Now it’s my mission to share the life of my son who was born with a mental illness and save another family from the loss of a loved one.”