Stigma is real.
The stigma of talking about mental illness. The stigma of talking about suicide.
Both fuel silence, which can be deadly.
Theresa Danko, whose 19-year-old son ended his life five years ago, knows that now.
“I was part of that stigma. I let it continue,” she said. “I was a nonbeliever in mental illness — that it did exist, that mental illness could lead to suicide.”
When her son, Sebastian, began showing signs he needed help as a teen, she said her “strong-willed” self didn’t understand what he was going through.
Danko’s philosophy is that if something or someone is bothering you, remove it from your life. Get over it.
“It’s not that simple,” she said.
She now has empathy. She understands. She wants parents and anyone who may need help to reach out.
“Mental illness is a true illness and we need to let people know that it’s OK to speak about it and to ask for help, and to make sure that they have help,” Danko said. “And that we’re there for them.”
It has not been easy for the Diamondhead mother to share details of her personal story. But she has in support groups and as a board member and volunteer with the Mississippi Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Talking publicly about her son and herself, however, is new.
“Through my strength, hope and healing, it has allowed me share my story and be the voice,” she said. “Don’t sweep (mental illness) under the rug, because we owe it to ourselves and to others to be happy. Life is short, you need to love it and live it. Live it to the best that you can.”
He made everyone laugh
As a child, Sebastian was a picky eater. Like most kids, he’d prefer to stick with staples such as macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. Like most moms, she would introduce new foods and vegetables. He really liked steak.
He especially enjoyed going to the zoo. One of his favorite songs was “They All Ask’d for You,” a happy-go-lucky tune by The Meters. Danko would take Sebastian and her daughter to the Audubon Zoo and Aquarium in New Orleans at least once or twice a year.
He also liked the song “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.
“What kid liked that song, or even knew about it?” Danko said.
Throughout his life, Sebastian made people laugh.
He liked to ride skateboards with his friends and capture their stunts on videotape. He liked to play video games on his computer, one he had custom-built and optimized for fast gaming.
He was smart. He helped his mom through a physics class she was taking as part of her plan to advance her career in the medical field. He was in eighth grade before even having a physics class.
“Without him,” she said, “I would not have made it through physics.”
Sebastian, his mother said, did things to help and lift others. He was a good friend.
He was the type of kid who always held the door open for women and the elderly, Danko said. He once helped an elderly woman cross the street.
At his sister’s high school graduation, it rained. Sebastian, who was in 11th grade, took his mother’s umbrella and walked people from their cars inside to the ceremony.
“It’s those memories that help, I guess you can say, keep him alive,” Danko said, “and to continue to talk about him and all the funny things that he did do, and not to think about only the sad moments.”
‘A hard road’
In his mid-teens, Sebastian began seeing a counselor. In his senior year, his depression began to take over. He lost motivation, his mom said.
He gradually lost weight and became more tired.
In November 2009, Danko said she could tell by the look on her son’s face that he needed help.
Danko and her ex-husband placed Sebastian in a Coast mental health facility. Within two weeks, when insurance ran out, he was released. A few days later, he turned 18.
Danko said that while counselors said Sebastian was not ready to accept help, she said she feels the treatment was inadequate.
“He stopped taking his medications because he didn’t like the way they made him feel,” she said. “It was a hard road after that.”
It was a struggle to get Sebastian to graduate with his class at Hancock High School in 2010, but he did walk. His previous advancements in school and good grades helped him get his diploma.
Thanks to his high ACT score, he received a scholarship to attend community college. When Danko got him registered, he put science down as a major, but he really wasn’t sure.
“Space was his thing,” she said. “He’d say, ‘I’m going to the moon.’ One time he thought of being an astronaut.”
He also considered a career in the computer gaming industry.
He said he wanted to travel the world.
He didn’t stay in college long, though, and lost sight of his dreams, Danko said.
In April or May 2011 — more than a year after his stay at the mental health facility — Danko said Sebastian reached out to his father, saying he wanted help. He said he thought he might have bipolar disorder and need medication.
The first available mental health appointment was in July.
Sebastian said he was OK, and he assured his father he could wait.
He died in mid-June.
“With bipolar disorder or possibly any other mental illness, that’s an issue,” Danko said. “We need to make sure that the ones who want help can find it at that time when they’re asking for it. That’s the most crucial time. I think that will be when we can save the most lives, when they’re asking.”
‘Felt that darkness’
Danko said she became depressed after her son died and “felt that darkness.”
She said she wanted to die.
She said she wore a mask every day to hide her feelings.
On some days, she didn’t want to get out of bed. For the first time in her life, she was experiencing anxiety.
“It literally hurt to comb my hair,” she said. “You physically ache and you feel you cannot function or do anything.”
She began to research mental illness. She wanted to know what would cause someone so much pain they would want to kill themselves. She got help herself.
Advocate for yourself, Danko said. If a counselor is not working for you, try another. If a medicine is not helping, work with doctors and try something else. The sooner a person asks for help, she stressed, the sooner the right combination of medication and treatment can lead a person to a healthy, happy life.
One day at her counselor’s office, Danko noticed a beautiful painting. She asked the counselor if it was new. The counselor said, “No, it’s been there.”
Danko said she knew then she would be able to come out of her darkness and begin to heal.
For the last three years, Danko, her mother, her daughter and friends of Sebastian’s have taken a cruise in December around his birthday to celebrate his life. When he was 14, the family took a cruise from New Orleans to Mexico.
“He loved it,” Danko said.
They call the trip, “Sea & Shore for Sebastian.”
Danko schedules the cruises so she can be on the ship on his birthday, Dec. 11.
This year, he would have been 25.
‘Miss them every day’
At home, many of Sebastian’s things are as he left them. A school medal, with the inscription “In Honor of Academic Excellence,” hangs from his bedroom mirror. In the room are his hairbrush, his old sandals, gaming magazines and clothes hanging in the closet.
The trinkets kids display and fasten on walls as they are growing up are still there.
Danko has put a futon in the room and uses his computer. She had to get the computer reworked, though, to make it functional for her.
She has let some friends and family members have an item of Sebastian’s that meant something to them.
She is not sure where his skateboard is, though. And she hasn’t been able to bring herself to watch any of his skateboarding videos.
She now realizes she doesn’t have many pictures of herself with her children.
“I was always the one behind the camera,” she said.
Pictures of Sebastian are throughout her house. As they always have been. Danko sees no reason to put them away.
She knows people grieve differently and she has learned a lot about herself through her healing process. She said her faith is stronger and she is more spiritual.
“I have always been a person who believes in a higher power,” she said. “There’s more than this right here. I know I will see him again.”
In addition to her work with the AFSP, she helps run a support group for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Though she shares her personal story with people there, she also listens.
It’s the listening that also helps them begin to heal.
“We are there to help give reassurance. Everything they are feeling, it’s perfectly normal,” Danko said. “You don’t get back to the old normal. You learn to live the new normal. You will think about them every day and miss them every day.”
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Suicide warning signs and risk factors
Suicide most often occurs when stress exceeds a person’s ability to cope. Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and substance problems, especially when unaddressed, increase risk for suicide.
Something to look out for when concerned that a person may be suicidal is a change in behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors. This is of sharpest concern if the new or changed behavior is related to a painful event, loss, or change. Most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do.
Risk factors are characteristics or conditions that increase the chance that a person may try to take their life, including mental health conditions, substance abuse, stressful life events or previous suicide attempts.
Find out more about suicide’s warning signs and risk factors at afsp.org.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention