After the loss of his father and two friends to the spiraling mental health crisis, Danny Kerth said enough was enough. In 2014, he received a call from a dear friend about creating Project Wake Up, a nonprofit and documentary with the goal of breaking the stigma of mental illness through awareness and prevention.
Project Wake Up raises awareness through fundraising and talking to local and national legislators as well as families of lost loved ones. They intend to have the documentary completed either by the end of the year or in the first quarter of 2019, and also plan to start educational “Wake Up” chapters in colleges across the country.
How did Project Wake Up get started?
In the summer of 2014, going into our senior year, a big group of folks at Mizzou interconnected after the loss of a dear friend from Saint Louis. His name was Ryan. [The summer after his death] My roommate came back and said, “Look, we can’t do this. We can’t keep letting this happen.” Thus, we started a documentary honoring Ryan’s life that informs people that they don’t have to go through their struggles alone. Things moved pretty quickly after we shot a makeshift video with our phones that raised nearly $10,000 overnight and $25,000 in a month.
Who was Ryan?
Ryan was kind of the person that lit up a room wherever he was. He was just incredibly popular. Everybody loved him because he just had this amazing personality. He was a good person to everybody that he met. He wasn’t cliquey. He didn't care about popularity. He just had this personality that he exuded so much genuineness, and he was just everybody's best friend.
We put out a video in 2015 and it was kind of funny. There was a string of 15 people in a row that, when the director asked, “Who is Ryan?” they all responded with “He’s my best friend.” So his suicide came as a big shock to us all.
Would you mind sharing your story on how this all started for you?
Yeah, absolutely. When I was in fourth grade, I lost my dad to suicide. He suffered from bipolar disorder for much of his life and ended up just losing that battle, unfortunately. I was really young. I was only nine years old, and the perception around mental illness was much different back then. It was still very stigmatized. I didn't feel like I could talk to anybody. It was a very touchy, taboo subject, and I don't know a lot of people who were willing to have that conversation at that point in time. And I don't blame them because that's just kind of the way that society was. But I really ended up pushing a lot of my feelings around this under the surface. Then, when *Carolyn, our friend, took her own life our freshman year in college, I still kind of viewed it as an isolated incident, and that was wrong of me. So, when Ryan ended up dying by suicide as well, it really lit a spark in me to say, okay, enough is enough. There's an issue going on here, and I need to do something about it. I had all this back context from earlier in life that allowed me to step up and take a charge here.
There’s a huge conversation right now about the "strong friend stigma." What is this, and what we can do to help?
When we first started this, there was still a little bit of touchiness around the idea of straining relationships by being too much of a helicopter friend and reaching out at the wrong time or checking up on somebody too much. But as we’ve seen with Ryan’s situation, and a lot of high-profile suicides that have occurred over the past few years, my new mantra on that is I would much rather be overly cautious than be passive or be negligent.
You're not going to lose a friend because you're trying to help them. But you could lose a friend if you don't see the warning signs, and you don't do something to fix an issue. Even the friends of somebody who might be outwardly the strongest in the group may perceive that person to have it all. But don’t let these perceptions cloud your judgement. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, even if somebody outwardly does seem like they have this amazing life. No matter what the situation is, you can still be affected by depression or by anxiety. We can't predict who is going to end up having mental illness, so treating everybody the same and making sure that everybody gets the treatment that they deserve is going to be super important.
*CORRECTION: Their friend's name was Carolyn. An earlier version of this article misspelled her name as Caroline.