Month: August 2021

Joel Kaskinen

What is the story related to mental health, suicide, and/or resilience that you’d like to share? 

I attended graduate school at the University of South Dakota. I was pursuing a masters in higher education, and an internship was required for my program. My internship led me to Western Colorado University. While in Gunnison for the summer, a full-time position opened, and I landed the job!  

I moved from Vermillion to Gunnison and completed my degree online while working in a full-time capacity as a resident director at Western. I started in that role in 2017. My job was to manage dorms, supervise resident assistants, and support student development. A major part of this job required me to respond to crises as they arose.  

Jump to October 28, 2019. Jared, a student of mine, took his life in his dorm room. This tragedy rocked my world and the Gunnison and Western communities. I’ve lost many people close to me, but this was my first loss to suicide. I was devastated. How could I possibly support my students through their grief, when I didn’t know how to support myself through my own? Like most men in situations like this, I pushed my grief aside and put others first. I did what I had to do to move forward.  

It wasn’t until July 15, 2020, that I realized I’d still not processed Jared’s death, my loss, or the grief I was carrying. I was forced to face all those emotions after responding to another student suicide. Being one of the first people on scene and administering first aid to a student who was lying on the ground was not something that I was ever prepared for.   

I didn’t know Alex, but he quickly became a friend, as the ghost of his life haunted my daydreams and nightmares. I saw Alex everywhere. The piercing white of his eyes popped into my mind during meetings and when composing emails. I even had to take off the friendship bracelet that Jared made me, for fear that it still had Alex’s blood on it, from administering first aid. PTSD, in addition to the grief that I’d yet to process, and my new companion, depression, were now the rulers of my life.  

I couldn’t work. I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I started abusing alcohol and drugs and engaging in risky sexual behaviors. For three months, I lived as a shell of the person I was before July 15th. I didn’t know who I was or what my purpose was in life. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening.  

Then the unthinkable happened. Kent, a first-year student in the class that I taught, was reported missing. Days later, his truck and body were found in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. He’d driven off the side of the cliff in a mid-October snowstorm.  

Once again, I was heartbroken. As I watched my life spin out of control, and I received no support from those in positions of power at work, I started experiencing my own thoughts of suicide. I remember driving over a mountain pass outside of Gunnison and thinking how easy it’d be to drive my Jeep off the side and put the haunting thoughts and visions to rest. That’s when I knew something had to change.  

I forced myself to make it to the end of the semester hoping that the holidays and a vacation would help shake things up. But in January, in a spiral of depression, on the year anniversary of the death of my aunt, whom I’d lost to cancer, I couldn’t take it any longer. I decided to leave my job at Western to prioritize my mental health. After a long conversation with my therapist, an argument with my dean of students, and an emotional chat with my supervisor, I left my job. I took some time to rest, moved back to Michigan, and allowed my pain to fuel my passion. I now work with Lost&Found with hopes to heal through storytelling and connecting with others in similar situations.   


What resources have helped you to address this challenge? 

Therapy, medication, quitting my job, a strong community of support, and the launch of my podcast – It’s All In My Head. 


Based on your experience, how can we work to build resilience in ourselves, our loved ones, and in our communities to better face life’s challenges? 

I believe resilience starts with being honest with yourself and loved ones about how you’re feeling. My goal is to normalize the conversation around mental health and to be a man who is strong enough to share my story with others, knowing that it is painful, emotional and scary. I like to measure my days in wins, even if the only small victory was that I got out of bed and moved to the couch. We can overcome adversity, by giving ourselves and others grace and space to feel, heal, learn, and grow. It’s about moving forward, rather than moving on. That to me is resilience. 


What is one thing related to mental health, suicide, or resilience that you wish everyone could understand? 

I wish everyone would understand that mental health is real, suicide isn’t a taboo word to avoid, and that you can’t always see the demons that others are facing. Be patient. Show empathy. Love one another. We’re all in this together!