HOLLAND — When Ian Miskelley first knew something was wrong, he was only 11.

Swimmer Suicide

Ian Miskelley stands next to his parents, Steve and Jill, after leading Holland Christian to the swimming and diving state championship.

He was angry and didn’t know why or what to do. He just knew he needed help.

It was the start of Miskelley’s mental health battle that included anxiety and depression. The end of the battle was eight years later when, on Sept. 7, the young man from Holland took his own life at age 19.

“He lost the battle that day,” said Ian’s father, Steve Miskelley. “This is not sadness, this is a disease. And it isn’t a rational disease.”

It’s a disease that can affect a high school swimming state champion and student at the University of Michigan, with a loving family, strong faith and bright future.

“Ian struggled with separating that because he was thankful for everything he had. He knew what he had and he wondered why he couldn’t be happy,” said Ian’s mother, Jill Miskelley.

“It can happen to anyone,” Steve said. “That is the stigma that we have to break. People constantly equate sadness and depression, and those are not the same thing. People wonder what you have to be depressed about when you have so much going for you, but that is not what this is.”

For Ian, the struggles started early.

“This impresses me now even more than before, but his self-awareness about this (was so important),” Steve said. “He came to us when he was 11 years old and told us he was angry all the time, didn’t know why, and that he needed help. He was incredibly self-aware and determined to fix this. That kind of fueled his determination in the pool. We used to think the physical exercise was a release for him, but it was way more than that. He was finding something to take the pain away. By putting himself through physical agony, it helped him mentally.”

In the past year-plus, Ian had to redshirt because of illness, suffered a seizure during practice and, just a couple of months ago, had COVID-19.

Ian failed a class in the spring, having to take it again. But he realized that pre-med wasn’t going to work, so he had to change his major. He figured out a new plan in bio-psychology cognitive nerve science (BCN), but failed another class.

“He failed the class and didn’t want to tell us,” Steve said. “He went through all of that to change his major, get excited about it, then failed the first class.”

All the while, Ian was battling COVID-19 and home in isolation in the summer.

“They had to put him in isolation, but we were able to get him here rather than be alone on campus,” Jill said.

Even with all the help Ian sought, and received, it was not enough.

Changing the stigma

Suicide can be a taboo word, as many people don’t know how to talk about it. It can also create a stigma when a person commits or attempts suicide, Steve said. The Miskelley family wants to change that.

According to a 2018 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study, suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death across the U.S. population, but it is the second-leading cause of death among college-age students.

“Even before the pandemic, there has been a mental health crisis going on with a lot of college students,” said Brian Highstreet, a licensed professional counselor in Holland. “There has been an increase in suicides even before the pandemic. There are so many factors that could go into it, lots of things that could cause stress. ... The stressors out there have increased a bunch.”

This was not the first time Ian attempted suicide. His parents said it was a cry for help. Then it happened again later in 2019.

Awareness for mental health has grown, but there are challenges for parents and teens on how to have that conversation.

“It is a very touchy subject and a lot of parents are unsure about bringing it up and worrying it is putting the idea in their kids’ heads,” Highstreet said. “Evidence shows that is not the case – it is the opposite. It is about listening and not judging, then looking into mental health services. The biggest thing is to have conversations and not wait for someone to come to you.”

Like many who suffer from depression, Ian poured his energy into helping and supporting others.

“He was so nonchalantly helpful to others,” said Ian’s sister, Chelsea Miskelley. “I always looked up to him even though he was my little brother. He did things that I would never even think of to help people. Our whole lives, he has been like that.”

Looking back, she thinks that could have been a sign that Ian was overcompensating for his own feelings.

“Becoming overly helpful or using a lot of humor to cover something – those are things that make it look like he was doing OK,” Chelsea said. “Depression doesn’t have to be triggered by a dramatic event. It is important that people know that.”

The family has received wonderful stories from the community about Ian’s support for his teammates and helped to keep them focused on their goals. When he saw someone who might be ostracized, he would often sit with them and offer quiet support.

“I can’t tell you how many teammates told us how much Ian was there for them,” Steve said. “We are finding out what his legacy really is. He internalized a lot, but he was always looking out for the little guy.”

It was something his U-M team recognized soon after Ian set foot on campus in Ann Arbor.

“Ian’s life is sadly shorter than it should have been, but I think being a part of this team is what he loved,” Michigan associate head coach Josh White said. “We got to see such a great person that thought about others most of the time. ... He was not afraid to be there for people – that was a great thing. We are going to miss him every day. There is no getting over it or moving forward without carrying Ian with us.”

That was evident to the Miskelley family from the moment Ian decided to attend U-M.

“Since Day 1 when he walked onto campus, they got people around Ian and supported him,” Steve said. “They had good therapy and help. It is amazing what they did for him, and I can’t thank them enough.”

Even with that support, it took just one time that Ian didn’t reach out for help to end in tragedy. The Miskelley family is hoping his bravery in this disease will help someone else win that battle.

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