Rep. Jamie Raskin's beautiful obituary for his son is an important message about mental health

When Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin and his wife, Sarah Bloom, announced the death of their 25-year-old son Tommy on New Year's Eve, the whole nation mourned with them. Many also quietly wondered what had caused his death. It's not anyone's business, of course. But when a young, seemingly healthy person dies unexpectedly at home, the question lingers.

Rep. Raskin provided an honest answer to that question in a way that is both heartbreaking and perfect. In a statement published on Medium, Raskin and Bloom shared the details of Tommy's life so beautifully, it makes anyone who reads it feel like we knew him. It also exemplifies how to talk about a loved one who is taken by mental illness.

The statement opens:


"On January 30, 1995, Thomas Bloom Raskin was born to ecstatic parents who saw him enter the world like a blue-eyed cherub, a little angel. Tommy grew up as a strikingly beautiful curly-haired madcap boy beaming with laughter and charm, making mischief, kicking the soccer ball in the goal, acting out scenes from To Kill A Mockingbird with his little sister in his father's constitutional law class, teaching other children the names of all the Justices on the Supreme Court, hugging strangers on the street, teaching our dogs foreign languages, running up and down the aisle on airplanes giving people high fives, playing jazz piano like a blues great from Bourbon Street, and at 12 writing a detailed brief to his mother explaining why he should not have to do a Bar Mitzvah and citing Due Process liberty interests (appeal rejected)."

The celebration of Tommy's life continues with a list of the people who surrounded him with love and support. His passion for true liberty and justice for all and his desire to solve problems of injustice, poverty, and war is clear. He loved animals and fought for their ethical treatment. He was a staunch antiwar activist. He was sensitive and kind, while also fiercely dedicated to making the world a better place for all in it.

"He hated cliques and social snobbery," wrote Raskin, "never had a negative word for anyone but tyrants and despots, and opposed all malicious gossip, stopping all such gossipers with a trademark Tommy line — 'forgive me, but it's hard to be a human.'"

That line, "forgive me, it's hard to be human," resonates with us all. It also helps explain why a young man with so much promise, so much passion, and so much support around him could die from a depression that led him to suicide.

Besides the incredibly touching way it was written, what strikes me most about this obituary is that it's exactly what an obituary of someone who dies from depression should be. When someone dies of a physical disease, we don't belabor the cause of their death. We mention it, we acknowledge it, but the focus of the write-up on their life is their actual life.

Tommy clearly lived an incredible life and was a uniquely remarkable person. The disease that ended his life, even in the way it did, did not define his life.

I've lost two family members who were in their early 20s—one to suicide and one to Type 1 diabetes. Neither of their lives were defined by the cause of their death. A young person dying is always a tragedy, but when we speak about people we lose to suicide, the wording we use matters.

The kind, funny uncle I lost to suicide was a year younger than Tommy Raskin when he died. I purposely choose to say "when he died" instead of "when he killed himself" because the latter implies conscious choice, and I don't know how much of it was truly a choice on his part. With suicide, the intention is obviously there, but it's impossible to know how much control a person actually had over it in the moment.

There's little comfort to be found when a loved one dies of suicide. But it helps to understand that that depression, while largely treatable, is a sometimes-fatal disease. Suicide might be the mechanism, but the disease of depression is the cause, just as unregulated blood sugar is the mechanism for someone who dies from the disease of diabetes. There are treatments for depression, but sometimes the disease is resistant to treatment. We'll undoubtedly get better at treatment and prevention of depression, just as we do with all illness, but the devastating truth is that sometimes people do die from it. While it's tempting to blame yourself or search for what you could have done differently to stop it, the terrible truth is it's not always possible to prevent.

Raskin's obituary says this about Tommy's passing:

"We have barely been able to scratch the surface here, but you have a sense of our son. Tommy Raskin had a perfect heart, a perfect soul, a riotously outrageous and relentless sense of humor, and a dazzling radiant mind. He began to be tortured later in his 20s by a blindingly painful and merciless 'disease called depression,' as Tabitha put it on Facebook over the weekend, a kind of relentless torture in the brain for him, and despite very fine doctors and a loving family and friendship network of hundreds who adored him beyond words and whom he adored too, the pain became overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable at last for our dear boy, this young man of surpassing promise to our broken world.

"On the last hellish brutal day of that godawful miserable year of 2020, when hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of people all over the world died alone in bed in the darkness from an invisible killer disease ravaging their bodies and minds, we also lost our dear, dear, beloved son, Hannah and Tabitha's beloved irreplaceable brother, a radiant light in this broken world.

"He left us this farewell note on New Year's Eve day: 'Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.'"

Tommy clearly made his mark on the world while he was here, which is more than many who spent many more years on this earth can say. May his legacy be carried forward by those who loved him, and may his memory be a blessing.

Connections Academy

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

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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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