At son's funeral, Jacksonville father vows to start suicide-prevention group
One wall of Joe Kenney’s condo overlooking the St. Johns River downtown is covered with photos of his son, Gary, many from the fishing trips father and son used to take together. The photos are a way, he says, of remembering the good days, the days before Gary became a recluse, troubled, depressed, unwilling to answer his door no matter how long his father stood outside, knocking and pleading.
The photos are a way to remember the days before April 19, 2019, when Gary, just 30, killed himself.
But Kenney doesn’t want to forget the troubled days before and after that, either. They are what drives him now, what’s led him to pour his money, time and energy into trying to prevent others from taking their own lives.
On the day of Gary’s funeral, Kenney vowed to take action. And in January he helped open doors in Neptune Beach for a nonprofit called Here Tomorrow.
Its goal is to provide easy, quick access to those who need to have conversations about mental health, including suicide — and then help guide them to longer-term counseling and support.
Its services are free.
Kenney is an entrepreneur who, before selling his company, was in the fire-safety business with major corporate clients across the United States and Canada. His money and connections meant little, though, as he tried to help Gary navigate his way out of mental illness, he said.
“I couldn’t find any help here, I didn’t know where to go or what to do — and I know everybody,” he said. “How’s the average person supposed to find help?”
Kenney tried to get his son to see a therapist, but that was difficult, so he even went to a psychiatrist himself to see if he could be taught how to break through to his son.
There were steps forward, and steps back, as Kenney and his family tried to help. And he remembers how Gary once told him he was his only friend in the world.
“That’s not right,” Kenney said, choking up in tears.
And he remembers his son’s words when he tried to help him. “It’s my life, Dad,” Gary would say. “You have to give me my space.”
“That’s the hardest thing that you can ever experience as a parent,” Kenney said. “Your child just shuts you out. But they’re not shutting you out, which you learn later on. They’re shutting life out.”
Group's goal: Catch those in need in a 'moment of courage'
Here Tomorrow grew out of a Beaches effort, a few years old, to normalize conversations on mental health. It was led by Beach Church and other concerned groups and people. Kenney went to a luncheon and decided he wanted to join. Now he’s chief benefactor and board president.
After Gary’s death, he began putting his own money into the effort. What else, he asked, was he going to do with it after selling his company? This, he decided, was why he was still alive after a couple of serious health problems.
This is why he’s here.
Hannah Hackworth, Here Tomorrow’s executive director, said that in 2019 there were 230 suicides in Duval and St. Johns counties. The pandemic has only made such feelings of helplessness stronger, she said.
Here Tomorrow is designed to get people in quick communication with what’s called a recovery peer specialist, and then get them an online therapist within a few days. That’s just the start.
It takes great effort to seek help, and the group wants to be there when that effort is made.
“We want to catch them in that moment of courage and link them up when we do,” said Hackworth, a clinical social worker in behavioral health care.
Here Tomorrow has hired recovery peer specialists, certified by the state, who have had their own experience with suicidal thoughts.
One of them is Barry Kellem, 63. He was an Amy and Air Force veteran who went through decades of addiction before entering recovery in his late 50s. He twice attempted suicide through overdosing, he said.
Now he’s wrapping up a degree in psychology and trying to show both sympathy and empathy with those who need it, sharing his story — and this message: “Suicide is a final solution for a temporary problem. Nothing lasts forever.”
The group is partnering with local health care companies and law-enforcement agencies. It’s also working with a startup from New York called Choosing Therapy, which offers online virtual therapy.
For someone in deep depression, Hackworth said, it’s far easier to go online for counseling, rather than get in a car, park, enter an office, deal with insurance and appointments. “In today’s world, it’s really the way to go,” she said.
Making an appointment for help can seem an overwhelming task in itself. And once that appointment is made, it takes an average of 33 days to actually see someone, Hackworth said — and someone may have just hours before taking action.
Acting quickly is a message echoed by Paul Quinnett, a national expert on suicide prevention.
Here Tomorrow reached out to him months ago, and he’s been in close contact since from his home in Northern Idaho.
“They’re coming in an open-handed, honest-broker way to people at risk,” he said. “Peer to peer, meeting where they need to be met.”
The Beaches group is incorporating strategies from Quinnett’s QPR Institute (the letters stand for “question,” “persuade” and “refer,”) based in Spokane, Wash.
People with suicidal thoughts need a strong advocate, Quinnett said.
“As you become depressed or suicidal, you begin to doubt that anything or anybody can help you,” he said. “You’ll actually talk yourself out of getting exactly what you may need, which is why we push for the bystander, the person who knows you and listens to you, who can persuade you to get help — and they can take you to get that help.”
Father's 'good cries' help him help others
Kenney says he still cries for his son, and those tears can come at any time.
“I used to go into a deep crying phase every week. That extended to once a month, but now it’s extended to about once a quarter, on my balcony,” he said.
But they are “good cries,” he said. Necessary cries.
He admits that he still beats himself up over Gary’s death: “I wasn’t there to save his life. My goal now is to save somebody else’s life.”
Starting Here Tomorrow has given him some peace, a little healing. He’s taking other steps too.
Kenney owns land east of Florida A1A in Jacksonville Beach, where once stood apartments that Gary used to manage. It’s open land now, where he’s already planted a tree to memorialize his son. He’s also taken part of that land for a park, right near the water, and he’s going to name it after Gary.