Walking a Tightrope

Quiz: On average, once a person becomes depressed, how long is it before they get professional help?

Possible Answers: Two months? Ten months? Two years? Ten years?

Read on for the answer.


Conventional wisdom holds that teens are impulsive, which leads to rash actions. Like driving too fast. Drinking too much. And suicide.

Certainly, I would agree that teens are more impulsive than older adults. But I think we as a society have placed too much blame on their impulsivity for teen suicides. My recent “epiphany” (which may be right or may be wrong) is that other significant factors that play into teen suicides are 1) the lack of mental health/wellness education, 2) the stigma surrounding mental health and 3) the lack of focused attention on mental wellness.

The stigma surrounding mental health keeps hurting teens from seeking professional help. The lack of routine mental wellness screening keeps us from identifying teens in need of professional help. These factors, coupled with the lack of intervention tools AND teen impulsivity, are causing teen suicide attempts and completed suicides to skyrocket.


My “epiphany” came with help from my son, Tom. He unknowingly painted me (us) a picture of his struggle. Let me explain.

Near the start of each school year, Tom’s high school has each student write a letter to themselves. These letters are supposed to be happy reflections on their dreams and illustrate their growth during their high school years. These letters, four in all, are delivered back to the students near the end of their senior year.

Except in Tom’s case. In Tom’s case, he was not around to receive the letters. In Tom’s case, he had been dead for six months by the end of what would have been his senior year. So we, his parents, received his letters.

Tom’s letters are among the saddest thing I’ve ever read as a parent. I’ve only read them once – I haven’t yet found the strength to read them again.

Tom’s first letter (his freshman year) paints the picture of a young man full of energy and excitement for the adventures to come. He wrote of dreams he had and things he longed to do. Reading that letter, no one would imagine that the author would be dead by suicide in a little over three years.

But each subsequent letter showed a decline in happiness – in mental health, in mental wellness – from the previous one. Each letter spoke less of joy and excitement, and more of hopelessness and despair. His final letter, written approximately two months before his death, is devoid of joy or hope. He writes of so much that he despises…that he dreads…that he hates. It includes words that I wouldn’t repeat in this blog. That final letter paints a picture of a hopeless soul in utter despair – a soul walking “through the valley of the shadow of death.”


While Tom’s mental health spiraled out-of-control, he kept it hidden from everyone. He kept it hidden from his parents and his siblings. He kept it hidden from his counselor. Tom kept it hidden from his friends. He even kept it hidden from our family doctor who conducted a depression screening during a physical just months before he died (Tom passed with no evidence of depression).

Once a person becomes depressed, on average it is ten years before that person get professional help. Ten years. I call those ten years “the decade of darkness.”

That decade exists because of 1) the lack of mental health/wellness education, 2) the stigma surrounding mental health and 3) the lack of focused attention on mental wellness.

Ask me, or the rest of Tom’s family, or his friends, and none of us would have envisioned Tom was in such despair. And I hear that same sentiment from almost every parent who has lost their child to suicide: Their child’s suicide seemingly “came out of nowhere.” But did it really?

I believe that a teen’s seemingly “impulsive” act of suicide is not nearly as impulsive as it appears. Instead, we lack a window into their daily struggle to survive to tomorrow. For some, when the pain and struggle outweighs their coping mechanisms, they see no other way out of their pain besides suicide.


Imagine that living with untreated depression is similar to walking on a tightrope.

Every step (every day) is a struggle to maintain your balance. Walking that rope without professional mental health assistance is like walking a tightrope without the pole that helps the walker retain their balance. Without that tool, it takes absolute concentration to plan and take each step (each day). The journey is mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting.

Various factors, like a gust of wind to the walker, send the tightrope walker wobbling. Add enough factors, and the walker can no longer maintain their balance .

And they fall off the tightrope, crashing to the ground below.

Various factors, like failed relationship, or a failed test, send a depressed person wobbling on the tightrope. Add enough factors, and they can no longer maintain their balance in their life.

And they fall off the tightrope, crashing to the ground below.


I believe Tom wobbled on that tightrope most days the last few years of his life. He fought hard to convey to the crowd watching him walk that tightrope – his friends, his family – that he was progressing just fine, with no need for assistance. But nearly every day was an exhausting struggle to get to the next one.

In the final months of his life, Tom was wobbling terribly on his journey across the tightrope. Tom didn’t want to die. He simply didn’t have the tools he needed to maintain his balance. He had exhausted his mental strength to maintain his balance.

And he fell off the tightrope, crashing to the ground below.


Each day, tens of thousands of teens are struggling to maintain their balance. They face swirling winds without the necessary tools to keep their balance.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If we can de-stigmatize mental health, we can clear the path for individuals to seek help when they are hurting. If we can de-stigmatize mental health, we can clear the path for individuals to accept our offer for help when we see they are struggling to maintain balance.

But if we continue to stigmatize mental health, we will continue to force our teens to march across that tightrope on their own. Every day a struggling person walks through their day without the balancing pole is another day when we subject them to internal and external forces that make their journey more difficult.

And, for some, the day comes that the winds blow too wildly and the tightrope wobbles too severely. And some – on those seemingly impossible days – lose their balance.

And they fall off the tightrope, crashing to the ground below.


We (Tom’s friends and family, and the Tom Karlin Foundation) are embarking on a significant effort to contract this “decade of darkness.” Our efforts will 1) break the stigma surrounding mental health, 2) educate on mental health and wellness, and 3) provide tools to intervene when a teen sees a friend who may be depressed or suicidal.

Stay Tuned! More to follow very soon!