The Three of Us

Parents keep their son’s legacy alive by advocating for mental health.

Ask Todd and Laura Crooks about their son Chad, and they’ll willingly share his story. But it’s sad, and it’s much shorter than it should be.

Chad was mathematically and scientifically gifted; he attended a STEM high school and dreamed of becoming a NASA engineer. By his junior year, however, he found it hard to stay focused in class and was diagnosed with ADHD. Chad studied engineering at college, but returned home after a difficult freshman year, telling his family that he’d been hearing voices. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression, but medication didn’t seem to help. In 2016, tragically, Chad died by suicide.

“If we can help someone like Chad and give them hope for the future, we know that Chad is still with us.”

- Laura Crooks

Taking stock

“When Chad was first diagnosed, it was really hard to know what we needed to learn,” says Laura. “We didn’t have the resources to help navigate the system or even to figure out how to help him.”A few months after Chad’s death, Todd and Laura were starting to come to terms with their loss — and realizing the challenges that people like Chad face in accessing mental health care in Washington.

“There was no network; everything was very locally centered,” says Todd. “There needed to be a way for the right stakeholders to be in a room together.”

To unify those efforts — and to help them process their grief — they founded Chad’s Legacy Project, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing awareness, reducing stigma and promoting cures for mental illness.

They also envisioned a new kind of mental health conference: one where stakeholders, caregivers and the community could come together, devise solutions and be held responsible for moving initiatives forward.

First, Laura and Todd reached out to Jim Vollendroff, then the director of behavioral health care for King County and now the director of the UW Medicine Behavioral Health Institute at Harborview Medical Center. He agreed to help. Next, the three of them approached Jürgen Unützer, MD, MPH, MA, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UW Medicine, and promptly secured his partnership, too.

Planning for transformation

The Crookses, Vollendroff, and Unützer’s team, including Rebecca Sladek, associate director of marketing and communications in psychiatry, set about planning the first Washington State Mental Health Summit, held in 2018. The second summit, held Oct. 29, 2019, grew into a major event, with hundreds of educators, government officials, healthcare providers and health insurance companies collaborating to take action on mental health care initiatives. Todd calls it “transformative.”

“The summit has already inspired a number of great partnerships and collaborations,” says Unützer. “It gives me a lot of hope that things can get better.”

The partners are particularly proud of mental health “first aid” classes for youth, now regularly held at Seattle Children’s. It’s a national program that Chad’s Legacy Project and King County brought to the region. To date, over 2,000 participants — including parents, teachers, caregivers and peers — have been trained in recognizing and offering support for mental health issues ranging from depression to self-harm.

“I’d really like mental health first aid to be as prevalent as CPR training in our community,” says Laura.

In addition to being excited about the summit’s capacity to spark change, the Crookses were also very pleased to hear about the creation of the Garvey Institute for Brain Health Solutions at UW Medicine, established with a $50 million gift from Mike and Lynn Garvey this fall. The institute will promote innovative research and treatments for brain-health-related conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction.

“These gifts are really profound and can be the catalyst for moving things forward,” says Laura.

Providing hope

With all their work and advocacy, the Crookses hope to help patients and families connect with the mental health resources they need, especially in the stressful period following an initial diagnosis. After all, they believe, it’s what Chad would want them to do. And Unützer thinks they’re succeeding.

“Laura and Todd are simply amazing,” says Unützer. “They have inspired us all by taking the pain and grief related to the loss of their son and using it to support other families, make changes in our state, and challenge us all to do better.”

“If we can help someone like Chad and give them hope for the future, we know that Chad is still with us,” says Laura. “We believe it’s the three of us in this work, not just the two of us.”

Need to talk?

If you’re having suicidal thoughts or are in crisis, you’re not alone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255, or text HOME to 741741 (the Crisis Text Line). Both provide free, confidential support, 24/7.

ACCELERATE CARE

If you’d like to help improve mental health care in Washington for people like Chad Crooks, please make a gift to support behavioral health research.

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