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Overcoming the stigma around mental health: A father's story of loss and healing

Kristen: Welcome to Thrive: Building Resilient Families, Austin Child Guidance Center's first-ever podcast. This podcast was created to normalize the challenges of parenthood and to provide parents and caregivers with strategies and support in their efforts to help their children thrive in childhood and beyond.

Before I introduce today's guest, I want to warn our audience that today's episode contains topics related to suicide, drug use, and addiction. This topic may not be appropriate for everyone, so please use your discretion.

I'd like to introduce today's guest, Douglas Rhodes. Douglas is a local Austinite who grew up in Northwest Hills. He graduated from the University of Texas in Austin and is a father of two. Today, Douglas is here to talk about his experience of losing his son to suicide over 10 years ago and is sharing his story. Douglas wants to raise awareness for at-risk teens and let families know that there is help and resources available. As part of their mission to help other families avoid their experience, Douglas and his family founded the Jack Duncan Rhodes Foundation to honor their son's memory.

Thank you, Douglas, for your willingness to share your story with us today.

Douglas: Good morning, Kristen. Thank you for having me.

Kristen: Of course. So yeah, let's just sort of jump in. Can you talk to us about your story and your experience?

Douglas: Sure. Again, thanks for having me. First and foremost, I'm a parent and a son. And I have - I had two children: a son and a daughter, Jack and Madeline. About 12 years ago, when Jack was 14 to 15 years old, he started going through physical changes, puberty, as we like to call it. And his mother and I started to notice some changes, you know, obviously in his physical appearance and then how he was acting. We chalked up the change in his personality to just, you know, normal teenage angst and life. But as these changes became more drastic, we felt that something may not be right with him. And he shared with his mother that he experienced severe anxiety attacks. He couldn't be around people. His dress started changing, how he dressed, his friends changed. So we saw some, you know, normal society type changes, and we sat down and talked to him. And he said everything was okay. But then again, we did see the changes even though he was telling us everything was okay; we saw some changes. And he was very close to his mother and shared a lot of information with her about his anxiety and depression. And then, as a parent, in no disparaging my family, I had a great childhood and a loving family, and I'm still close to my brothers and sisters and my dad. But we did not talk about mental health issues in our family. And so for me, there's a little bit of stigma attached to that. Right, and, you know, hey, we'll take care of this internally, we're not going to talk about it as a family, and we don't want it to go public. And so, I struggled with how to deal with this with my son with just normal parenting skills, you know, discipline, taking phones away when he did act out and get in trouble.

So there's that internal struggle or that family type struggle with a stigmatism attached to what may or may not have been a mental health issue. As we battled with this internally, his behavior progressively got worse. His mother found a note in his chest of drawers written in a third party, about his anxieties depression and/or his friends. He wrote it as if he were talking to a friend and his suicidal thoughts. That's when I knew, we knew, we had a big problem. And so we decided to get him into some type of counseling. Again, I was unprepared for this as a parent; I did not know how to deal with it. Who do we go to go to we trust people talking about, you know, what was his diagnosis, the talk about different kinds of drugs he may or may not be put on, that was good or bad. Again, the stigmatism of going into mental health care. To me, I wanted to keep it private. When he first started going to a counselor, I take cash, I did not put it on our insurance policy because I did not want it to be on his record, right down the line, whether it's on his record or not, that just me not knowing any better. So when he got older and started pursuing careers and things of that nature, I didn't want there to be any record of him being in mental health care, talking to the counselor, and finding out that this was going to be long term and diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and maybe a little bit bipolar. Again, this is 10-11 years ago. We took a more active stance. And we're able to talk to the counselor about what he was allowed to share with us. That wasn't breaking his ethics or its confidentiality with his patient.

We knew we had a problem. And then somewhere along the line during this situation, we found out that he was suicidal, my son was suicidal. And so we took him to the one institution where we lived up in Amarillo, Texas at the time. That was a 24-hour around the clock mental health facility, and it was a place called The Pavilion. And the community I was in, there were two people, two kinds of people in the community. And it was hush hush. There's parents that had had kids in The Pavilion and there are parents that didn't have kids in The Pavilion, right? We're going to, we're going to be one of those in The Pavilion, and is the only place we had, and we went in there and a counselor sat down to talk to him and I was, we were, in tears, because she said, “Yeah, your son does have suicidal tendencies. And we want to keep them here. But we don't have a bed available.” That's like, what do we do? They go when you take them home, and hopefully we'll have a bed in the next two to three days. Then, you know, this is all coming so fast. And I didn't know where to turn or who to go to. Luckily, I have a sister, that's a doctor, but she's, you know, OB-GYN and we shared with her and she said, “Yes, you need to get him counseling. No, there's not a stigma to it. It's no, get him the help he needs.”

So for the next three days, until we get a bed in The Pavilion, he slept in bed with us. He was under our 24/7 care and talking to him and he seemed fine. He's like, “Yeah, I admitted. You know, I don't feel right. I want to get right.” And so we put him in The Pavilion, and that was seven to ten days, 24-hour around the clock care. And we got to visit, I think, every other day for about an hour and we made those visits. And it seemed like we're making progress. And then, you know, me and, my ex-wife or, you know, what do we do? Where do we go from here and we're really at a loss. At that point, you know, the access to mental health care professionals in that community was limited to not right. When I wanted to go see a counselor or psychiatrist. There wasn't any. There was nobody taking new patients in that, these are some of the hurdles we encountered.

So then my son is finished with his stay at The Pavilion, what do we do now? Where do we turn to? Where do we go? What are our resources? And he continued counseling and tried an array of different types of medication to help with anxiety and depression. You know, and I'm limited to webs, web searches, and friends, you know, that had similar circumstances, and people. He, he showed some signs of progress, but he, he got he continued to get in trouble at school; there were some drug use, specifically marijuana. We didn't allow that in our household. I remember sitting down with him, and you know, saying there, “Are you struggling with your sexual identity, you know, I love you. If you are, you aren't telling me what's going on. Tell me how I can help.” And he shared with me, “No, there's no issues there and I'm doing fine.” You know, fine is a very generic term, but so we continue counseling, and he continued to get in trouble at school. And I was frustrated. And I was working a lot. I had my own business, and I was running another team, so I was traveling a lot. You know, there's my daughter, still in the picture. So I spread thin; we never placed any blame, but it doesn't have a happy ending. He got suspended from school for off-campus marijuana use. He was a straight-A student and he is musically talented. He was in the orchestra and the band. Beautiful, beautiful person. And we left him alone for 30 minutes, the day after he got suspended from school, and he was going to be put into another school for the remainder of the semester, because it was, it was in May. And my wife came home from work, she ran in from work. My ex-wife, I apologize, and came home and he was dead.

Kristen: I'm so sorry.

Douglas: Thank you. And I was at the office and I got a phone call from my wife's phone and it wasn't her on the other end of the line, It was an officer, whomever, and told me I need to come home immediately. And I asked him what I said, “I know what's going on. Tell me what I'm walking into,” and he said, “No you just need to come home.” And that's when our lives changed.

Kristen: It's unimaginable.

Douglas: Right?

Kristen: Unimaginable. And I imagine, you know, I mean, this is not anything that anybody recovers from. It's been some time but clearly, you know, as a parent, none of us plan to outlive our children. And I know that. Unfortunately, you know, especially lately, this is a more common story than I'm personally comfortable with, than I think most of us are comfortable with. And I know that you've dedicated a lot of your time and energy since this tragedy in your family, to supporting organizations that that work to help kids who are struggling in this way. You know how - looking back, you know, I noticed in some of the things that you were sharing, you know, you know, we as parents, we all do our best but you know, when kids are struggling a lot of times they shield things from us. You know, sometimes it's in their own minds. They're trying to protect us, because they don't want to burden us they don't want to overwhelm us, they don't want to worry us. Other times they share things or they hold things in because they have some shame about something that they're doing or something that they're feeling and they don't want to reveal that thing that they feel so ashamed about. A lot of times when kids withhold things from their parents, it's not sometimes parents we think, “Oh, they won't tell us things because they don't trust us or they're mad at us.” It's not that often; they're protecting us from something in their minds that they think they want to shield us from, or they just have a lot of shame about what they're feeling, laying in there, kind of stuck and don't know how to get out of it. I have no doubt that you and your wife given the resources that you had, and Amarillo, you know, did all the things. But I guess my question for you is, you know, what do you when you think about the resources that you had, what do you what kind of resources do you wish that you had available to you? Like, what are the things now that you really wish that you had at your disposal at that time?

Douglas: Well, yeah – y’all, something specific to children. And, and something very specific to, you know, my experience, or I would say our experience, because my wife at the time was very active in Jack's life and she did some counseling as well. So just because she had had depression and she had seen therapists in the past. But there is something very specific to children and then there's something very specific to children who have depression, anxiety, and maybe a bit bipolar, right? So, from a counseling perspective, when I went to see a counselor with my son, I wasn't interested in the counselor’s issues, and I didn't want to hear about that, and I didn't want to talk about that. I didn't want to talk about the counselor's family. So I think there needs to be a counselor that is specifically trained in child psychology and child therapy. And I don't know if those exist, or if those are common, or maybe it's just limited to larger metropolitan areas. So I think that there needs to be more counselors that are specifically trained in working with children. And then, you know, from a medical perspective, I don't know if medication helped my son or hurt my son. I think the medication may have had an adverse reaction.

So who do you go to when you think that, because again, we're not medical professionals, who do you go to when you think your child may have an adverse reaction to the medication? And you need someone that knows, that has seen it before and knows what to look for, and, you know, that can guide you in that, right, in that treatment, because I would say nine times out of ten the doctors and the counselor - because the doctor has given the counselor, you know, prescription medication - you know, there's that whole relationship; that needs to be tight. The counselor needs to be able to talk to the medical profession about, you know, the pros and cons of medication. And the medical professional needs to know how to advise the counselor in the proper care, you know, for, for a child. You know, the medications that they have been prescribed. So I think, you know, from a counselor's perspective, very tight needs to be, you know, real specific child psychologists or child therapists. And then, from a medical perspective, you know, very tight in the relationship between the counselor and the medical professional, so that they can come together and, and, you know, advise the parents and the patient on what's best for them.

Kristen: You mentioned that you feel like it is changing in the in the community that you were in, which is great news. So meaning that are there additional plays, you know, you mentioned The Pavilion, are there other resources like that? Are there more mental health professionals there? Are there more services that are specifically designed for kids? And as a community? Are folks more willing to share and talk about these things?

Douglas: That's a great question. I can't answer that. I moved in 2018. I don't know what it's like; I know that we started a foundation in his name, specifically toward a scholarship to a professional pursuing a degree in the mental health field, in hopes that after they graduated, they would stay in the community. But I don't know if it's, if it's gotten if there's more resources available.

Kristen: Are there any warning signs that looking back you kind of wish that you knew? Again, hindsight is always 2020, but are there any signs you mentioned that you noticed like, 14 ish, 15 ish, but do you feel like there were any signs earlier or any signs at all that maybe, you know, looking back, you would understand those things differently now?

Douglas: No, not in early childhood, not up until he went through the physical change puberty? You know, we thought we had, you know, we gave him a great childhood. We were active in his education, we're active in extracurricular sports. And you know, we were around, we were present. So, yeah, I didn't we didn't see anything. I mean, it happened and it happened fast. It's been out of control in 12, 16, 18 months.

Kristen: Are there things that you know, as a parent who's gone through this tragic experience, that you would tell other parents? You know, is there a message or something that you would say to other parents with, you know, kids entering adolescence or puberty?

Douglas: Are you talking to specifically post mortem or?

Kristen: No, I just mean, I guess maybe if there were some things that you or some parent had said to you, when Jack was 13 or 14, or there was a message that you would communicate to parents on any aspect of your experience or what you've learned, or, you know?

Douglas: Well, what I did learn is a lot of families struggle with this when we started the foundation and let it be known in the community that we wanted to help. We didn't want families to have to go through the experience we went through. And that to address the issue that people came out of the woodwork sharing their stories with me, and at the time, I was not emotionally -- I didn't have the skill set or the emotional stability to help or manage it. But a lot of people came, a lot of our friends came to us and said, “I'm experiencing the same thing. What do I do?” And unfortunately, my response at that time was, “I don't know, I can't, I can't offer you any advice other than seek help ASAP. Have that child share their issues with a professional.”

Kristen: Well, I mean, that's important information. And, you know, I think the one good thing, or is that nowadays, you know, with teletherapy, in the state of Texas, we can see anybody in the whole state. So you know, someone living in Amarillo, who doesn't have anybody locally, could access services remotely with anyone in the entire state. And that's, you know, largely as a result of the influence of teletherapy through this pandemic, frankly, right? I mean, it existed before, but people weren't using it, like they use it now. Now everybody's using it. And it means that there are many, many people who, as a result of geography or region in the state who maybe were not able to access services before, because they needed people in their community, can now access services and other parts of the state. I wonder. You know, if you would talk a little bit about some of the ways that your family has healed from this, to the degree that you ever really heal from something like this, but you mentioned your daughter, and she also lost her brother. Perhaps you could share some things that you guys did as a family to help to sort of heal a little bit.

Douglas: Yeah, sure. But yeah, and I want to go to your point about the resources. And why, you know, I wanted to get with y'all, and do this podcast, is to raise awareness and let people know there are a lot of resources, as you pointed out, that they can access. And so hopefully, with your organization and other organizations, people can find the resources they need.

Kristen: The name sorry, before you move on, will you give the name of your foundation or your organization so that if people want to donate or support the work that you're doing, you just give the name of the foundation that you started?

Douglas: Sure. It's the Jack Duncan Rhodes Foundation. And you can find that it's managed by the Amarillo Area Foundation, and it's on the Internet, and you can just go to their website, find our foundation and donate funds. And so to kind of wrap that into your question, we started that foundation. And during the healing process, we found an organization in Amarillo called The Hope and Healing Place, and it's for grief and loss. I didn't want to go in. But I went with my wife, ex wife, and my daughter and it’s a great organization. And we were with other people that had experienced a suicide in their family. And we were able to share our stories and it was gut wrenching. But that was the process that started the process of healing. Seeing people that were five, seven years out still coming into these grief and loss classes, still managing it.

I remember the first time I walked in there, and people were laughing and enjoying themselves and it made me mad. I'm like, “How can you be laughing? How can you be having a good time?” We have lost son. 10 years out, I'm laughing. I feel good. He's still part of me. I still think about him. I still have grief moments. But it is a process. You're right. You never get over it. But you manage it and it gets better. And so The Hope and Healing Place is where we started and I went into counseling.

I struggled. I struggled with my own disease. I manage that every day. I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a recovered alcoholic. I let a lot of carnage in my life that I'm, I'm trying to make amends to my ex did a much better job. She continued counseling, and did not seek other ways to numb the pain like I did. So we did The Hope and Healing Place. So we support that organization, financially. And then when I moved back to Austin, I got connected with the Austin Grief and Loss Center where I was a greeter, or, you know, when people came in to the grief and loss classes, I was just there to greet them, not let them know, I'm happy you're here. Again, drawn on my own experience, I didn't want to see your smiling face, I didn't want to see laughter. I just said, “I'm glad you're here,” and I serve cookies, and coffee.

Kristen: And sometimes that's all people need.

Douglas: And, just let them know that they're in the right place, and they're doing the right thing. And so we donate money to that organization. And so it's been a long, almost 10 years. And you know, each day gets better. And I did want to relay the message that it does get better, and you will laugh, and you will live life again, after, you know, horrific incidents that our family went through.

Kristen: What a poignant kind of way to end. Any last thoughts before we wrap up? And I guess I believe, well, let me just say, thank you so much for sharing this; this can't be easy. I still appreciate how you have taken this unimaginable grief and really turned it into action, activism and support for other organizations that help people who've been through what you and your family had been through, and also that supports organizations like ours, who are trying to address the things that kids are going through early so that you know, they don't have the experience that your family and your son had. It takes a lot of courage, you know, to do what you're doing and to sort of take your own personal grief and use it for good in the world. Right, and we at Austin Child Guidance Center are certainly grateful for that and the support of your foundation.

I really just appreciate you coming on and being vulnerable in this context, I think that other people listening to this will really be helped and learn a lot by your experience. And I think we need to talk about this more. It's a difficult topic, but I think we need to talk about it more, we need to normalize the conversation in our society, because unfortunately, this is happening all the time. You know, once a week, it seems like we're hearing somebody who's died by suicide. And it's just it's a scary proposition. And as parents, it's a scary proposition. And I so appreciate your willingness to really talk about this with me. And I hope that perhaps at some point, we can have you come back. You know, because I think that we'll probably get decent feedback from this with maybe some more specific questions or that maybe there are other ways that, you know, we can talk to people about some of the more specific aspects of what you went through. So thank you very much, Douglas.

Douglas: Thank you for having me.

This podcast was recorded on February 22, 2022 with past Executive Director Kristen Pierce-Vreeke. You can learn more about Douglas Rhodes and the Jack Duncan Rhodes Foundation by clicking here.

If you or anyone you know is struggling, please dial 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, free, and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States.