My Dad suffered from Parkinson’s, a disease that methodically and steadily destroyed his body and mind  — and ultimately took his life.

During my dad's last remaining days in hospice care, ​my four siblings, mother, and I huddled around him and shared, amidst laughter and tears, stories about the man he was, the lessons he taught us through his own successes and failures, and the tremendous impact he had on those around him. Dad’s life was far from perfect, and he had had a rough last handful of years. Our time together helped all of us remember who Dad was when we was in his prime —  when he was our hero.

Dad, while nonverbal, was alert and attuned to what was happening around him. Occasionally one of us would look over and find a trace of a smile on his face, an observation we would point out to him and the others. Dad was clearly enjoying time with his entire family for the first time in over 20 years.


Throughout his closing days, Dad heard anecdote after anecdote about the legacy he was about to leave behind.

People shared the memories he would leave us with. Here are the lessons he left behind for me and my family:

1. Dream big.

Dad grew up in a small, middle-class Irish enclave in Queens, New York. His father would periodically take him to wealthy neighborhoods to walk around and show him what was possible for him when he got older. The message from his father was that this could all be his. To Dad, it was impossible to dream too big. He wanted the world for himself and his kids — and fully expected us all to get it. Dad pushed us to imagine the unachievable and race like hell to achieve it. When I told him I was going to write a business book, he told me to prepare for the New York Times Bestseller list.

2. Live big.

Dad packed his life with rich and full experiences at every turn. If Dad wanted to have something, he got it. If he wanted to do something, he did it. The moment he had two nickels to rub together, he spent them. Dad lived big.

“You only go around once,” was something Dad frequently said to justify a risky business play or explain away a lavish purchase. It seemed to serve as a reminder to him (and us) that life could be cut unexpectedly short and that it would be wise to get big experiences in while he (we) could.

3. Be present.

Dad spent most of our upbringing racing around the country consulting with and training business leaders. The moment he was done working, he would race back home just in time to coach a basketball game, have dinner with the family, or play a pickup game in the backyard. He wasn’t vacant or lost in his work when he was with us. When he was with us, he was fully with us.

Long after we went to bed, Dad would return to work, staying up until the wee hours of the morning to get a proposal out or prepare for the following day’s events. He threw himself into whatever he was doing and made you feel as if you were the center of his universe when you were with him. He was magnetic. Being present undoubtedly added to his magnetism.

4. Pick your moments. (But when they appear, pounce.)

Dad rarely made a move that didn’t have a purpose behind it. He had this remarkable skill of letting the insignificant things go and dealing head-on with the things that really mattered.

5. Be interested, not interesting.

In his final days, what struck us most was the overwhelming number of personal stories from old friends and extended family about the impact Dad had on their lives. Dad was fascinated by people, and he had an art for drawing out their stories. When Dad was at his best, he was comfortably and confidently Dad. And in that comfort and confidence, he could let go of his own ego and pull out the complexities of the people he was with, instead of sharing his own with others. His sincere interest in others drew them closer to him and left them convinced they were in the presence of someone endlessly interesting.

My siblings and I were with Dad when he passed. We were sad, of course.

But there was a positive feeling in the room as well — each of us left Dad that night feeling closer to him and each other than we had in a very long time. We left armed and more cognizant of the lessons he had equipped us with.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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