Jeff Jacobs: Our children’s mental health matters, it can’t be ignored

Members of the Ridgefield and New Fairfield girls lacrosse teams competed in a dedication game for Morgan's Message, which strives to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health within the student-athlete community and equalize the treatment of physical and mental health in athletics.

Members of the Ridgefield and New Fairfield girls lacrosse teams competed in a dedication game for Morgan's Message, which strives to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health within the student-athlete community and equalize the treatment of physical and mental health in athletics.

Contributed / Gretchen McMahon

Three NCAA Division I female athletes died by suicide in the past few months.

So did a male member of one of our state’s top high school teams.

The news is shocking. It always is. Invariably, it is followed by questions about what can we do to stop the loss of life so young and full of potential?

“My wife and I are in the world’s worst club,” Jim Kuczo said. “We don’t want anyone else to belong to it.”

Jim and Kristen Kuczo remain. Their son Kevin is gone. A junior athlete at Fairfield Warde, Kevin took his own life in February 2021. He was 17.

No one has been any braver or more willing to discuss what Kevin endured, what they have endured in order to raise awareness and identify and help at-risk young people with mental illness.

It is the reason for the Kuczo family’s recent creation of the non-profit organization, Kevin’s Afterglow.

In Ridgefield, Gabby Lauretani recently became the high school’s ambassador for Morgan’s Message. Morgan Rodgers, a lacrosse player at Duke, died by suicide in 2019. Lauretani put together a dedication lacrosse game last week against New Fairfield and plans to continue such games in field hockey and basketball and with her club lacrosse team.

Did we mention the first Morgan’s Message ambassador in Connecticut is a 15-year-old freshman? Impressive.

“Morgan’s family and friends wanted to honor her memory, but at the same time increase awareness, eliminate the stigma and open the dialogue about the struggles student-athletes have with mental health and suicide,” said Gabby, who found out about the non-profit through the lacrosse community.

Balancing three sports while taking honors classes, Lauretani understands some of the pressures and the need for conversation. There will be meetings with friends and teammates, too.

According to the CDC, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among ages 10 to 34. This is not only real, it is forever. During his presentations, Kuczo says, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” He repeats the words.

It is a powerful message.

“Especially when you get to the D-I level at high-powered institutions, their life is consumed by study and practice,” said Dr. Stephen Brock, head of the psychology program at Sacramento State. “One of the unique challenges these elite athletes have is isolation. Aloneness. Even though there is a lot of people physically around them, they’re always busy with practice, games, study.

“As a rule, when it comes to a major suicide prevention effort probably the biggest one is connectedness to others. Being surrounded by resources, particularly social resources, you can turn to and support you when things get rough.”

Brock pointed out suicide rates per 100,000 have for decades been highest in the less densely populated states. Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, etc.

“Speaking specifically about high school students,” Brock said, “one of the things we’ve noted that is really powerful in terms of suicide prevention is connectedness to school. Essentially as it relates to students being at a school where they know adults care about them as a person. Where they can identify those 1-2-3 teachers or staff members who they can go talk to — and not just about schoolwork.”

Kuczo has spoken to nearly 30 groups in the past year ... Fairfield Rotary, Tomlinson Middle School, Fairfield U., Sacred Heart U., next week is an especially poignant one. He will be part of a panel in Darien where high school lacrosse player Matthew McEvoy recently took his own life.

“It was a real punch when we heard.” Kuczo said. “My wife, who’s now a second-grader teacher in Darien, taught him in kindergarten.”

Students at Warde created non-profit Spreading Smiles and sold $21,000 worth of sweatshirts to bring awareness. Fairfield Academy Youth Football raised $16,000 for the charity of the Kuczo family’s choice — Will To Live Foundation.

Kuczo thought more about keeping the money local to do good. Enter Kevin’s Afterglow with a mission to teach kids kindness, empathy and to listen to each other and for adults to help address the pediatric mental health crisis, promote dialogue. And for everyone, to identify kids in pain and encourage them to get help.

The name was inspired by the eulogy Rev. Alida Ward, co-pastor of Greenfield Hill Congregational Church, gave at Kevin’s funeral.

Kuczo said Kevin, who played football and lacrosse, didn’t know yet what he wanted to do in life. Not many 17-year-olds do. He did know he wanted to help people.

“Kevin used to go on the Appalachian Service Project, which Greenfield Hill set up,” Kuczo said. “After he died, students wrote us letters. Things like ‘Kevin noticed I was having a bad day and he kept talking until I was smiling again.’ He made sure everyone else was happy. He was a kind soul. One student wrote, ‘Kevin’s afterglow will last forever.’”

Brock, past president of the National Association of School Psychologists and lead author of NASP’s PREPaRE School Safety and Crisis Response curriculum, said more than nine in 10 suicides involve someone with mental health problems. Tragically many had gone undiagnosed.

He points to what he calls the 20-20 rule.

“Up to 20 percent of our nation’s school children are dealing with mental illness,” Brock said. “Of those 20 percent, only 20 percent get any kind of treatment whatsoever. They’re left on their own with their families to try to cope with serious health problems.

“As a society we kind of ignored it for a long time. The COVID pandemic exacerbated these problems. This is not new. One of NASP’s top strategic priorities for at least a decade has been the critical shortage of school psychologists.”

For 1,800 kids who need a pediatric psychiatrist, Kuczo said, there is only one. The wait can be torture.

“It’s not easy to find someone to help when your kid is struggling with depression,” Kuczo said. “We struggled to find a therapist that could only meet Kevin every two weeks. We needed to find a pediatric psychiatrist to dispense and prescribe medicine. Kevin was on Lexapro. His pediatrician had prescribed a low dose and rightfully so. He needed more. We eventually found a pediatric psychiatrist, but one week later, Kevin died.”

Kuczo calls the shortage a health crisis. The expert does not disagree.

“Oh gosh yeah, it’s horrible,” Brock said. “It’s one of the reasons for the suicide death rate. We know what leads to most suicide deaths: mental illness. Yet we don’t have the (numbers) capacity to treat it. By addressing depression, we can prevent suicides. Bipolar, PTSD, attention deficit, these are treatable.”

It is heartening to see some of the money raised by Kevin’s Afterglow will go toward scholarships to students interested in becoming a pediatric therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

“I lived in Fairfield County my whole life,” said Kuczo, who helped found Fairfield Youth Lacrosse and whose family created and nurtured the FCIAC. “It’s very competitive. Sports is great. Getting kids out playing sports, running around is a good thing. We used to have a philosophy of do your best at your level and do what makes you happy.

“I think you combine the pressures of today and put social media in there. ‘Oh, Billy is going to Duke? And he’s going to Virginia? And I’m just going to Whatsamatta U?’ There’s a pressure to be the best. It’s probably rampant in Fairfield County.”

COVID only made it worse, no matter what county you live.

“My son was depressed, but COVID, remote learning etc., certainly exacerbated it,” Kuczo said. “We’re going to be reading about this. What isolation did to a whole generation of our kids. The lockdown policies did a real number on them.”

“Kids are less active than they used to be,” Brock said. “They are spending more time on social media. The physical distancing requirements of COVID, you add that up, you have an increasing sense of isolation and aloneness. Among teens, an important social support provider is their friends. When you talk about people dealing with traumatizing circumstances, the first line of defense isn’t so much the school psychologist, it’s moms, dads, teachers and friends.”

Whether it’s an athletic scholarship or admittance to a prestigious university, the very thing kids think they want most can cause the greatest anxiety.

“I call it ‘breaking the wheel’ from Game of Thrones,” Kuczo said. “If something you want is creating a negative situation in your body, break the wheel, don’t do it. Do something for yourself, not because your parents went to this school or whatever. Do things that will make you happy.”

To access free and confidential mental health support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit Free and confidential support is also available by calling 211 and pressing 1, texting 741741 or visiting Help is available 24/7.

Kevin’s Afterglow will hold a golf tournament, its primary fundraiser, June 13 at H. Smith Richardson Golf Course in Fairfield. Spots are sold out, but raffle items for a silent auction are needed and donations welcome. More information at; @jeffjacobs123