Closure — you need to find out what happened leading up to this loss — get the whole story so you can begin to process it, understand it, and accept it. For example, Connor’s mom told me about his several attempts to see a therapist and I learned about his longterm battle with anxiety and depression — Connor had never talked to me about that before. Ask yourself “why did this happen?”
The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.
Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.
How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?
In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Marzoli.
Co-Founder and COO of Mental Health Global Network. Kelly is a passionate activist in mental health education, reform, and suicide prevention.
Kelly Marzoli is a fierce advocate for mental health awareness, reform, and suicide prevention. Kelly is licensed in Mental Health Intervention and Mental Health First Aid, by the National Council for Behavioral Health. She founded an organization called Mental Health Global Network, to prioritize mental health on an equivalent level to physical health. MHGN provides Mental Health Intervention Training to train advocates to respond to mental health issues and emergencies (like CPR for mental health). Kelly is committed to mentoring and encouraging the youth to get involved in mental health activism.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, I had a pretty typical american upbringing with two loving parents and two siblings. I personally struggled with my mental health after being bullied in high school. I was lucky to get the help and treatment I needed. I studied at the University of Delaware.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
You really never know what someone’s going through and that’s why I’m so passionate about mental health. Kindness can save a life.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Resilience — I have the ability to bounce back and get stronger from everything I’ve been through
- Optimism — It’s important for me to look on the bright side and find the silver lining in every situation. Even the worst situations have a teaching value.
- Passion- I work in this space because I truly care and want to help people like my friend who died by suicide. That authentic drive to make a difference keeps me going. There’s nothing more motivating than following your heart and it’s extremely rewarding to help people.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?
I grew up with my friend Connor Mullen, we went to high school together and then he ended up going to the same university as me. I was lucky to know him and have that time with him. Connor had it all, he was kind, compassionate, caring, smart, good looking, funny, charismatic and a great friend to everyone who knew him. Our world was turned upside down in September 2016 when I got the call that Connor had hung himself on campus. He was only 20 years old.
When I first heard what had happened I couldn’t believe it was final, I thought he had to be in the hospital, or he was going to be okay .. I was so shocked that that was it — no warning — he was just dead. This was a permanent solution to the anxiety and depression he was fighting for a long time.
At the time, I knew nothing about mental health and I never thought suicide could ever affect my life. We never expected this from someone who was always seemingly happy, he would’ve been the first person to comfort someone who was struggling. He was the person we would go to because he was compassionate and it seemed like he had it all figured out.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
How did I not know? “If only I just did this” “If only I just asked him” “If only I had called him more” “this was my fault” “who’s to blame” “we all could’ve done more” I had so many regrets. To this day I know his death could have and should have been prevented. It was scary and devastating to see that untreated mental health issues could actually lead to death. It still pains me so deeply to know how much he was hurting that he ended his life. He knew he was loved and we all would’ve done anything to help him, but he was sick and saw himself as a burden. Because I went to high school and college with him, it was terrifying and like a bad dream to see my worlds collide at the viewing and funeral. Seeing my teachers from my childhood, combined with friends from Connor’s fraternity at UD all in the same place was surreal.
Seeing Connor’s dead body was the worst part of it all. I needed reality to set in, but seeing him lifeless knowing the lively person he was, was devastating. Seeing the lines and lines of people all shook and horrified at what happened was traumatizing. The initial events were intense, but feeling Connor’s absence in every aspect of my life has been the worst part.
How did you react in the short term?
In the short term, I cried a lot. I had a lot of questions. I spent a lot of time talking to Connor’s mom, Lori Mullen and finding out what had happened leading up to his death. I tried to help her put the pieces together and she was so kind and generous with what she shared.
I learned that the signs weren’t visible to everyone. I saw things that his mom didn’t (partying, doing drugs, self-medicating, long showers/ falling asleep in the shower in the dorm after drinking) — she saw things that I didn’t (not wanting to go back to school, throwing tantrums, having anger fits, not wanting to pack for vacation)
I found out that Connor had tried to get help at the University of Delaware and was only permitted 3 sessions then told to find a therapist outside of the school — he died 3 days later and never found a new therapist. I learned that a silly drunk confrontation with a stranger lead to an altercation. Connor got punched in the face and the person also spit in his face — this was the last straw.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
Seeing a therapist helped me deal with the aftermath of Connor’s death. I saw a therapist immediately after Connor’s death and even met with the same therapist he used to see. I worked through my guilt. I leaned on the people who were grieving in the same way as me — those who wanted to keep Connor alive and talk about him. I got close with his family and those who believed Connor was always still with us — being inspired by signs from him through numbers and special memories.
Boundaries helped me cope. I had to cut off toxic people — those who didn’t learn the lesson Connor taught us — those who still did drugs and still partied. I had to cut off those who don’t believe the signs who would think it’s just a coincident, and invalidate me. I had to cut off those who questioned who was closest to Connor — people were getting mad that people were posting about it or were claiming to be close with him and “weren’t”. For me it wasn’t about who Connor loved the most it’s about who loves Connor and how we all do. Connor would want us all to come together but a lot of us divided.
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
It took a lot of time to understand and accept Connor’s death. But I knew his legacy would be about living like Connor and being kind. Although it still hurts and I can’t bring him back — it helps me let go to know I’m doing everything I can now to make an improvement for people like Connor. Turning my pain into purpose and spreading education gives me peace in knowing Connor did not die in vain.
Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
Time was a huge part of it. The connection with Connor’s family helped me process and understand. I got a lot of answers and came to terms with what caused his death. I began to accept that it wasn’t my fault, that It was no one’s fault — Connor chose to end his life. But we can all agree that we could’ve done more and I’m valid in that belief. This was not what Connor wanted but we can’t change what happened. It’s okay to have regrets and feeling valid in that helps me deal with it. Connor wants us to forgive him and move on to spread his message of kindness.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
I’m very grateful for Connor’s mom. When someone dies by suicide a lot of people are very hush hush about it and sometimes don’t even reveal that it was a suicide. Mrs. Mullen was so generous and supportive to all of us and told me even the hard stuff. Knowing the whole truth and having her as a friend helps keep him alive. It helps me heal and feel like I have a piece of Connor in his parents and brother. When someone dies- a lot of people are there in the first 2 weeks, but then people don’t know how to act and “don’t want to bring it up” or “don’t want to bother the family” but Connor’s family needed that on-going support. I needed that — to memorialize him every year — to share the crazy signs and messages we get from him — to share stories and memories we have of him. We still talk everyday and get together on his anniversary and birthday every year. This year will be 5 years without him. Connor would’ve been 25.
Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?
Shortly after Connor’s death, my friend Juliet also lost a friend to suicide. We realized we needed to do something about this suicide problem. We realized if we had been more informed about the warning signs of suicide and how to help someone with their mental health, we could’ve helped our friends. We were called to action, so no one has to lose a friend to suicide. I talk to Connor and ask him for inspiration and I always feel itches of passion that keep me going. I know he works through me, his mom, and Juliet. We turned our pain to purpose and founded Mental Health Global Network (mhgn.org)
Our institutions include physical education classes and CPR training, but we missed the signs because we were never formally educated on mental health. Mental health needs to be normalized and de-stigmatized so people are willing to speak up and get help when they need it.
Now we teach a course like CPR for mental health — Mental Health Intervention Training that teaches people how to identify, intervene, and connect individuals to mental health treatment. We also created the first ever Mental Health First Aid Kit with coping tools for stress, anxiety and sensory overload.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
I learned to be the change that you want to see in the world and to show compassion and empathy. I learned to check on my friends and be a better listener. I learned to bring up emotions and really ask people how they’re actually doing. I learned to have urgency in mental health — if someone’s struggling I don’t wait and hope they’re okay — I find out their insurance and book them a therapy appointment. I keep checking in and giving them reassurance so the people around me know they can come to me. I learned to be more kind and less judgmental like Connor.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.
- Closure — you need to find out what happened leading up to this loss — get the whole story so you can begin to process it, understand it, and accept it. For example, Connor’s mom told me about his several attempts to see a therapist and I learned about his longterm battle with anxiety and depression — Connor had never talked to me about that before. Ask yourself “why did this happen?”
- Acceptance- understanding you can’t control the past and you can’t change or reverse this loss -you can only learn from it and grow from it. I had to work through all of the guilt and grief and regrets in order to understand that there was nothing I could’ve done with the knowledge I had at the time. I had to ask myself “what if” and “if only” and work through all of the hypothetical scenarios to understand it wasn’t my fault and no one was to blame.
- Support — keep the people around you that make you feel better- my friend group completely changed after Connor’s death — I got close to people who knew him that I didn’t know before and I drifted from our tight circle and the people I used to hang out with him with. I leaned on those who grieved in the same way as me — those who wanted to talk about it and him and celebrate any little message we got from him.
- Patience — I had to ride the wave of grief — I had to let time heal me and go through the motions. I had to avoid certain triggers or places that reminded me of him until I was ready to face it. I had to heal privately and not compare myself with people who were “taking it better” or “seemed fine”. I had to cry and break down when it came and I had to feel what I felt.
- Keeping the loss alive — Connor’s legacy helps me feel better. Knowing that we are forever changed for the better and taking action to prevent deaths like his helps me. I recommend holding memorial events on anniversaries and birthdays. I encourage people to reach out to the other friends and family of the person you lost — to ask questions and learn more about their death and life. When memories are shared you can keep the person alive. New memories are created with every story I hear about Connor. It can be simple things like that or getting involved in activism or advocacy related to the cause. Starting my company for suicide prevention helps me heal everyday — it brings me closer to Connor and I live for him everyday. I know he is proud of me and I know that I’m doing what he would do if he was still here. Taking action in ways you can helps with the dwelling on the past and ruminating about things that I can’t change.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
We are dedicated to training as many people as possible. We are driving a movement where mental health is included and prioritized on an equivalent level to physical health. We are now working with legislators to pass a bill to mandate mental health education within institutions in the same way sexual harassment training is mandated. When someone is sick with a physical illness, they talk about it and they go get help and see a doctor. Why is this so hard to do for our brains? If everyone takes a mental health course about how to help themselves and others as a right of passage in school or at work, mental health will be normalized and people won’t have to struggle in silence. Starting a conversation and instilling hope in someone can save a life.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
How can our readers further follow your work online?
@mentalhealthglo on twitter
[email protected] @kellymarzz instagram
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!