HOLLAND, Mich. — As students head back to school and the pandemic continues on, mental health is a major point of focus in keeping our youth safe.
September marks the start of Suicide Prevention Month, and as one local family told us, it's important to have conversations about mental health to make sure those suffering don't feel alone.
"He came to us when he was 11 years old," said Steve Miskelley about his son Ian. "He came to me we were in his room one day, and he said, 'Dad, I'm just angry all the time. And I don't know why.' And that really, for me was, from my aspect, the start of the journey through the mental health system."
For the next 8 years, the Miskelley's in Holland would navigate the mental health system with their son.
It was about 2 years after that conversation that Ian was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety.
He was put on medications, regularly met with a psychiatrist, and went on to find moments of joy and success as a swimmer, while still battling his personal demons.
In the Summer of 2018, Ian attended the University of Michigan on a swimming scholarship, where he continued to thrive in the sport.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
"Right when the big 10 championship was was ending, and right before the NCAA championships, were starting for swimming COVID really just locked everything down," Steve said. "And his team was really struggling and therefore, you know, he was part of this team and we got a call and said, 'Hey, Ian's not doing well, he's really struggling is 11 o'clock at night'."
In July 2020, 19-year-old Ian was diagnosed with COVID-19 and spent time at home.
Once restrictions began being lifted a bit a month later, he was allowed to return to campus, but his parents say things were a bit off with him.
This includes their last conversation with him.
"I mean, we talked to him and the night before, I won't say that there was any overt sign," Steve said. "We just felt like a little uneasy. We felt like something was off. But But you know, we'd had countless conversations with him where something was off and we thought, you know, 'I don't know how I feel about that. Let's talk to him tomorrow.' You don't see how he's doing tomorrow. We had no idea."
Ian committed suicide on September 7, just days before his 20th birthday.
"For me, coping, it's difficult, not gonna lie," Steve said. "As that date gets closer, it gets harder. There's no question about it. You know, we've we've sought therapy, we've been working with therapists, that's been helpful. You do kind of reach a point where you realize that this is real, and this is forever."
As they approach the one-year anniversary of his death, and continue to cope with their tragic loss, Ian's parents say having conversations about mental health is key.
"We're working to get rid of some of the stigma of suicide, because you know, even the way you just set it where he did this, this isn't something rational," said Jill Miskelley, Ian's Mom. "You know, this isn't a rational decision where he, you know, it's, there were no, we had no idea really, that it was this was going to happen when it did."
The Miskelley's are hoping to erase the stigma surrounding depression, particularly among young athletes. They are also hoping to speak up for parents who have been through similar experiences.
"And the other part of the stigma is that parents are embarrassed, you know, nobody really wants to say that their kid is struggling because they don't, then you get judged," Jill said. "You really do you get judged? Or 'you're not a good parent. What did you do?' I mean, what did you do to cause this? Oh, my goodness, I tried my hardest, like, I mean, I didn't cause anything. And so that's a lot of it as parents are nervous and don't want to be judged, the child doesn't want to be judged. And then they feel like they're weak."
The goal of removing stigmas and starting a conversation has been reiterated by Vinaj Ventures, a firm with a focus on mental health looking to provide support online to those struggling.
"We've definitely in the last decade, see the incidence of anxiety, depression and suicide increase among young people, especially suicidal thought, from that standpoint," said Faye Sahai, Managing Director with Vinaj Ventures.
That's why they've created the Telosity Fund, as they are hoping to help explore and invest in solutions for young people when it comes to mental wellbeing, something they say is important as school gets back in session.
"I thought it was so important that you're addressing this, especially at this time," Sahai said. "With our young people going back to school, with the amount of anxiety and stress that's happening in our population, I just thought it's a wonderful time to really kind of emphasize that there are ways to help"
According to the firm's research, 85 percent of Americans agree that their children would benefit from mental health services. 67 percent believe that mental health education, like learning how to cope with stress, should be provided in schools.
"So what we're learning is young people want a solution that is available for them, 24/7," Sahai said.
Telosity helps back philanthropic groups and businesses that are utilizing technology to help reach younger people and help them with mental health struggles.
"We've seen some really interesting peer support models where youth want to see other youth and then really kind of come together kind of online, you're able to share resources to share stories and having them not feel alone," Sahai said.
The idea of reaching the youth and others struggling is something the Miskelley's are also doing following the tragic death of their son.
In June, they announced plans for the Ian Miskelley Be Better Mental Health Wellness Center in Holland.
"As a first step, really a first concrete step for us now as we're offering support groups for parents and parents who are struggling with a child who has depression, anxiety, who are struggling with exactly the the navigation that I talked about, one thing I do want to emphasize, and this is something we want to somehow fit in, but I'm not looking to replace the existing system," Steve said. "We're not looking to compete with the existing system. We're looking to supplement counselors."
The Miskelley's say that is an effort they're hoping to grow in the coming years, helping other families navigate grief and hopefully prevent a loss like theirs.
"I think every time we talk about it, help somebody else. muster the courage to say, 'Hey, I need help,' telling our story helps us get the word out. So that we can help as many people as possible," Steve said.
They are also honoring their son, who brought so much to their lives in his 19 years with them.
"I'm proud of my son," Steve said. "I'm immensely proud of my son. And it is largely because of the battle he waged and fought every day against this and what he was able to accomplish despite that illness, despite that challenge."
When it comes to possible warning signs, the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline's website offers some signs to watch out for, including:
- People talking about wanting to die or kill themselves
- Looking for a way to take their lives, like buying a gun.
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves/
If you or someone you know might be struggling, you can call the suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website here.