The pictures in the family albums show Kenny Baker as a golden-haired, laughing child with bright, blue eyes. More recently, he was still transitioning through those adolescent years, but growing into the promise of a handsome manhood. He should have been looking forward to graduating from high school in a few short weeks. He should have been hanging out this summer with his girlfriend, Anna, spending time with his sister Katelyn as a typical teasing but loving older brother, and enjoying long, hot days in the water, swimming — at the pool and at the shore — since he swam like a fish and the freestyle was his special talent.
His family’s four dogs keep looking expectantly at the front door with each little noise and movement there, waiting, watching, and hoping he will be walking through at any moment. While they sense something is wrong, they don’t understand that he won’t be coming home — something his family understands all too well with a terrible finality and sadness that is more than anyone should have to bear.
It was a train that ended Kenny’s life a week and a half ago on the tracks near his home, but what really killed him was his illness, something that was as debilitating and, in the end, for him, as fatal as an illness like cancer or heart disease. But unlike these conditions, mental illness is still so difficult to talk about, and even more so for many to accept because of the stigma that is often attached to it by our society. And yet, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
Our family first met the Bakers 10 years ago when our daughters were in Girl Scouts together and Trish was one of our troop’s leaders. She was tireless and fun, the mom who never met a dog she couldn’t love (and wanted to bring home and often did, thanks to the very patient Kurt) who allowed her children to turn their house into a menagerie with rats in the dining room and hamsters in the kitchen, who had a love for the Dave Matthews Band, and tried to go to his concerts as often as her busy schedule would allow.
She was energetic and passionate about everything she did, and when Kenny was diagnosed with anxiety and depression at the age of 15, she turned that energy and passion into trying to get him well. It was so painful for her and Kurt to see their child hurting so much, physically and emotionally. It took so much courage and strength to push through over and over again, trying to find help, something that would work, something that would lessen their child’s pain and bring him back to them, their magical little boy who made everyone laugh with his mischievous sense of fun and joy of life.
In their minds, since they can’t help but run through the “what ifs,” the “should haves,” and the “might have beens,” there is a lingering sense that the system failed their son. Just about three years ago, when Kenny was still 15, he was eligible for the Value Options CMO (Care Management Organizations) services, the highest level of care offered by the county. However, due to lack of funding, he was passed down to the lower level of care, and within a few months, his case was closed. By the time his condition was more serious and he finally came under the care of the CMO, he had turned 18, and there were absolutely NO programs for someone of his age.
“The case manager sat in my living room and shrugged her shoulders as she could offer no help for our case,” recalls Trish. “At 15, there are many programs. I can’t help but feel Kenny might still be with us today had he gotten the help he needed then.” Their experience highlights the significant deficiency in support from the state for 18-25 year olds who are suffering from mental illness. Until the age of 18, young people with mental illness can get financial help from the state, residential placements, in-home counseling, and other programs and resources, as long as they are fortunate enough to gain access.
There is another irony of mental illness. It costs so much to treat, and yet, the illness itself can be so crippling that it can be impossible to hold a job in order to have health insurance. And of course, if you have no insurance, there is no money for treatment or medication, which, in the Bakers’ case, was costing $1,800 a month.
Kenny’s parents know they are all at the start of a long and painful recovery process and a piece of their heart will always be missing. But there is a lesson that they want to share. “As we’ve been reading the many letters to Kenny, we truly believe that he did not know how people truly felt,” says Trish. “A group of his friends were here, and we told them they should always tell their friends and family how special they are in their lives.”
“One thing Kenny’s illness taught us was to tell him that we loved him, at the end of each phone conversation, and at the end of every day and we all did that. He knew he was loved by his family. We want to tell everyone to enjoy each moment with loved ones, as NO ONE is guaranteed a tomorrow. We need to let our loved ones know how we feel each and every day, before it is too late.”
Trish and her family are planning to walk in the Second NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Mercer 5K Walk Saturday, May 30, at Educational Testing Service in Lawrenceville. Check-in starts at 9 a.m. The walk begins at 10 a.m. Friends have formed a team named “NAMI 4 Kids” and are dedicating the team in memory of Kenny. Walkers who will walk in honor of Kenny and all the other children and young adults who suffer with mental illness should wear a red shirt or a blue shirt and look for the mylar balloon at the Just 4 Kids meeting point at ETS.
To register online free, go to www.namimercer.org; click “Do it all here” on the left of the screen; click “Join an existing team;” and click “Register on line now.”