Parents push through wall of silence on suicide

Nearly a decade ago, not long after losing a daughter to suicide, a Baltimore County couple made a decision. They would turn their personal tragedy into a means of helping themselves, and others, by addressing mental illness in the open, without shame.

When the attack on the World Trade Center happened on Sept. 11, 2001, Douglas and Sharon Strouse's 17-year-old daughter, Kristin Rita, was living in New York City, blocks from Ground Zero. A month later, the Parsons School of Design freshman ended her own life.

A graduate of Notre Dame Preparatory School, Kristin had spent years in private study with Maryland Institute College of Art faculty members. She was a gifted art and design student on a course to become a fashion designer.

"She succumbed to a misdiagnosed bi-polar illness, an illness we did not understand," said her mother, Sharon Strouse, an art therapist who was trained at Goucher College. "I remembered the initial shock and numbness, the emptiness, the tears and my pain-filled body. I remembered my depression, and anger and shame and regret."

But the Strouses came to a personal turning point. They chose to move on by working through Kristin's death to help others. In the first year, they founded an annual charity golf tournament. They gave $125,000 of their own funds. They preached mental health awareness.

"The other side of the fence is withdrawal, like our child never existed," said Douglas Strouse, who holds a doctorate in organizational psychology and management. "We want to educate people about the warning signs of mental illness. About 90 percent of the kids who die have a diagnosable disease that can be treated medically."

The Strouses said they discovered how widespread and pervasive suicide has become in college-age adolescents. They learned that suicide is the third leading cause of death in ages 15 to 24 and that 15 percent of all teenagers consider ending their lives.

"Attitudes toward mental illnesses are still archaic, and many families live in silence and shame about what is happening in their own lives and in their children's lives," Douglas Strouse said. "Depression is an illness like heart disease or cancer. It is treatable. We are working to change attitudes and break down barriers."

Working out of their Cockeysville home, the Strouses established the Kristin Rita Strouse Foundation to support programs that increase awareness of mental health through education and the arts. They seek to prevent suicide and help survivors cope.

Earlier this summer they hosted a daylong golf outing, dinner and auction to raise funds. Named the Yellow Dress Classic after a painting by their daughter Kristin, the event was held in June at the Hayfields Country Club in Hunt Valley. It raised $103,000. As part of the event, members of Active Minds, a college-based anti-suicide foundation, set up a display of 1,100 student backpacks on the lawn at Hayfields. The display symbolized the 1,100 college students who die by suicide annually in this country.

In the last decade the Strouses have raised more than $950,000. They have helped fund or start a series of initiatives to address the warning signs and treatment of depression, as well as art scholarships and public educational symposiums.

Their daughter Kimberly also felt the loss of her sister. She conceived and founded the Rita Project, a movement to stop suicide and to celebrate life by using the arts to help survivors of suicide connect with the power of creation. Its purpose is "using the arts to help those who have lost someone to suicide and those who have attempted suicide connect with the power of creating, and in doing so, foster transformation," according to its website.

The foundation supports the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry and other groups.

"This is not just about Kristin," said Sharon Strouse. "This is about helping people, educating people, and making a difference in other people's lives. If families and communities can band together and increase awareness and educate themselves about mental illnesses, then there is no telling the difference that can be made. In fact, that's the message we want to send out to every person and is the theme of our event. 'Open your heart — be the one to make the difference.'"