Staff Spotlight—Overcoming tragedy by helping others

After Sue Barez’s 24-year-old son Joshua died of suicide four years ago on September 2, 2014, she decided to share her story and put a spotlight on a disease that she feels is an epidemic, mental illness.

“Unfortunately, you only become familiar with mental illness when it happens to someone close to you and you have to navigate the complicated and woefully deficient behavioral healthcare system in our country. What is also unique about mental health care versus medical healthcare, is that you are mostly on your own to navigate treatment. There rarely is a primary doctor as there would be for other diseases, that will refer you to specialists or treatment centers.”

“You have two choices when you lose a child to suicide, you can keep your thoughts and your sadness to yourself, or you can take what you’ve unfortunately had to learn and try to help others. I had to choose the second option because I knew I couldn’t move on if I didn’t try to help other young adults who struggle as Joshua did.”

Within the first year of Josh’s death, Sue met Marisa Porco. Marisa and her husband had lost their son Jordan to suicide in his freshman year of college. She was a social worker at the time and, together with her husband, they formed the Jordan Porco Foundation with the primary mission of preventing suicide through innovative educational programming. They created a program called Fresh Check Day, which is a health fair for mental illness. The event is student-run and includes food, music, and fun activities to attract student participation. The activities are designed to be fun and, more importantly, to engage students in dialogues about mental health and suicide prevention. The goal is to get students to pay attention and be aware of not only their personal wellbeing and mental health, but that of their friends and peers.

“This program resonated strongly with me since Josh was a junior in college when he had his first psychotic episode. Neither he nor his suitemates had any idea what was happening. If they were educated about the signs of mental illness or actions of someone who may be suicidal, perhaps they would have known to reach out to someone and get help for him, such as the health center on campus.”

“Although we were still in too much pain that first year to do much of anything, I felt that the one thing I could do since I worked at a University was to help bring the Fresh Check Day program to Yale to help other students who may be struggling. At the time, Yale was the only college in CT not hosting the event. I reached out to two of the student-run organizations on campus that work to raise awareness of mental health issues, Mind Matters (run by undergraduates of Yale College), and the Yale Medical Student Psychiatric Association (run by Yale medical students). I also reached out to one of the faculty members that I recruit for on his research study that seeks “to determine how best to provide care to individuals who have recently experienced the onset of psychotic symptoms.” Dr. Vinod Srihari is the Director of the STEP Program (Specialized Treatment for Early Psychosis).

After two years of communications with the students and the Jordan Porco Foundation, Mind Matters saw the importance of the program and held the first Fresh Check Day in April 2018. The event exceeded expectations by attracting about 550 participants—the second largest Fresh Check Day event in the country in the Spring of 2018. UConn has had the largest number of attendees and continues to offer the program annually during their UConn Spring Weekend.

“The Yale event was the first time my husband, son, and I, had attended a Fresh Check Day event, and we were so impressed with how upbeat and fun it was while still managing to educate and inform students about mental health issues, and the resources available on campus.

The one thing I didn’t expect after experiencing the death of my child to mental illness, was how many people would pour their own stories out to me once I went public with Josh’s story. They told me about the mental health issues of their mothers, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. People shared stories about their experience with suicides of friends and loved ones. I have found that there hasn’t been a conversation that I’ve had with someone about what happened to Josh where the person I’m speaking to hasn’t had a similar story to share.

“I learned over the past four years of talking about our story that mental illness is like cancer, everyone knows someone who has it. The one big difference is that no one likes talking about it, and therefore it doesn’t get the attention or resources needed for research and treatment the way cancer does. The sad truth is that even though mental illness affects one out of five individuals worldwide, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 - 24-year-olds (12 people aged 15-24 die of suicide every day), there is a stigma that prevents many of those suffering from reaching out to get the help they need. I’m hoping that I can be one of the voices that helps to change that.”

For more information, please visit the Joshua Barez Memorial Fund website