By Lauren Wanko
Nineteen-year-old Kenny Baker was a hard-working student who also excelled athletically, but he battled depression and anxiety. On May 19, 2009, he took his own life.
“It’s really hard, you know? What was really hard was to watch your child for three years to struggle, to try to do everything you possibly can do within your human power to help them, but to not anyone to really understand what your child is going through to understand it’s a real illness,” said Tricia Baker, Kenny’s mother and co-founder of Attitudes in Reverse (AIR).
Kenny’s parents — Tricia and Kurt Baker — say their son was getting the highest level of care right before his death, but the stigma of mental illness was overwhelming. Kenny was diagnosed at 15.
“I’m embarrassed to say this, but you know our first response was what do we tell people if our child had diabetes or a heart disease? I would be able to share with friends and neighbors, they would bring casseroles. I always say mental illness is a non-casserole illness. You can’t talk about it,” Tricia said.
Which is why the couple is now making it their mission to talk about it.
The Bakers launched the non-profit AIR — Attitudes in Reverse — in 2010. The all-volunteer organization is dedicated to student mental health awareness and suicide prevention. So far the Bakers have presented to more than 14,000 students in over three years.
Therapy dogs like Miki join on every visit.
“It’s the one remaining issue, health issue, that we can have that is still heavily stigmatized and I think now is the time we address it head on,” Kurt said.
Shauna Moses of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies — a trade association representing providers of mental health care and addiction treatment — also battles with depression. Moses says two years ago she was consumed by the illness.
“So badly I would stay in bed for entire days at a time. I was taking sick days from work more than I ever had,” Moses said.
Moses says she would remind herself of the many good things in her life, but those thoughts simply didn’t make her happy.
“And I remember thinking if those thoughts don’t make me happy now, they never will and if they never will what is the point of living? I did attempt suicide,” she said.
Moses tried to slit her wrists but eventually realized she needed help. Now she’s on an anti-depressant and is a proud board member of Attitudes in Reverse. As for the Bakers, Kenny’s death has given them a new purpose.
“If love can save someone who’s thinking about suicide, Kenny would be alive today and thriving, so love alone isn’t always the answer,” said Tricia.
But understanding that depression is truly an illness, not a choice, is one of the answers insist these mental health advocates. And they vow to continue to share that message for Kenny and so many others just like him.