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Annika was a beautiful soul we were blessed to have in our lives. She was a straight-A student, a musician who played three instruments, an actress who was active in theatrical arts and, although she did not have a competitive bone in her body, played three teams sports: swimming, Nordic skiing and softball. She was a great teammate, a champion for the underdog and a believer in making other peoples’ lives a little bit better in hard times or during lonely teenage social experiences.

Unfortunately, she could not find her own internal happiness. We, and the world, lost our beautiful daughter at the young age of 16, just 29 months ago.

Annika’s battle with mental illness came to light one year earlier with her first attempt at suicide. We tried to help by meeting with a psychiatrist and dialectical behavioral training (DBT) training. By the spring of her junior year in high school, she was failing classes and losing interest in school. Throughout summer, we faced many battles full of outbursts and extreme mood swings.

Shortly after starting the next school year, she faced a difficult episode that led us to the emergency room; there, it took seven men to control and sedate her. It took 24 hours to find a bed in a facility that could help her, which ended up being more than four hours away. She spent a week there before being released.

After that, things seemed to get better. She was going to Los Angeles to audition for modeling and acting, she got all her grades up through night school and she was again a straight-A student. But, on December 12, our world came crashing down. We lost Annika forever to suicide. Many lives have forever been changed and we are left with questions that will never go away. Why? What more should I have done to help this beautiful angel?

The journey through the world of mental health for our family and for many others is as mysterious as the illness is itself. There remains great stigma around mental health in society and this is a huge roadblock for families and loved ones trying to find their way. This is followed by a lack of funding for the mental health research and programs that are so greatly needed.

In memory of Annika, my goal is to bring education to our community and do whatever I can to help break the stigma around mental illness. I challenge everyone to do whatever they can to become better listeners and more compassionate toward our loved ones and other people around us.

The greatest resource I have found and brought to our community is Mental Health First Aid. Through Mental Health First Aid training, I learned more about what was going on in my daughter’s life and mind during her battle with mental illness, albeit too late. It has given me the tools to help others who reach out to me for help with their challenges. I have a better understanding of how to listen to others and what to say. I have gained the confidence to direct people to the proper path(s) of professional help.

I do not wish our journey upon any other family. But I hope that it inspires others to take the time to learn about mental health challenges, including the signs and symptoms, through Mental Health First Aid. It is time to break the stigma and start working towards recovery for all people and families dealing with mental illness.

Ray Stenglein is a trained Mental Health First Aider.

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