It was 14 years ago when Jason Shulman, a creative and musically talented senior at North Farmington High School, was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder – a chronic and serious illness of the brain. And 11 years have passed since he lost the battle of his illness to suicide on a Friday night in June, just weeks before his 22nd birthday and eight days before his sister’s Bat Mitzvah.

We’ll never know how Jason’s parents, Greg and Suzanne Shulman, found the strength to bear the pain through the family trauma of that week. As Greg described in heartbreaking detail, Rabbi Norman Roman of Temple Kol Ami got the family through the funeral. “But it was the oddest dichotomy going on in the household with our family sitting shiva downstairs while our daughter sat upstairs with another rabbi practicing for her Bat Mitzvah.”

It is often said – and not always true – that time heals all things. What’s true for everyone is that time passes. But time in itself does not heal. True healing is a process that takes conscious effort and constant work. Greg and Suzanne have not silenced their pain in losing Jason. Instead, they openly share their story in hope of helping others who are still struggling. 

“We go on.  What choice do we have?”

For Greg and Suzanne – and their son and daughter, Brandon 27, and Alison, 24 – memories of Jason are ever present in their home. In their living room, there are family photos and Jason’s artwork on prominent display. Together, they still celebrate his birthday. “People find it odd,” says Suzanne. “But every year, no matter where we are on June 21, the four of us gather, if we are not physically together then via Facetime. We each get a cupcake and light a candle – our reminder that Jason is still a part of our family. Just the four of us and we share happy memories of Jason.”

Jason’s artwork is on display in the Shulman home.

Behind their smiles . . . 

As in the photos of her children which she holds dear, Suzanne greets the world with a smile and eyes that sparkle a clear blue. “I am the mother of three children. And one, my oldest, passed away. That’s what I say when people who don’t know Jason ask me about my kids.” Married 28 years to Greg, Suzanne adds that Greg is not Jason’s biological father. “I was married and divorced and so fortunate to find Greg, the kindest, most incredible man I know,” she shares. “We actually dated in High School and I can’t begin to tell you what an incredible father he is. Besides a loving and caring dad to Jason, Greg is a devoted father to our two younger children. The fact that we’re still together after everything we’ve been through is . . . a wonder beyond words.”

Sharing their story

After reading “with great interest and reflection” an article about Jewish Detroit’s resource line jhelp and its link to the community Youth Mental Health Initiative, Greg was motivated to reach out to Federation with the desire to share his family story. In an email to Federation’s Amy Wayne, Youth Mental Health Coordinator, Greg writes:

On June 1, 2008, my wife and I had to make the unbearable decision to take our son, Jason, off life support. His first attempt at suicide had been three months prior in March. At that time, Jason was found in his car, outside his doctor’s office, passed out on a drug overdose while my wife was on the phone with the doctor who reported what a wonderful session they had that day. Leading up to all this, we were at a loss of what to do to help him and, just 11 years ago, the topic of suicide was basically taboo. We tried in-patient treatment, halfway houses and virtually anything you could think of that was available then. 

I wish to share our story now, as I know all too well the need for open discussion and intervention. Parents often are in denial or are paralyzed not knowing what options are available or even where to look. This is a significant void in our society. I am excited to see that the Jewish community has taken action with the Youth Mental Health Initiative and would like information as to how to become active in it. Naturally, I would be willing to share my experiences in a way that could help others.

Indeed, the Shulmans have a critically important story to tell. In a community-wide health and social welfare assessment conducted by the Jewish Federation in partnership with The Jewish Fund, about half of all youth said that they or someone they know struggle with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem or sadness. 

Furthermore, a recent report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that suicides among people age 10 to 24 had risen 56% since 2007, and that rates for the youngest in that group, age 10 to 14, had tripled during that time. 

Today, in collaboration with Federation and with the support of generous donors, jhelp, JFS and Friendship Circle are working to change the conversation around mental illness and reduce the stigma of getting help. In the past year, more than 700 Jewish communal professionals have completed suicide awareness and prevention training through programs like ASIST, and safeTALK. Federation’s website, We Need to Talk – wn2t.org – launched in June 2018, features resources for youth and parents along with videos of community professionals and teens who have faced and overcome mental health challenges or have healthcare advice to share. 

Back in 2004

Back in the day – when social media was at its infancy and smartphones with instant info on the web were yet to be at everyone’s fingertips. . .  parents and teens struggling with mental illness all too often were left to their own resources in hunting down information and support. When Jason was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004, it was far from clear to Suzanne what triggered his illness, how it would progress or what it would take to manage his recurring symptoms. “Before Greg and I married, I was living in my parents’ home, working and going to school. Jason was very close to me and my mother, and when my mother passed away, I started to see signs in Jason that he was depressed.”

Greg and Suzanne Shulman
Greg and Suzanne Shulman are open-hearted and willing to share what they have learned.

As described by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), bipolar disorders are a group of brain disorders that cause extreme fluctuation in a person’s mood, energy and ability to function. There are two extremes in bipolar disorder: mania and depression. During a manic episode, people feel “up,” and may be much more energetic than usual. In the extreme, manic episodes may be associated with high-risk behaviors including substance abuse, excessive spending and even violence.

Nearly six million Americans have bipolar disorder, and most probably have wondered why. According to the team of physicians and researchers working to unlock the mysteries of bipolar disorder at the University of Michigan’s Heinz C. Prechter Research Program, there is no one genetic change, chemical imbalance or life event that lies at the heart of every case of the mental health condition once known as manic depression. Everyone’s experience with bipolar disorder varies from that of others with the condition.

“Because Jason was my son before I married Greg, I always felt that I was the person solely responsible for him,’ says Suzanne. “And I was so naïve. When I first got the “diagnosis” and a prescription for Jason’s medication, I thought ‘problem solved’ and that Jason would be ‘fine.’ What I didn’t know at the time – and what Jason’s psychiatrist didn’t disclose – was that Jason’s diagnosis could involve self-medication in the form of drug abuse, suicide ideation and suicide attempts.”

“Our son was a creative soul and adept at hiding his illness,” said Greg. “In his teens, Jason played keyboard, guitar and violin. He sang and was a leader in the Annual North Farmington High School Talent Show – which to this day is still held in his memory with our support.  Tragically, what we didn’t recognize 14 years ago, was the extent of his illness beneath the mask of ‘normalcy.’ When he took his meds, he seemed fine to us. But in truth, he didn’t feel like himself. He didn’t feel well. In his mind, there were only two options. Not to take the medication or to self-medicate. So, he started the cycle of highs and lows . . . taking the medications to treat his depression, then stopping at the point he felt better, only to return to his baseline depression.”

“Bipolar has been described as a war of the mind, fighting battles of the extreme,” continued Greg. “What often gets lost in translation, even today, is the definition of getting ‘better.’ At the time, we didn’t understand the fact that treatment for bipolar is lifelong, that medications and their dosages often need to be changed in order to work. The natural desire is to get better and, with all the stigma that accompanies treatment for mental illness, the natural thought process tells you that ‘better’ means you don’t need medication. Our son fought his prescribed drugs with self-medication.”

The long journey back

For Greg and Suzanne, it’s been a long journey since Jason’s passing. Just beyond their patio and garden, a place of quiet comfort in their home, are the woods where Greg found Jason in a coma after he disappeared on that terrible night in June. To this day, Greg has set foot in those woods only once again . . . and that was years ago in desperate search of his daughter’s run-away cat.

“To be honest, I was so depressed after Jason’s passing that I don’t know how Greg put up with me,” Suzanne shared. “I was immobilized.  For nearly two years, I could barely get up to get the kids to school. I would then spend the day in bed and get dressed right before the they got home. Brandon and Alison also had a very rough time. Brandon, who always looked up to his older brother, played competitive travel baseball for years, but lost interest and stopped after Jason’s death. Both kids struggled in school. Brandon graduated a semester late and Alison had a lot of catching up to do. And Greg . . . still carries the guilt for not getting to Jason in time to save his life.”

Seeking help and finding the path forward

It’s impossible to hear the Shulman’s story firsthand without asking them what they do to stay mentally healthy and who has been their greatest support. Their answers are clear and decisive. It’s family first for both of them; then, for Suzanne, it’s been the therapist she’s seen for the past 12 years. And there’s Shlomo, the energetic little Shih Tzu that never leaves her side. “Shlomo is with us out of pure love,” Greg explains. “I personally would never have a dog in the house, but ten years ago, the kids and Suzanne needed him.”

Speaking of rock-solid support, Greg describes an “amazing group of friends” who have stayed together over the years. In particular, Greg has a strong core of school buddies who have celebrated every milestone with him since his 18th birthday. “We’ve been through everything with each other,” he says. “We’ve had our ups and downs like the whole world does, but we’re such a tight, non-judgmental group, we’ve always been there to support one another.”

Greg also cites the long-standing support of colleagues at Hansons Windows and Home Improvement (now 1-800 Hansons) where he has been employed as a sales manager for 20 years. “Hansons has always been a phenomenal place to work,” he says, recalling how owner Brian Elias closed down sales for Jason’s funeral in 2008. Three years later, it was Brian’s concern about Greg’s health that set him on his track to fitness.

As Greg explains, he had his own bout with depression after Jason’s passing and gained 90 pounds. “I was in pain, having trouble walking, and Brian literally called HR, cut off my computer access and insisted I see a doctor immediately. I was diagnosed with a torn meniscus, but realized that the only one who could change the course of my life was me.  Long story short, I accepted a 90-day challenge at Lifetime Fitness, hired a personal trainer and told her, ‘I don’t care what it is, just tell me what I have to do, and what I need to eat, and I’ll do it in 90 days.’ I didn’t need the contest, but I needed the change and I worked it . . . I was at the gym and on a strict food plan 7 days a week without fail . . . and I lost 90 pounds in 90 days.”

Concluding words

There are no words of adequate comfort to families who have lost a loved one to suicide. For survivors, there are questions that will never be answered. But Greg and Suzanne Shulman are openhearted and willing to share what they have learned. “There is a lot more awareness of mental illness today and how it can go hand-in-hand with substance abuse,” observed Greg. “When Jason was in treatment, there was no interaction between the psychiatric community and the substance abuse community. In clinical settings, Jason would get treated for one or the other, never both.”

“So much more is known today about mental illness. And kids, themselves are tuned in and much more open about their struggles,” said Suzanne. “I advise parents to learn to read the signals of mental illness. And then to understand that reading the signs is only the first step in a long journey.”

Greg continued, “If you really want to know when kids are in trouble, just talk to their friends. Talk to other kids, they know.”

“And let others in,” Suzanne emphasizes. “Seek help and support. Share your experience to let others know they are not alone, and that thoughts of suicide are a symptom of an illness – and the worst outcome of that illness can be prevented.” 

In Crisis: You Are Not Alone 

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