Tragedy leads to new mental health resource – Pocono Record Express News
It was a run of the mill day when Sandy Tkach got the phone call from her son while she was at work, but within just a short amount of time, the lives of the Tkach family would forever change.
Travis Bo Tkach, better known simply as Bo, had called to let Sandy know he wasn’t feeling well. She asked if he might need to visit the emergency room, which he turned down. Sandy offered to come home early, but Bo reassured her that everything would be okay, he was just going to lie down for a while.
Just after hanging up the phone, Sandy knew that something wasn’t right. She left work, headed home and searched the house for Bo. He wasn’t in his bedroom, the upstairs recreation room or the kitchen.
But there was a note, and she immediately knew what had happened.
“I went out to the garage, and there he was. He had hung himself,” Sandy said. “So I ran over to the workshop table, got a cutter, cut him down, started CPR, called 911, called my husband, and pretty much, that’s that. The ambulance personnel came and ushered me into the house, and soon after that my husband arrived.”
After years of dealing with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, Bo Tkach had lost the battle, and the Tkachs had lost their son.
What felt like the end of the world, though, turned out to be the beginning of a new life for the family, reaching out to help save the lives of others who struggle with mental health issues.
Sharing the lessons
On Thursday evening, community members were invited to sit in on a presentation from the Bo Tkach Foundation, led by parents Jim and Sandy Tkach, at the Pleasant Valley High School auditorium. The Foundation has been offering these courses to help people recognize signs of mental health issues in their children, students and athletes in order to help them obtain treatment, and to help parents, teachers and coaches understand a little bit about mental health themselves.
Jim spoke on the real life experience that his family took on during and after Bo’s struggles with depression and OCD, starting with Christian counseling from an unusual source.
One day, Jim received a call from Matt Millen, a former NFL executive and linebacker who had played for the Oakland Raiders, the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins. It turns out that Millen had followed the Tkach family closely during his time in the Lehigh Valley, as the Tkach children were all star athletes. When Millen asked what the family was going to do now, Jim said that he was in search of a counselor.
“Here that’s what his wife [Patricia] did, and so for 15 months, these people who did not know us opened up their home, took us into their home and counseled us into our new life, our new normal,” Jim said.
The Millens also helped connect the Tkachs with the University of Michigan Depression Center, the organization which would later approve the Tkachs’ program, which has gone on to help countless children and adults understand and address mental health issues.
Removing the stigma
One of the key points that the Tkachs wanted to drive home was the fact that mental health conditions like depression are a disease that can affect anyone, just like heart disease, cancer or any number of ailments. And it doesn’t exclude anyone, including people like Bo, a star of the Northern Lehigh athletics programs.
“He reached out to a lot of people, he was a sweetheart of a kid. He was a surfer, he was a football player, he held the school record in the javelin. He was a very high-achieving kid, but when you’re confronted with this disease, it really doesn’t matter who you are,” Jim said.
Perhaps the most important element of mental health treatment that the Tkachs emphasized was removing the stigma associated with it, and opening up a dialogue among friends and family to help facilitate change.
During the presentation, Jim put up a list of descriptors and began reading them to the crowd.
“Look at these categories: social and emotional development, follows class routines, listens to and accepts guidance from adults. Anybody have any idea what that is?,” Jim asked the crowd.
A call from the audience revealed that the listed elements came from a kindergarten report card.
“Right there is a plan for a kindergartener to become a great adult, and we abandon it,” Jim said. “We get so focused on the 90s and the As that we don’t worry about this stuff anymore. It’s this stuff and lack thereof that is killing our kids, because they’re not caring about each other.”
That apprehension to discuss the issues at hand goes a long way toward public perception, Jim said. It is apparent in the presentation of those with mental health issues in the media, the “crazy” eccentric person with OCD, or the “disturbed” person who is manipulative and harmful to others.
Beyond acceptance, pursuing treatment and sticking to it was a key element for success.
Jim brought up the stories of famous athletes like Jim Shea, a skeleton athlete and Olympic competitor who struggled with depression. With medicine and counseling, Shea was able to stay on track, compete and win a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Just a few weeks later, he had ceased treatments and was living on the street.
“We need to teach kids that life is just not going to be good all the time, but we can work through that. You need to have those talks with your kids,” Jim said. “You as a parent have to do that. And if you don’t do it, they will resent you for it. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth.”
Noticing the signs and symptoms of mental health issues is important as well, Jim said. Keeping that open dialogue can go a long way toward sharing concerns, such as if a parent notices a child is experiencing a mood change, diminished interest in activities or trouble with sleep. These can all indicate chemical changes in the brain, and are not simply “the blues.”
The Tkachs concluded their presentation with a bit of music by country music artists Rascal Flats, the song “Why.” Written by Rob Mathes and Allen Shamblin, the song pays tribute to Shamblin’s friend, a star athlete from Texas who had ended his own life. Throughout the song, you can hear the writer struggle to understand what went wrong, asking how things could have changed.
As it turns out, the song had been pulled from radio play at one time because it addressed suicide at all, a perfect representation of what needs to change to save lives, Jim said before playing the tune.
“True story, that got pulled from the radio because the stigma in this country is so strong that they said this should not be on the radio,“ Jim said in conclusion. “All that is, is a great tribute to a friend and to a disease, that’s what it is.”