I love you.
Those words are tattooed on the inside of Laura Crooks‘s left wrist:
Her son’s last written words.
Chad Crooks died by suicide last January, at 21. (You might have read his obituary here.)
Within weeks, Laura and husband Todd found themselves turning their grief into action.
“For his service, people wanted to have a way to donate to something. We couldn’t really find anything that that people could donate to for psychiatry” – so they found themselves setting up a foundation, Chad’s Legacy Project.
This Saturday night (September 10th) at Duos Lounge in West Seattle (2940 SW Avalon Way), you are invited to be part of the foundation’s first fundraiser “Unmask the Night,” which has a very specific goal – to fund a summit next year to bring together people who can make a difference on the issues the Crooks family has prioritized, from “ideas about what should change because of the care Chad received, or didn’t receive.”
You see – suicide isn’t what you might think it is. It is seldom simply a decision someone takes because of a life crisis. It is far more often a deadly symptom of mental illness. For Chad, that illness was schizophrenia, which is often first diagnosed just as a person is coming into young adulthood – already a vulnerable and challenging time. He was diagnosed less than a year before his death.
“There’s so much to be done,” Laura said. They want to support education to end the stigma of mental illness, better care for people living with it, research to find cures. Mental illness can be curable, not just treatable, she says – “we just haven’t studied it (enough) yet.”
To the point of the summit, “we found out so many great things are happening (but those working on those things) don’t talk to each other. They’re in silos.” They also discovered programs that exist at one hospital/facility but not another – among the elements of mental-health care that they want to see spread is the idea of a “care coordinator,” someone to follow up with the patient. Chad was an adult, so even as his parents they did not have access to details of his care – they found out after his death that he had stopped taking his prescribed medication – but a care coordinator could follow up, could check in before an appointment, make sure the patient had no obstacles that would keep them from getting to the appointment.
They would like to see the expansion of programs like one that matches newly diagnosed patients with peers who are “successfully navigating” treatment and everyday life. While one regional provider offered that kind of program, the one that Chad went to did not, Laura explained, and “he felt like he had no hope. If he could have been connected to someone, maybe he would have had some hope.”
To the point of stigma, they would like to counter the myths, the misconceptions, that make life difficult for people with mental illness, and their families. Even one of their own relatives, Laura said, believed suicide happens out of “weakness.” So many insurers limit treatment for mental illness – only a certain number of therapy sessions, for example, before you have to pay out of your own pocket – as if they too have the belief that it’s something you can just pull yourself out of.
Or, some mistakenly think it’s a flaw of your family, of of your community support. The Crooks family didn’t lack in any of that. Laura and Todd are both West Seattle-raised, as was Chad and his three siblings.
And we haven’t yet mentioned … Laura is a health-care professional. She is a director at Children’s Hospital, where the departments she supervises deal with some of the most heart-wrenching situations – trauma, sexual abuse, palliative care.
All that, and yet it did not make her family immune to a tragedy related to a medical problem. That is what mental illness really, ultimately is, as much as physical illness.
Laura and Todd hope that the results of next year’s summit, and of the other work they are encouraging and supporting, can make a real difference within a few years. The motivation is not only that it will save lives, but – for the numbers-crunchers in the insurance and health-care industries – it will save money. People can be kept out of crisis, kept out of emergency rooms, if they have appropriate and consistent care and support. “It’s a chicken/egg thing,” Todd observes. They hope to “convince insurance companies it’s in their best interest to take on some of the things they’re not paying for.”
And education – perhaps a curriculum to teach high-school students about mental illness – will help with earlier intervention, and will help young people learn how to support each other, to lessen that stigma, to know how to act, what to say, what kind of help to offer. “We teach (them) reproductive health, first aid, CPR … we should teach mental health.” (They plan to meet this fall with local State Rep. Eileen Cody – who is also a nurse – to talk about mental-health education in schools.)
Laura and Todd stress that they don’t have all the answers, “we just know what our experience was, and we know a lot of really smart people” who they want to bring together to collaborate, plan, to find “a different way of looking at it.” They feel that before large-scale research funding can be effective, the connections must be made between all the different people currently working in the aforementioned “silos.”
So on Saturday … be there to show your support for “Unmasking” mental illness.
Duos has donated the venue, and is providing food at cost; a jazz trio will play; there’ll be silent and live auctions as well as “raise the paddle”; and a documentary will be shown for the first time.
Laura and Todd say they have been overwhelmed with support from family, friends, and volunteers from the community, and yet there is no such thing as too much support for this. They also have the backing of King County Executive Dow Constantine, for whom mental-health care has been a signature issue, yet even high-profile help doesn’t get them all of the way there. Every helping hand … in this case, every ticket bought, every auction item bid for … will get them closer to funding that summit next year. (Here’s where to buy a ticket. They are also looking for more donations of wine for the event, too.)
While the summit will be relatively inexpensive to fund, it could ultimately lead to millions for the programs, the research, that will turn their hopes to reality.
The awareness alone is priceless, says Laura. “People say, ‘you guys are so brave,’ but really, it’s the only thing we can do, to make sense of the loss of Chad – to make other people aware, to bring attention to this, so those who can make it happen, (will) make it happen.”
Adds Todd, “If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be a basket case.”
And whether or not you can be at Duos on Saturday night, the Crooks family has a message. If it doesn’t apply to you, maybe it does to someone close to you:
Todd said, toward the end of our conversation: “We know a lot of people reading this are already dealing with stuff. We would want them to know – change is coming and help is on the way. That there’s hope, and that they matter. Things have been moving fast in the past seven months … 2017 is going to be a transformative year.”
You can read more about Chad, and the Crooks family’s journey, in Laura’s own words, in this post on the Children’s Hospital website. And if you or someone you know is in crisis – here are helpful resource links from the Chad’s Legacy Project website.
-Tracy Record, West Seattle Blog editor