SM West senior who lost brother to suicide shares message of prevention through #ZeroReasonsWhy campaign

Mary Beth Karlin giving a presentation at Pleasant Hill High School. Photo credit Tom Karlin Foundation.

Mary Beth Karlin was 11 years old on Nov. 5, 2011 when her grandmother told her they had to leave the Saturday morning kickball tournament.

“She said we needed to go home and get a jacket or something like that, and I didn’t really understand it, because I told her I wasn’t cold,” Karlin said. “But in the car on the way home I could see her hands were shaking and I knew something was wrong.”

When they got home, Karlin arrived to find two of her siblings distraught. Their older brother Tom, a bright, well-liked senior at SM West, had taken his own life.

Tom Karlin was a 17 year old senior at SM West when he lost his life to suicide. Photo courtesy Karlin family.

“It seemed so surreal. It seemed like it couldn’t be happening to us,” Mary Beth recalled.

It’s taken Mary Beth and the rest of her family years to come to terms with the loss, an experience so traumatic that she says looking back she can’t believe they made it through.

But she’s stepping forward now to share her family’s story in hopes that others don’t have to suffer. Mary Beth is one of nine Johnson County students serving on the #ZeroReasonsWhy Campaign’s new Johnson County Teen Council, which will focus on teen suicide prevention. Launched this summer, the #ZeroReasonsWhy initiative is a collaboration of Johnson County’s six public school districts, which have committed to addressing the growing issue of teen suicide in the county.

Mary Beth has been active in suicide prevention efforts for a few years now through her family’s Tom Karlin Foundation, which has worked to raise awareness of teen suicide and reduce stigma surrounding mental health issues with presentations at area schools and churches. She saw the opportunity to participate in the #ZeroReasonsWhy campaign as a logical extension of her previous efforts.

She and her father Joe, who is a member of the Lenexa City Council, said there are a few messages they want to share with the community. They include:

  • Mental health problems and suicidal ideation are not uncommon. Joe said that statistics show that by the time they’re 24, 1 in 5 youths will have been clinically depressed at some point. “We share that statistic not to scare them, but to show that if you’re going through this, you may feel like you’re on an island, but 1 in 5 people have gone through this,” Joe said.
  • Suicidal ideation can affect anyone. Mary Beth notes that her brother was a friendly, outgoing and successful student — but that didn’t save him from suffering from depression. “Depression doesn’t pick on any particular group,” she said. “It’s not the stereotype of the loner kid. It can be anybody.”
  • It’s important to empower people to step forward when they’re having problems. About half of people who end up committing suicide don’t tell anyone they’re struggling, Joe said. “We’re relying on somebody else to figure it out instead of empowering people to raise their hands and say I need help,” Joe said.

Both Joe and Mary Beth said that the loss of Tom has profoundly affected the trajectory of their lives, and that coping with his suicide has spurred them to help prevent other families from going through what they did.

“It was a matter of hours or days when I remember thinking, ‘We have to talk about this. We have to get the word out so that as few families as possible have to walk through the hell that we did,'” Joe said. “Because it’s pure hell. It is.”

At the same time, they say Tom’s death has caused them to grow in important ways.

“I would give anything to have Tom back,” Joe said. “But at the same time I wouldn’t ever want to be the person that I was before. I’ve grown so much in my compassion for other people.”

“You realize that everyone has things they are struggling with, and you learn to appreciate them,” Mary Beth said.