By Jennifer Kotila
DASSEL, COKATO, MN “This is a love story not a tragedy; we loved Austin more than anything in the world,” said Nicole Carlen, mother of Austin Carlen. “We want him to see we handled ourselves with dignity and class, and helped others.”
When Austin lost his battle with depression May 20, 2013, Kevin, Austin’s father, and Nicole made a conscious family decision not to hide or sugarcoat the way in which his life ended.
“We hope that by being open and honest, one more person will not have to go through what we did,” Nicole said.
“It can affect any family,” she continued. “We are a middle-class family with both parents working and a huge support system, and it still happened to our family.”
Because they have been so open about what happened, and how the family is coping with it, Nicole noted it feels like some dialogue has opened up in the community.
For instance, the Dassel-Cokato School District has been more proactive, informing students that it is OK to talk to someone about any mental health issues with which they may be dealing.
Flyers were posted around the high school with hotline numbers students could call to talk to someone, and students were given information about the facts and myths of mental illness.
Recently, the Carlens became involved with the Break the Stigma run that traveled through Minnesota in May.
“This was an awesome experience for our family,” Nicole said. “People seem to get brought into our lives just when we need them.”
Julio Salazar completed the 240-mile run across the state as an effort to get people talking about mental illness and depression, in order to break the stigma that surrounds it.
The Carlens’ involvement started when the family sponsored one mile of the run in honor of Austin, and told the runners they would be there cheering them on as they ran through Dassel and Cokato.
But then, Nicole saw the runners were looking for a place to stay in Dassel the evening of May 6.
“I kind of think we are supposed to be doing this,” Nicole told Kevin.
Kevin agreed, and the family hosted the runners for the evening.
The time was spent talking about Austin, and discussing how to get young people talking about mental health.
The Carlens also made a video for the Break the Stigma run to share their story.
“I really like the organization’s message let’s just start talking about it,” Nicole said.
DC students in the high school triathlon class ran with the Break the Stigma runners for a time the morning of May 7.
Salazar spoke with students about mental health, and tied bullying in with it, Nicole said. He told students that any kind of bullying was not OK, and somebody needs to be told that it is happening.
“It was neat for our family, a neat way to tie it into school,” Nicole said.
Talking about mental health
The Carlens want to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
“We lost our son to depression; it is a horrible disease it robbed us of our child,” Nicole stated. “Don’t be afraid to come up and talk to us about our story the best way we can honor our son is by helping others.”
One of the things the Carlens often heard after Austin took his life was, “I had no idea.”
Of course, they wouldn’t, Nicole noted, because all others see is the outside and what people want to show.
People living with mental health issues do not often share what they are going through, because there is a stigma related to it.
Stigma is broadly defined as a collection of adverse and unfair beliefs, and the stigma around mental health most often leads to the inaccurate and hurtful objectification of people as dangerous and incompetent, according to bringchange2mind.org.
The shame and isolation associated with that stigma can prevent people from seeking the help necessary to live healthy and full lives.
“Depression doesn’t pick and chose; it can happen to anybody,” said Nicole, who also lives with depression. “Talking about it is the first step [in getting rid of the stigma].”
Kids who hear people talking about mental health will be more willing to open up, without feeling like they are being looked down upon, she noted.
Especially young men, she added, pointing out they should be taught it is OK to show emotion and concern; it is OK for young men to talk about their feelings, or tell their friends they are concerned about them.
“It is harder for males to talk about their feelings,” Salazar said when he stopped in Cokato during his run. “There are such high standards for males; we are not supposed to show our emotions.”
He pointed out that 87 percent of the people who die by suicide between the ages 14 to 24 are male.
Nicole also stressed that young people need to realize it takes time to get depression and other mental health issues under control.
“Some people just run out of time; Austin ran out of time,” she said, noting that, as an adult, she has been able to find the right medication to help her, and also realizes what can trigger her depression.
People may have to try numerous medications before the right one is found, as well numerous doctors or counselors before the right one is found.
“It is tough to find the right therapist,” Salazar said. “It can take months or years to find the right person.”
If a teenager has a friend who is struggling, an adult needs to be told, Nicole stressed, noting teenagers do not have the skills or knowledge to deal with mental health issues on their own.
Although a friend may get mad because something told in confidence was shared, it is far better to have an angry friend who is alive, than a friend who has died, she added.
The more people talk about mental health, the more people will realize they are not alone in the struggles faced every day.
“Once people hear you talking, they say, ‘Oh, I’ve been through that, too,’” said Megan Hasenwinkel, a psychologist from Allina Health Clinic in Farmington, who ran with Salazar on the Break the Stigma run.
Each year, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education has an Emotions in Motion 5k in Buffalo, and the Carlens have formed team Plow Boy in memory of Austin.
This year, the walk/run will take place Saturday, Aug. 15 at 9 a.m. at Sturgis Park in Buffalo.
Austin, a 2011 Dassel-Cokato High School graduate, was the type of person who could talk to anybody of any age, and he would go out of his way to help others.
He received good grades and was popular in school, played three sports, and formed close bonds with his group of friends.
“The football team they were just a unique bunch of guys; not just buddies, they were brothers,” Nicole said, noting the team was one game away from a state tournament berth Austin’s senior year.
Austin has three sisters Alexis, now 20; Anna, 16; and Alyssa, 12.
He and Alexis enjoyed hunting together, although she would complain about having to get up early.
Anna saw Austin as a mentor whom she could talk to and seek advice from, or an example of what to do, or not to do, in certain situations.
Austin and Alyssa were best friends. “It was nice I got to share a room with him,” she said.
“He was disappointed when she was born, because he wanted a brother, but these two were pretty tight,” Nicole said of her oldest and youngest children.
Although Austin struggled for a short time when he was 16 with some issues, his parents attributed that to teenage anxiety.
He ran his own lawn mowing and snow removal business while in high school, and had purchased a landscaping company shortly before he died.
“He seemed to have the world by the tail,” Nicole said.
About six months before Austin died, he began struggling again. “That’s when we learned how broken the system was,” Nicole said, noting there are not enough doctors and not enough rooms for people in crisis.
Austin began taking medication and seeing a counselor, which seemed to make things a little better. Shortly before Austin lost his battle with depression, he seemed really tired, Nicole said.
He told her he did not like the medication he was on because it made him feel “ishy.” She encouraged him to go back to the doctor, but he was 20 years old and she could not force him.
The Carlens saw and spoke to Austin three to four times every day, and he seemed to be doing OK.
In fact, Nicole talked to him on the phone shortly before he took his life, and he seemed fine.
“People with depression learn to wear a mask, and get pretty good at it,” Nicole said.
The family was often asked, “What do you think caused this?”
“I think of the pain we feel on a daily basis from missing our child,” Nicole said. “But, as someone dealing with depression, I think [Austin’s] pain was 15 million times worse than anything we are going through right now.”
There was no one thing that caused Austin to take his life, she added. However, that day, whatever he was feeling was so painful, he could no longer handle it.
“Any other day, he may have been able to [handle it], but that day, it was just too much,” Nicole said.
She noted people can have regrets when looking back on things, but would the outcome have changed if things had been done differently?
“We loved Austin, and the best thing we could do was love him,” she added. “It’s not something any one person did to him.”
When Austin chose to take his life, it affected more people than he would ever know, rippling out from his immediate family, to his extended family, friends, school, and the community.
“It’s hard for them,” Nicole said about his friends. “They ask, ‘Did we miss something? How could we not know?’”
There is nothing they could have done, she noted. However, having gone through the loss of a close friend to suicide, it has made them less afraid to say they are struggling or having a hard time, Nicole added.
After Austin died, the Carlens’ extended family and the community “circled the wagons” to support them.
“My family wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for the community,” Nicole said.
It was two weeks before Alexis’ graduation, and the Carlens were in the middle of a house remodel with a floor being installed.
“It blew my mind what people did,” Nicole said.
The house remodel was completed, and Alexis’ graduation was put together by family and friends.
“There is no way we can repay everybody for what they did,” Nicole commented. “But this is the way we can pay it back trying to help other people.”
Another thing the family often hears today is, “You’re doing so well.”
Nicole admitted the first year the family just felt numb. The second year was difficult, with many of Austin’s friends graduating college and getting married, things he would never be able to experience. This year, Alexis is now older than Austin will ever be.
“We don’t have a choice, the sun still comes up, and we still have a job to do,” Nicole said. “Austin wouldn’t want us to die with him. We’re strong because we have to be.”
Hutchinson Health Dassel Clinic (320) 275-3358
Allina Health Cokato Clinic (320) 286-2123
Meeker Memorial Clinic in Dassel (320) 275-4330
A number of links are located on the Enterprise Dispatch homepage for mental health resources and information.
US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
Warning signs of suicide
• Talking about wanting to die
• Looking for a way to kill oneself
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide, but may not be what causes a suicide.
What to do
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:
• Do not leave the person alone
• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
• Call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
• Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional