Suicide prevention: One father’s mission to break the stigma around mental health

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. It’s free, confidential and available 24 hours a day.

Looking back, Jeff Christensen thinks about all the questions he would have asked when his son, Drew, was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Now, on the seven-year anniversary of his son’s suicide, Jeff shares what he wishes he knew then to help others avoid the same loss.

Something had changed

Drew was always a competitive kid, on and off the field. By high school, he was 6’1 and dominated the football field and excelled equally in the classroom. A handful of AP credits and top grades landed him at the University of Minnesota to study chemistry, a topic Drew truly loved. But when he returned home to visit, his behavior seemed unfamiliar — smart and enthusiastic as always, but with a different kind of energy.

“When he would come home from college, he would have these really inventive ideas and he would talk (uncharacteristically) at length,” Jeff said. “It was like, ‘is this just the impact of, you know, taking some electives that put all kinds of ideas in his head, or is there something off?’”

A close friend of one of Jeff’s other children saw it too, and once mentioned she thought Drew could be struggling with a mental health condition — something Jeff said he now wishes he would have taken more seriously.

“I wish I had taken that more to heart,” Jeff said.

Eventually, Drew’s battle with his mental health became more than he could handle, but finding the care he needed wasn’t easy.

“He was just not receptive and, you know, being as powerful as he was, we couldn't just say, look, you're getting in the car, we're taking you to the doctor,” Jeff said. “We didn't know how to get him diagnosed and get the treatment that he needed.”

Then one day, Jeff got a call from Drew saying that he’d had been arrested by the police and then hospitalized after having a breakdown outside of his apartment. It was then that Drew was officially diagnosed with bipolar II disorder.

Jeff was worried about how labelling his son with a mental health condition might impact his future. What would it mean for his job search, or his friendships? Because he wasn’t sure what to do about these concerns, he didn’t want to tell anyone about Drew’s diagnosis – and it’s one of his biggest regrets today.

In the years following his diagnosis, Drew was hospitalized for his mental health a few times. He worked with doctors to find the right combination of medication to help treat his bipolar disorder and scheduled visits with his psychiatrist. His family was also helping him find additional support services, but Jeff said his son ran out of time. 

Drew died by suicide in November 2016. He was 25 years old.

Turning pain into progress

For years, Jeff couldn’t talk about his son’s death without crying. Today, he’s turning his grief into action to help prevent other parents from experiencing the same pain. He leads an employee support group at his work, UnitedHealthcare, to help create an open dialogue for parents who have a child with a mental health diagnosis and works to establish a safe space for those struggling.

“The night (Drew) died, we had to tell my wife's folks, and that was the first time they knew he had a mental health diagnosis,” Jeff said. “We realized just how much we had participated in the stigma, and sadly, we realized too just how dangerous it is.”

The Jed Foundation (JED) is a nonprofit that helps protect emotional health and prevent suicide for teens and young adults. In addition to strengthening suicide prevention policies and programs that support youth, JED helps parents and caring adults, like Jeff, understand the signs of mental health challenges and take action with the goal to save lives.

"In the United States, 1 in 3 young adults aged 18-25 experiences a mental health disorder each year. Breaking the shame, silence and misinformation surrounding mental health and having conversations about suicide can save lives," said Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, chief medical officer at JED. "Engaging in conversations about mental health and suicide with loved ones is crucial for helping them find a support system, activate the right treatment plan, and build a life where they can thrive. I encourage everyone to take action now and seek out our resources on how to talk openly about suicide and get young people the help they need.”

Facing a national crisis — and how to help

Suicide is on the rise nationally — the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 5% increase in overall suicide deaths in the U.S. from 2020 to 2021, and another 2.6% increase in 2022. Among teens and young adults ages 10-34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death.

Regardless of whether or not you know someone who’s currently struggling with their mental health, learning how to spot the warning signs of suicide and understanding how to intervene is important for everyone.

The following warning signs might mean a person is considering suicide and may need urgent help:

  • Experiencing increased anxiety
  • Having more extreme mood swings
  • Showing anger or rage
  • Isolating themselves
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Increasing their substance use
  • Talking about being a burden
  • Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Expressing hopelessness
  • Looking for a way to access lethal means
  • Talking or posting about wanting to die
  • Making plans for suicide

Research shows that bringing up suicide with someone who is thinking about it can provide relief and increase the likelihood that they will seek out help. If a support system or person steps in early, it may ultimately help save a life.

Consider these tips on how to help start a conversation:

  • Show that you’re concerned in a way that is not confrontational or judgmental. Let them know that you care about them and you’re concerned about recent changes you’ve noticed in their mood or behavior.
  • Keep questions simple. Ask how they’re doing, what they’re feeling and how you can help provide support.
  • Suggest reaching out to a local mental health resource. Ask if they have thoughts about seeking support from a professional trained to help with these types of issues. A growing number of mental health care providers offer virtual visits that can help make it easier for people to access mental health care when they need it. Many employee assistance programs also offer mental health support.
  • After your initial conversation, remain engaged with them and check in regularly. Having consistent support from family and friends may help make a huge difference in people’s well-being. Encourage your friend or loved one to stay in touch and even expand social interactions.
  • Take action if the individual is not receptive to your help and displays intent to end their life. If you’re worried about someone hurting themselves, searching for ways to take their life or consistently talking, writing or posting about death and suicide in a way that seems out of character, you can take action and let them know about free public health resources like 988. Anyone can text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741. If there is a medical emergency or immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis. Even though you may worry about the individual becoming angry with you, it can be the difference between life and death.

By taking these steps to be there for someone who is struggling, you may be able to play a part in helping to save their life.

Today, Jeff works to be the support system that he himself once needed as a parent trying to navigate difficult conversations about mental health and care for his son. He talks openly about ways we can all help to break the stigma around mental health and help others feel less alone.

“You can hear the sigh of relief from participants in the support group,” he said. “You know, ‘it's, ah, God, somebody understands what I'm going through without me having to explain every last detail.’ If this group had been available then, maybe the outcome would have been different. Maybe we would have figured a way to get Drew diagnosed sooner.”

JED offers a wide range of resources and support, including their It’s OK to Say Suicide campaign to normalize and guide conversations about mental health and suicide.

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