Event to focus on dealing with depression

Don’t ignore the elephant.

John and Mary Jo McConnell of Altoona had a son, Johnny, who took his life at age 30 in 2004.

Afterward, John – who will speak at a downtown public education event May 14 on depression and suicide – noticed co-workers veering away as they approached him, to avoid awkwardness.

What could they say?

There was a similar dynamic at family gatherings.

“It was the elephant in the room,” said Mary Jo this week.

As family survivors of suicide, they recommend acknowledging the elephant.

After all, “Who doesn’t want to remember their child?” Mary Jo asked rhetorically.

Remembering – like the proverbial elephant – is critical for the well-being of survivors and prevention of other suicides, according to John, whose focus at the event will be equally on both.

“If you can mention it, you can manage it,” said John, quoting a saying attributed to Fred Rogers, the former host of the children’s TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

The saying works both ways – for handling the sadness of a loved one’s suicide and for suicide prevention, he said.

John and Mary Jo’s memories of their son – “30 good years” – along with “leaning” on each other and their Catholic faith has helped sustain them, he said.

The danger-sign reminders that survivors tend to share and that attendees will learn at the May 14 event will save lives, they said.

Johnny himself had a memory like an elephant, which allowed him to memorize reams of sports statistics as a kid and piles of zip codes when he worked for UPS as an adult.

But he was bipolar.

His maternal grandmother – with whom he developed a special bond – was also bipolar, and though he was a “happy kid,” he had only a few friends, liked playing by himself and endured three hip surgeries during fifth grade, his parents said.

Still, he didn’t begin to exhibit “eccentric” behavior until age 14, around the time the family moved from Cranberry Township to Canton, Ohio, when John changed jobs.

On moving day, he rode his bike several miles to the house of a girl he knew, without telling his parents, who, with the house empty, ready to leave, couldn’t find him for hours, until a neighbor brought him back.

In Ohio, he showed a talent and inclination for singing, doing Elvis Presley impersonations, a solo in a school event, karaoke competition and a recording at Cedar Point amusement park.

He also was a running back in football and got a part in a play.

But he also began to act out, getting into a fight in 10th grade, which lost him the part in the play and led to his moving to a Catholic school, which meant he couldn’t play in football games as an 11th-grader – although he practiced with his new team.

Then he tore his knee in the last 11th-grade practice, which led his coach to assign him to the less prestigious role of offensive lineman as a senior because he’d lost speed and because the knee remained vulnerable.

He would sit in class with a newspaper in front of his face.

He tried to organize a boycott to protest the quality of the cafeteria food.

He went to counseling for anger.

He began to assign blame, to his parents, to the public school, which, following policy, didn’t waive the sit-out-year requirement following the transfer.

“He was mad at the world,” his father said.

He took psychological tests, but sabotaged them, knowing what the tests were probing for and providing answers that concealed his problems, his parents said.

“He didn’t want anyone to know what was inside,” Mary Jo said.

After graduation, he continued to live with his parents.

But they didn’t feel they had much control, because he was 19, and an adult.

“All you can do is hope they’ll take your advice,” his father said.

As a teen, Johnny began to take psychiatric medications, but he didn’t like the “flat” feeling they gave him, and periodically, he’d stop.

He moved from one job to the next.

One year, he had 11 jobs, mostly in fast food or light industry.

He tried repeatedly to get into the military, in keeping with a family tradition, and he passed the academic tests but foundered on his poor eyesight, his hip problems and a difference in the length of his legs.

So he moved to Columbus and got a job trimming trees, then with UPS.

For a while, he sold soft pretzels at the ballpark of a Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, singing as he sold.

“I think he felt he belonged there,” his mother said.

He also worked at a salad-dressing plant as a second-shift “spice man,” which he liked, because he not only could sleep at night, but could work by himself. But he got angry and left when management didn’t give him a first-shift job that came open.

Off his meds at that point, he decided to “chuck it all” and move to South Carolina, and in preparation held a yard sale, virtually giving away most of his possessions.

Because his parents had co-signed for his car, he went back to Canton first but ran out of gas and called them.

He had “bottomed out” at that point.

“We rescued him,” his father said.

For the first time as an adult, he agreed to go to a crisis center in Canton, where he was finally diagnosed with the bipolar disease that had probably been his problem for years.

He lived with his parents, with the stipulation he take his meds because they couldn’t stand the mood swings when he didn’t.

“It was like walking on egg shells,” his mother said.

He went from “extreme high, then way deep,” his father said.

When he was up, he would talk incessantly and write angry songs and screenplays.

“At times, he got very political,” his mother said.

He worked for a while on behalf of presidential candidate Ross Perot.

When he was down, it was “depression and paranoia,” his father said.

The cycles could happen in a day, in an hour.

The meds stabilized him but also “took away his creative edge,” he told his parents.

He also didn’t like the dry mouth and insomnia.

They tried to convince him that the doctors could deal with the side effects one-by-one but didn’t have much success.

So he continued not to take the meds consistently.

He applied for Social Security disability, stayed on it a year, didn’t feel comfortable doing that and got off.

Then he met a woman from Croatia on the Internet, she came to the U.S., they fell in love, within four months got married, within a year had their first child, then they had another.

They were happy. Matea was good for him, and he became a good caring father to Jackson and Kaya, his parents said.

It didn’t last.

Matea had to return to Croatia with the kids because of her mother’s impending death, and he went off his meds, and he worried about going to retrieve them, even after he bought the tickets.

After a disagreement with his boss at a bookstore, he got another job as a third-shift stock clerk at Walmart but worried he wouldn’t

be able to sleep during the day.

He also worried about mold he’d discovered in the basement of the house he was renting, even though his dad told him it could be cleaned up.

It was a “coping” problem, his mother said.

He had been off his meds for about a month, his parents think.

Yet the night before, he’d been upbeat during dinner with his mother and had actually seen his doctor and gotten his prescription filled on the day it happened.

As recently as six months before, his father had asked him “pointedly” about suicide, and Johnny had assured him he had “too much to live for.”

He didn’t leave a note, but rather a cellphone message for his mother, during a time when she was at work, and he knew she had it turned off.

He didn’t say directly what he planned to do.

But she could tell by the “despair in his voice.”

“His voice was cracking,” said John, who later heard the recording.

Mary Jo got the message at 5 p.m., an hour and a half after he’d left it.

“I can’t let Matea keep going on this emotional roller coaster,” he told his mom.

“I love you, and I love dad,” Johnny said. “Kiss Jackson and Kaya for me.”

She called 911 and raced to his apartment.

When she got there, she called for him from the back door, but there was no answer.

She waited for police, and they went in.

A policeman came back out and shook his head.

He had shot himself in the basement.

In 2010, there were 38,364 reported deaths by suicide, according to a fact sheet from American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Major depression was involved in 60 percent of those cases, according to the foundation.

The best way to prevent suicide is through the “early recognition and treatment of depression and other psychiatric illnesses,” the foundation states.

Depression is among the most treatable of psychiatric illnesses, with 80 to 90 percent responding positively, according to the foundation.

The event, presented by the Blair County May is Mental Health Month Committee, seeks to make people aware that depression can affect anyone, said Mark Frederick, a behavioral health supervisor at UPMC Altoona and chairman of the Blair County Suicide Prevention Task Force.

People should be on the lookout for danger signs in the behavior of loved ones, according to the McConnells.

Those include loss of hope, carelessness with hygiene and the giving away of possessions for no good reason, they said.

Characteristics of clinical depression include persistent sadness, lack of pleasure in life, excessive emotion, irritability, disturbed sleep and apathy, according to Frederick.

It’s not always clear how much of a role genetics plays, compared to one’s personal history, including the coping mechanisms they learned growing up and the support they enjoy, he said.

People who are having thoughts of suicide, and who think they might act on them should talk to someone they trust, like a pastor or friend, should stay away from situations that could tempt them, should not engage in high-risk activities and should remove their own access to instruments of easy suicide like guns, according to Frederick.

However, just because someone has thoughts about suicide doesn’t necessarily mean they’re suicidal, Frederick said.

But if the thoughts become troublesome, they should distract themselves, get help and be patient, he said.

“Most of these thoughts will pass,” he said.

When people do get help and get on medication, they need to keep taking them, Mary Jo said.

“Help-seeking” has improved; people are more aware of medications to combat depression, Frederick said. Doctors are more attuned to the problem, and the medications are more refined, Frederick said.

There’s also less stigma about suicide than there used to be, although the stigma remains greater with men, Frederick said.

“Unfortunately, [however] there are still stable suicide rates in the county, the state and the country,” he said. “If anything, it’s crept up a little,” he said.

From their own experience, the McConnells have learned that the human spirit “has a very strong capability of handling severe pain,” John said.

Their faith and relationship to one another have been critical for that, they said.

“Her leaning on me and me leaning on her,” he said.

“And our memories,” she said.

“Thirty good years,” John said.

“And two grandchildren and a loving daughter-in- law,” she said.

“We miss him every day,” John said.

There’s no assigning blame.

“Woulda, shoulda, coulda – it’s all negative,” John said. “It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

“You just need to celebrate his life, the good memories, your love,” he said. “That’s what’s important.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.