Kyle Johnson spread a lot of love in just 19 years. He took great pride in working with Special Olympians. He seemed to understand when a friend was depressed and was ready to help with a joke or a hug. He was a strong shoulder to many at North Attleboro High, Keene State College and Bridgewater State University.
But there was a darker side. Kyle Johnson was mentally ill, constantly battling anxiety and depression. He knew it. His family knew it. And everyone who loved him tried to help him with his battle.
It wasn’t enough, however, to stop him from taking his own life in April 2018.
The Johnson family — parents Jim and Sue and sisters Katie and Lauren — are trying to deal with their overwhelming grief by working to reduce the number of young people battling the same ills as Kyle.
Just before the first anniversary of Kyle’s death, they founded the KyleCares Foundation, which will work with local high schools and colleges to provide whatever resources needed to assist young people struggling with mental illness. The Johnsons have partnered with The JED Foundation, a national organization which works with school counselors to prevent suicides, and the Samaritans, who have long been in the forefront of suicide prevention.
The establishment of the foundation came at the direction of Kyle himself.
“Kyle often spoke about not only his own OCD, anxiety, and depression, but he also talked about the high volume of other teens and young adults in high schools and colleges who struggle with mental health challenges every day,” the family writes on the foundation website, www.kylecaresinc.org. “In a final letter written by Kyle prior to his passing, he stressed the importance of raising awareness of mental illness and suicide. He encouraged others who struggled with mental illness to seek help and recover; to never stop fighting the disease, and to never feel ashamed for having to admit they need assistance.”
After a highly successful fundraiser in June, the foundation recently awarded its first grant, $3,000 to train staff at nearby Millis High School how to recognize students battling mental illness and providing them the support they need. Three more grants are in the works.
We applaud the Johnsons’ efforts and hope they serve as an example to our school leaders.
As today’s front-page story by Staff Writer George W. Rhodes explains, the need for a mental health curriculum is acute in our public schools.
The rate of adolescents experiencing major depression surged nearly 40 percent from 2005 to 2014, according to a study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, rising to an estimated 2.2 million depressed children ages 12 to 17, according to the most recent federal data.
Teen suicides also have spiked. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among boys ages 15 to 19 increased by nearly a third between 2007 and 2015; the suicide rate among girls the same age more than doubled.
But that only accounts for the deaths. Nearly 9 percent of youths in grades 9 through 12 attempted suicide in the past year, according to the CDC’s 2015 Youth Risk Behaviors Survey.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it’s critical that education increases for both young people and adults. More than half of lifetime mental illnesses begin before age 14, according to that organization, but the average person waits 10 years after the first symptoms occur before getting treatment.
But those are just numbers. In Kyle Johnson, there is a face to put on the issue of mental illness.
Here’s hoping his story, and the overwhelming evidence in today’s front-page story, inspires local and state officials to improve mental health education in our public schools.