Community turns up for 2nd annual Burlington Community Walk to Fight Suicide.

Stephen Kastantin seemed happy.

In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for the Burlington High School student, now a senior, to spread cheer among his peers by showing up at school wearing a hotdog or gorilla costume.

“They saw that I was happy on the outside,” Kastantin told the crowd of more than 100 people gathered April 28, 2023, at the Port of Burlington. “That wasn’t true. I just put on a facade.”

Kastantin, one of the organizers of the second annual Burlington Community Walk to Fight Suicide, explained that he had been struggling with anxiety and depression since seventh grade, but it wasn’t until his junior year of high school that he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder.

“When I went to BHS, I became even more anxious,” Kastantin said. “This lasted until 11th grade, when I realized other kids felt the same way as I did, so I decided to try to cheer them up the best way I could, which was going to school in goofy outfits like a hotdog suit, a gorilla suit, or even just shaving my head.”

After Kastantin’s diagnosis, he joined Mind Blowing Connections, an after-school club formed by former BHS student Zakiyah Timmons-Crear in an effort to destigmatize mental illness and raise awareness surrounding mental health issues while fostering connections.

That club organized the first walk to fight suicide and now is called Bring Change to Mind.

“When I found this group of people, this is when I found my love of helping people who were going through the same thing as I am,” Kastantin said.

As Kastantin and others spoke, Timmons-Crear stood off to the side with a box of tissues for those on the verge of or already shedding tears. People in the crowd carried posters and some wore t-shirts displaying pictures of loved ones lost to suicide. Others wore t-shirts displaying a logo designed by BHS junior Selena Jannsens and held signs displaying messages of hope and understanding that they had carried there from Bracewell Stadium.

“It’s extremely humbling to see how many people share my passion,” Kastantin said. “To the counselors and the students who helped put this together, thank you. We couldn’t do this without you. We need you. Thank you very much. If you have thoughts about suicide, please call the 988 suicide hotline, or even just talk to a friend, someone at school, a trusted adult, anyone.”

It was a message spoken many times throughout the event: Reach out; don’t suffer in silence; don’t walk alone.

There on behalf of the Big O Foundation, a nonprofit launched by Joe and Jenny Skelley in honor of their son, Owen, who attended Sunnyside Elementary School before he and his family moved to North Liberty, took his life, Kelly Augustine, a long time friend of the Skelley family, spoke of the joy that Owen had brought to his family and the devastation left in the wake of his death.

“I want every person here to know that someone on this earth loves you very much. Losing your child is every parent’s worst nightmare,” she said. “If you have any suicidal thoughts, if you feel depressed, please get help and do it swiftly.

“If you break an arm, you go to the hospital, you have an x-ray, you get a cast. If you have strep throat, you likely take penicillin. Having depression, mental illness or suicidal ideation is not something to take lightly and it’s not anything to be ashamed of. Please take care of yourself and seek help. You don’t need to struggle alone, and I don’t want it to be too late.”

She went on to list symptoms of depression: difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, frequent irritability and/or agitation, loss of interest in hobbies or activities, changes in appetite, and consistent feelings of anxiety, sadness or emptiness.

“Any of these feelings every once in awhile is probably normal, but if you’re living in these emotions day in and day out, I want you to get help, and if you don’t feel you need to go to the doctor, perhaps you can talk to your pastor or someone in your school,” she said.

She described Owen as being full of life, a talented athlete, someone who always looked out for the underdog and encouraged his friends to be nice to everyone. But, much like Kastantin and so many others who struggle with depression, Owen was good at putting up a facade.

“Many of you know that Owen left a letter explaining that he hid all these feelings from his parents,” Augustine said. “He didn’t want anyone to worry about him and he didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. I promise you that his family would have moved mountains to get Owen the care that he needed if only they had known these

thoughts were going through his head.”

She again urged people to seek help.

“My message is that depression is a liar,” Augustine said. “It has robbed us of our joy and I’m working hard to regain mine. I’m begging everyone here to do the work. Get help for yourself, your loved ones. I don’t want another family to suffer like this.”

Jannsens, too, spoke of the importance of seeking up.

“Don’t be strong, because it’s OK to be weak,” she said. “Please be brave and ask for help. Ask for help from your school counselors like our lovely Ms. Bray, Ms. Frice, Ms. Mumm and Ms. Leinbach or any of your trusted teachers.”

Other speakers were Gigi and Shawn Johnson, the parents of Zephaniah “Zephy” Johnson, who died in February 2022. She was in ninth grade.

Shawn Johnson said his daughter taught him three things in her short life: Time is short, enjoy the now and take care of yourself.

“Somebody is watching you, whether it’s your little brother, little sister, your niece, your nephew, your uncles, your sister, mom, dad, somebody’s watching you,” he said. “And somebody is holding on because of you.”

Gigi Johnson thanked those in attendance and encouraged people to be themselves and reach out.

“It’s OK to be yourself. It’s OK to not be OK,” Gigi Johnson said. ”It’s OK to reach out to other people if you need to. Don’t be afraid to talk to other people. One thing that this journey that I have been through now for about a year has taught me is if your path demands you to walk through hell, make sure you walk in that place like you own it. Live it each day. Own it. Own who you are.”

A memorial bench engraved with the names of Zephy and Bennett Kirk, purchased with money raised last year by Jannsens, has been placed at the high school.

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