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2018 Top 10: No. 2 - Mental health awareness comes to forefront following suicides

Brainerd High School student Caroline Benson (second from left) speaks during a mental health panel with moderator Kathy Sell from Essentia (left), Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian and Essentia Health-Central President Adam Rees Thursday at Lakewood Evangelical Free Church in Baxter. Also participating were Central Lakes College President Hara Charlier, president of Nystrom & Associates, Brian Nystrom, and psychiatrist Peter Neifert. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Video1 / 2
Noah Sundberg, a Brainerd High School junior and organizer of The Lighthouse Project, speaks to Pillager basketball game, where fans wore Warrior blue in support of BHS over recent losses to suicide. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

Lives cut too short, an illness relegated to the shadows, and a community that banded together to shine a spotlight on suicide and mental health were among the top local stories of the year.

Suicide, and mental illness at large, belongs to no one demographic. The biggest common factor following such a death is the devastation—the heartbreak felt by families, friends and communities in the wake of such tragedies.

The Brainerd lakes area in recent years had been no stranger to deaths by suicide. The victims are young children, teenagers, sons, daughters, husbands, fathers, neighbors.

Following the Feb. 21 death of 16-year-old Brainerd High School student Jake Haapajoki, friends, family and the community banded together to offer support, share their stories and to begin the discussion on not only the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health issues, but what needs to be done to address the issues.

Many of those stories were shared in the Brainerd Dispatch in a three-day series publishing in April.

Tracy Chu felt like a lot of people who heard about her former high school classmate's son who took his own life, but she did something not everyone does—she started a GoFundMe page.

The vice president of Brainerd High School's class of '92 said she represented her classmates in the fundraising endeavor to support class president Eryk Haapajoki and his late son Jake.

Even Brainerd lakes area community leaders took to the stage in May at Lakewood Evangelical Free Church in Baxter to share publicly their private struggles in the hopes it may help others.

Central Lakes College President Hara Charlier, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian, Essentia Health-Central President Adam Rees and Brainerd High School student Caroline Benson shared at the church gathering their personal "mental health journeys."

Charlier said mental illness has had a "prominent place" in her life and in her family's life "for as long as I can really remember," and she told the audience she had many suicidal thoughts.

Nystrom & Associates President Brian Nystrom and psychiatrist Dr. Peter Neifert were also part of Make It OK panel discussion to share their extensive experience with mental illness, but Benson, a 16-year-old junior, stood out among the speakers because of her youth.

BHS juniors Noah Ebinger and Noah Sundberg said they never saw coming the death of Haapajoki, their friend, brother and teammate on the BHS varsity soccer team.

Ebinger and Sundberg started a nonprofit organization called The Lighthouse Project. They initially called it Smiles For Jake, but changed the name to broaden the outreach.

The soccer players brainstormed many ideas, did their research and came up with raising money for the school to conduct mental health screenings for students at the middle school and high school levels.

Their goal is to first raise $50,000 for The Lighthouse Project to implement the mental health screenings at Brainerd schools; and another $25,000 to offer to families who do not have insurance. The screenings would be voluntary.

More than 1 in 4 residents in Crow Wing County have been diagnosed with a mental illness, but the stigma around it prevents people from reaching out for help, according to event sponsors Brainerd Dispatch, Essentia Health and Brainerd Lakes Chamber.

Depression and anxiety are more common than diabetes, with almost 28 percent of adults in the county impacted by mental illness, according to a Crow Wing Energized survey.

Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in America for those ages 18 to 44, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

If in a crisis or in need of help—or know someone who is—call the Crisis Line and Referral Services at 218-828-HELP (4357) or 800-462-5525. The phone line is answered 24 hours a day by local, trained volunteers providing free, anonymous and confidential advice.