A breath of fresh AIR: creating awareness for mental health disorders

In the wake of Owen Bardzilowski’s passing and in the wake of September being National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, many people in the Princeton community are prompted to question, learn about and create awareness around mental health disorders and suicide prevention.

“It’s not suicide. It’s death from a disorder. You don’t commit cancer,” said Kurtis Baker, who co-founded Attitudes In Reverse with his daughter Katelyn and wife Tricia after their son, Kenny, ended his life at 19. “It’s a really complicated situation, but we have to normalize this. People who die by suicide don’t want to die; they want to end the pain. Death is a symptom of their disorder.”

The concept of Attitudes In Reverse was formed after Katelyn and her family faced the discrimination which followed her brother’s death. At the time, she attended West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North.

Katelyn felt AIR embodied the idea of a mental health disorder because it is invisible. Like air, the disorder exists even if you can’t see it.

“It’s terribly difficult to deal with death, let alone the death of a child. Then, there’s this stigma attached to [mental illness]. People talk about it in a certain way,” Baker said. “The parents didn’t cause this. Some people think there must have been some impact made.”

Since Kenny’s death in 2009, AIR has expanded nationally and seeks to educate students, teachers and other individuals to prevent suicide and to educate so that everyone, no matter what biological-based brain challenge they are dealt, are treated with kindness and respect.

According to Baker, the biggest resistance to an open dialogue on these topics is driven by the fear that the truth will be a contagion – if you talk about the subject, you will lose more students.

“The bigger concern, here, is not having a constructive conversation. If not, most kids are very likely to get advice from their peers, which is not always the best answer. We need to provide them with real information,” Baker said emphatically. “We often bring someone to speak to kids who has dealt with their own mental health disorder. And the kids know whether you’re real or not – they read right through us. The key is to give hope that they can get better.”

According to Baker, one in five youth and one in four adults face a mental health disorder. Though once help is sought, 70 percent to 90 percent of cases see improvement, and Baker feels the arena of solving mental health disorders is only evolving.

When the Bakers were asked to present to a middle school, they proceeded cautiously toward their young audience. However, when asked if they or someone they knew has or had dealt with suicide or the thought of harming their self, nearly every hand went up.

“It is so easy to be living in this fantasy world where you think, ‘My kid doesn’t have issues, they have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, they’re doing well in school, they play sports.’ Our son had all of that. He was on top of the world as a freshman. He connected with others well, he was kind and loving, as many are with anxiety or depression. They’re empathic because they understand a lot of mental pain,” Baker said.

Baker remembers the little quirks his son had. In retrospect, he sees how these were fueled by anxiety, which led to depression and pain. Once Kenny was diagnosed, they always knew he was at risk and did everything in their power to help alleviate his issues.

“There’s only so much you can do physically unless you want to lock the child up and not let them live their life. That’s the problem with mental health: Since it comes from the brain, so many other things are affected,” Baker said.

Baker feels the more this issue is discussed, the more lives will be saved.

“I think it is really important that we don’t hide from this. If we get in front of this on the ground floor, we’ll solve a ton of issues from incarceration to homelessness, addiction, teen pregnancy and bullying,” Baker said.

In addition to AIR seminars, the Bakers participate in teaching Mental Health First Aid, which he believes should be taken by anyone who works or is a parent to youth. While the Bakers are not clinicians, their goal is to raise awareness and demonstrate when and if someone needs help.

Resources for peer support and suicide prevention include: NJhopeline.com; 1(800) 273-TALK; trinitycounseling.org, (609) 924-0060; princetonpsychologicalcenter.com, (609) 658-0368; good-grief.corg, (609) 498-6674; and jfcsonline.org (609) 987-8100.

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida