TRAVERSE CITY — Jeff Olson has visited more than 80 schools in the Midwest to tell his family’s story.
In 2012, the Olsons’ son Daniel, 19, died by suicide. Daniel was an all-state athlete and the star quarterback of Ishpeming High School’s football team.
That same year, Daniel’s team made a run for the state championship. One of the cameramen filming the state championship game, Michael Berens, was touched by Daniel’s story as it reminded him of his daughter’s struggle.
Just a few months after Daniel died, Berens reached out to the Olsons with the idea of creating a documentary about Daniel. The family still was raw when the offer came, Jeff said. After a few months of deliberating, they agreed to make the film.
The documentary, “Do it for Daniel”, took about two years to make, but once it was done, the Olsons began showing it to schools in the area. During the screenings, Jeff speaks along with the documentary and explains what mental illness is and what the symptoms of it look like.
“The more people talk about it, the more we put this out in the open and, in our state, the more we try to educate people and get them to understand the symptoms, what it is what it feels like to have it, more people will be willing to come forward and get help,” Jeff said.
Since its first screening, there has been nothing but positive reactions to the film as Jeff has gone on to show it to schools all over Michigan and nearby states as well as at hospitals, universities, community gatherings and other organizations, Jeff said.
On Thursday, Traverse City Area Public Schools will host a public screening of “Do it for Daniel” in the West Senior High School auditorium. There will also be a panel discussion with local mental health professionals following the film.
As a volunteer with social change organization Good Works Lab, Kathy Grinsteiner had the idea to bring the Olsons to Traverse City to continue the community conversation around youth mental health. Grinsteiner, like Jeff, is from Marquette, and has followed the “Do it for Daniel” Facebook page for years.
The story at the center of “Do it for Daniel” is one of courage, Grinsteiner said; Daniel’s courage in dealing with mental illness and his family’s courage in sharing their story. Grinsteiner hopes young people walk away from the event understanding what support is available to them and that “they don’t have to suffer in silence,” she said.
“The gap that we need to bridge is between young people and trusting adults, so that they feel that they can go to the adults in their life when they have a challenge,” Grinsteiner said.
Ty Schmidt, founder of Good Works Lab and leader of TCAPS’s health and wellness initiative, said 150 people have already committed to going to the event Thursday, but he hopes they will have enough to fill the auditorium.
“Conversations like this matter,” Schmidt said. “To normalize and de-stigmatize conversations related to mental health and suicide (isn’t) easy, but they’re critical as we try to change the narrative and the environment around how we talk about it, how we think about it, how we address some of these issues locally.”
The issue and tragedy of child suicide is not unknown to the communities in and around Traverse City.
Schmidt has spoken publicly about his work around youth mental health stemming from knowing too many kids die by suicide. Between the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, Kingsley’s community saw three local children — DeAnte Bland, Kayden Stone and Shealynn Pobuda — take their own lives. In the summer of 2021, Tommy Reay from Glen Arbor died by suicide after a years-long battle with anxiety and depression.
And since the beginning of the pandemic, young people have struggled with usual stressors being amplified alongside isolation and political divisiveness over the past two years.
The Olson family’s hope is that by sharing their story, kids and other families will have the language and knowledge they lacked when their son struggled, Jeff said. They hope that their presentation aids in de-stigmatizing mental illness, garnering more compassion for those struggling and encouraging kids to speak more openly about their struggles with mental health.
“When Daniel was struggling, he didn’t know what he was going through, we didn’t know what he was going through,” Jeff said. “And it’s because nobody puts it out in the open. So it’s a slow process … but more and more people are coming forward and telling their stories.”
Schmidt said he doesn’t remember saying the word suicide out loud when he was growing up. Talking about mental health with his two high school-age sons is harder than any other serious conversation, but he knows it needs to be had.
“I think we as a society need to feel comfortable talking about it,” Schmidt said. “I’ve only lived here 15 years. I don’t remember a similar community conversation like this, but I really do believe it will just be a great first start.”
Grinsteiner said she remembers the kinds of hurtful labels that surrounded mental illness, depression and anxiety when she was a kid.
“When I talk to young people today, there is a vastly different approach to it,” Grinsteiner said. “They feel as if perhaps it’s not that there’s more issues with us today than there used to be. They feel as if they’re just more comfortable talking about it, especially amongst their peers. So that is a positive sign.”
While Conversations around mental health have changed drastically over the years, even in the decade since the Olsons lost their son, Jeff said he and his family are still looking at solutions for Michigan teens, including from the Michigan legislature.
According to the Michigan School Counselor Association, in the 2019-20 school year, Michigan had a student to school counselor ratio of 671, the second worst of the 50 states. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250-to-1.
The Olsons hope to see that statistic change. They were glad to see recent developments from the Michigan legislature but hope to see that momentum carry forward with more legislative change along with the continued de-stigmatization of mental illness.
“One thing you got to realize is this is a medical illness and we want everybody to understand it and to treat this like a medical illness,” Jeff said. “We want everybody to understand, not just the people suffering, but the loved ones, friends, anybody around them.”
The post-film screening panel on April 21 will include Ty Curtis, LMSW at Grand Traverse County Health Department; Stephanie Galdes, pediatrician at Kids Creek Children’s Center Clinic; Andrew Waite, LMSW at Northern Lakes Community Mental Health; Diane Burden, TCAPS social worker; Val Harpel, registered nurse at Munson Behavioral Health; Michelle Morrison, Central High School counselor. The panel discussion will be moderated by Alyson Kass, Shape Up North Coordinator.
The screening and panel event is free and open to the public. Those interested in attending can register through the Eventbrite page, which can be found on TCAPS’s Facebook.