Suicide victim's parents work to help others find hope
Ann Arbor — Garrett Halpert was a warm and kind University of Michigan graduate who loved being with friends, playing sports and helping others. But there were times throughout his life when he needed help dealing with depression.
The year after he earned his degree, he moved and worked in Washington, D.C., only to return home a short time later in a very fragile state, said his parents, Scott and Julie Halpert.
Though he was seeing a therapist, something triggered him and pushed him into a downward spiral.
In September 2017, Halpert took his own life at the age of 23 on his parents' 31st wedding anniversary.
"It was devastating," said Julie Halpert. "Though he struggled, he loved everyone and knew how much he was loved by others. We could never imagine that this would happen."
Garrett's untimely death has prompted the Halperts to work to fill a gap in mental health care for young adults who have lost hope and are struggling, especially as suicide has become Michigan's second leading cause of death for young people.
The Halperts are partnering with the University of Michigan Depression Center, scores of mental health professionals and hundreds of volunteers to create a space that is an alternative to a psychiatric unit in a hospital.
It's more of a wellness center, with a multidisciplinary team of health professionals to assist young people. At the same time, it takes a holistic approach to healing and doesn't cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The center, to be known as Garrett's Space, is driven by the Halperts' experience when they were searching in vain for options to help their son.
They envision the space as a residential home where young people age 18-28 can get traditional therapy but also peer-to-peer support, yoga, art and music therapy, cooking classes, poetry, dance and more in hopes it will help them develop healthy life skills, coping mechanisms for navigating broken relationships and resiliency through other struggles.
"We envision a welcoming place where young people can connect and heal," said Julie Halpert. "When young adults go into the psych ER, they are alone and their phones are taken away and they are typically not with other young people. When young adults are struggling, they want to feel supported.They want to feel like they are not alone."
The space, for which the Halperts have raised $119,000, would also include support for family members. They hope to raise millions more.
"We felt alone," said Julie Halpert. "We want to provide support to families, and how they can help each other. Hope, healing and connection is our mantra."
But it will not be a place for those who are actively suicidal, Halpert said. Those people should head to the emergency room.
There is demand for a place such as Garrett's Space, which would be one of the few in the country that places mental health, wellness and residential services under one roof at an affordable cost, said Dr. Victor Hong, medical director of psychiatric emergency services at Michigan Medicine.
"Anything can help," said Hong. "There are so many gaps in our mental health system, we could get overwhelmed and say it's impossible to plug them all. Let's start with one. And this is one way to plug one gap. Any gap that can be plugged is helpful."
Garrett's Space will roll out in stages.
So far, hundreds of volunteers have been distributing door tags in Washtenaw County with resources for young people who are experiencing mental health struggles.
Hong, who is on the Garrett's Space board of directors, said organizers plan to launch a program this year in which young people attend three group sessions a week focusing on peer support, exercise and social programs. It would serve as an add-on for people who are coming out of a hospital stay or emergency psychiatric services — a high-risk time frame.
"They are going from a lot of care to minimal care, so the idea is to wrap them up in more support, especially more social support and give them connection to other youth who are going through similar things," said Hong.
Garrett's Space's advisory council and board include a who's who of professionals in mental health in Michigan.
Among them is Dr. John Greden, founder and executive director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center.
Greden said that when the Halperts lost their son, they grappled with the questions that many do in the aftermath of a suicide. But the couple also have focused on how to create the kind of care their son and they needed so they can help others.
"What they are trying to do is very noble, and it is a big challenge," said Greden. "It would help. There are programs like this around the country. Generally, they are serving people who have an abundance of resources."
For the Halperts, the center is desperately needed.
"We are facing a crisis," said Scott Halpert. "We are losing our young people to suicide."
Julie Halpert added that their hope is to help young people in crisis to find hope and see that things will get better.
"We hope to turn the tide on suicide," she said. "It's a horrific epidemic and the solutions are not coming fast enough."