Aside from being a lifelong friend and one of the strongest people I know, Michelle Jones is one of the founders of The Pete Foundation. The Pete Foundation aims to spread mental health awareness and “stomp the stigma” surrounding mental health.
After losing my brother and best friend, Pete, to suicide about a year and a half ago, the grief, shock, confusion, and enormous mix of all other emotions nearly blocked out any other logical thoughts, behaviors, or reasoning. One of the few things that peeked through that cloud of darkness was this penetrating realization that there exists a whole other world where mental health is a thing and suicide in your family isn’t so unthinkable. It was always one of those things that everyone thinks would never happen in their family. It took my brother’s suicide for me to realize how bad his depression really was, or that suicide can happen in even the most loving families, or that no matter how close you are to someone, our society’s view of mental health could keep you from saving them. In this other world, there are people desperately trying to raise awareness about mental health, because they know the things it can do.
My family was suddenly thrown into this new world as we became more and more aware of the severity of mental health issues, the prevalence of suicide in our communities, and the rampantly growing number of young people with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. It quickly became so clear to my other siblings and I that we had to do something about it. We knew our only option was to make it our mission to spread awareness and help others enter this world and become acquainted with mental health through understanding and acceptance.
Within one day of losing him, my other brothers and I established The Pete Foundation so we could carry out this mission with full force. Within 3 days, we were registered with the state as a 501(c)3 nonprofit; within one week we were receiving letters of solidarity from strangers all over the United States; and within one month we had raised over $50,000 in donations. The incredible support we continue to receive for the foundation is a constant assurance of the need for mental health awareness and prevention of its manifestations.
Did you know that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the US, after “accidents”? And for every suicide 25 attempts are made? And this is just talking about completed suicides. Mental illness of any kind is so common, but still just as serious. 1 in 5 people reading this blog post right now suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.
So why doesn’t anyone ever talk about it? Why didn’t I know mental health issues were so prevalent? I was completely ignorant of some common disorders. Those cheesy 1990s videos we watched in school taught me nothing. No doctor ever mentioned suicide risk. How was I ever to consider that Pete was thinking about it? And how could he have ever conveyed that feeling to me?
The stigma and lack of understanding is literally killing us. As soon as I realized I was in this world, I decided I was going to rock it. Thinking about Pete and how incredibly kind and loving he was made it easy. I met with tons of professionals in the health, business, social work, nonprofit, and fundraising fields to learn from them and to collaborate on major projects. I joined the Louisville Health Advisory Board Behavioral Health Committee and other organizations. I started hosting tons of community awareness and fundraising events. I sat in on lectures given by Norton Prevention and Wellness to inform teens about depression. I gave talks at high schools and at events we hosted. I couldn’t dive deep enough.
The more people I talked to in this world, the more I realized I was not alone in this mission. Certain family members and close friends immediately jumped in to help in incredible ways. They built the foundation’s website, www.ThePeteFoundation.org; they helped us accomplish big goals; they even helped us start an annual music festival, PeteFest, that would spread awareness throughout Louisville and beyond.
More and more people contacted me saying they wanted to get involved. I started putting together a Board of Advisers comprised of highly skilled experts in a variety of different fields with impressive backgrounds so that we could develop strategic, long-term plans for huge initiatives like implementing educational programs, conducting research, providing counseling services, organizing community events, etc.
But you don’t have to run a foundation to help this effort. Every little thing counts. If you make an effort to become more aware of mental wellness, you’re helping to make a difference. In the morning when you wake up, give yourself an uplifting compliment. When you’re on your daily commute, make yourself smile – it will actually affect your mood. Be open to yourself and others about your own thoughts and emotions. Try to understand why you feel the way you do, or ask your friends how they feel. If you go to therapy, don’t hide it; if you take medication, don’t hide it. Understand that anyone could be going through something. Be there. Be accepting. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Mental health is health. Together we can stomp that stigma right into the ground.