Program tackles teen suicide, depression

Haley Gustafson | Daily Press Jeff Olson, left, speaks to a group of Escanaba High students in the school’s auditorium Thursday during a presentation for his suicide awareness program “Do it For Daniel.” Olson, who is a high school teacher, father, and football coach at Ishpeming High School in Ishpeming, lost his son Daniel, to suicide in 2012 and now travels the state to raise awareness of suicide prevention.

ESCANABA — Personable, kind, athletic, and smart. These were just some of the adjectives Jeff Olson used to describe his son, Daniel. Olson, a high school teacher, father, and football coach at Ishpeming High School in Ishpeming, visited Escanaba Junior and Senior High School students Thursday to present his suicide awareness program “Do it For Daniel.” Olson made three presentations Thursday.

After losing his son to suicide, Olson now tours Michigan talking about Daniel’s experience and struggle with anxiety and depression, which led him to take his own life. Daniel passed away at the age of 19 on July 19, 2012.

“It’s even hard for me today to say my son suffered from a mental illness,” said Olson. “But mental means the brain. It’s an illness of the brain, and it’s a medical illness.”

Olson explained that his son graduated from Ishpeming High School in 2011. Over his high school career, Daniel was involved in athletics including basketball, baseball, and track — but his true passion was football.

As a quarter back, Daniel led the 2010 Hematites football squad to Detroit to play at Ford Field in the state championship game. In addition, in Daniel’s senior year he was named All U.P. Offensive Player of the Year and First Team Detroit Free Press All-State Quarter Back. He also received high accolades in basketball and track.

Although Ishpeming lost the championship game in 2010, the team rallied two years later to bring Olson back to Ford Field to try and fulfill what was Daniel’s dream: to be state champions.

In 2012, the Hematites beat the odds and defeated Detroit Loyola High School football team for the championship title. Olson and the rest of the football team believe Daniel had something to do with that victory. Throughout the journey, the Hematites and the rest of the Ishpeming community rallied around the battle cry “Do it for Daniel.”

During the presentation Thursday, Olson discussed what anxiety and depression are, what it feels like to have it, and treatment options for the medical illness that one in four people will experience in their lifetime.

“When my son was struggling, he didn’t understand it. We as a family, as parents, didn’t understand it at all,” said Olson. “We had to learn very quickly.”

Olson explained there seems to be a stigma surrounding anxiety and depression. By telling Daniel’s story, Olson said he hopes he can help get rid of the negativity that surrounds mental illness to give hope to those who currently suffer so they can ask for help. Olson added that even if it looks like someone has it all, like Daniel, nobody truly knows what people are going through on the inside.

“My son probably fought it for eight years starting in sixth grade,” said Olson, adding in Daniel’s junior year is when he truly started to seek more help to aid him in controlling his depression.

After taking Daniel to a doctor to find out what was wrong, Olson said they discovered Daniel had depression and anxiety and that it was manageable with the use of medications and therapy.

Although Daniel’s story doesn’t have the outcome that Olson would like to tell, he said he hopes by speaking out and sharing, he can help others.

According to Olson, 90 percent of all completed suicides are from somebody who has a non-treated or under-treated mental illness. To help combat and reduce this rate, Olson said we have to start from the source.

“So if we want to eliminate suicides, if we want to decrease suicides, we have to fight the source,” said Olson. “The source is the mental illness. But you can’t treat the mental illness if people don’t come forward and ask for help, and that’s the problem.”

Although Daniel was going through treatments, Olson said Daniel fell into the smaller 10 percent of victims who don’t speak out in time and by the time they do, it may be too late.

In addition to a presentation from Olson, the high schoolers and junior high students also were shown the documentary made about Daniel, entitled “Do it for Daniel” about his life and battle with mental illness.

“We want to educate people so they understand,” said Olson.

Extra support staff were available at the Escanaba High School Thursday to students who may have needed it over the course of the day.