Editor’s note: Please note that this story includes the mention of suicide and its impact on a community. If you or someone you know is suicidal, you can reach the national suicide hotline at 800-273-8255.
Ryan Howell was an artist.
He learned to strum any tune on his guitar, no matter the genre, and he shared his music on his “Shred of the Day” Facebook page. His drawings hung in an exhibit in the Thomas Center in Gainesville, and he was voted “most artistic senior” by his peers at Gainesville High School. He dual enrolled at Santa Fe College to take extra art courses to develop his gifts.
He was a free spirit. With the spinning wheels of his long board beneath him, Howell’s long brown hair whipped and twirled through the wind. He wore bright colors and tropical prints.
At his memorial service, his family asked guests to do the same: wear a tropical shirt and khaki shorts.
Howell died by suicide in 2017 at age 22.
Though his death was a tragedy for his parents and two sisters, they used their moment of darkness to inspire a change in the conversation about mental health. They started the Ryan Howell Memorial Scholarship, which donates directly to Perspectives Integrated Treatment and Sober Living, an Ocala-based addiction recovery treatment program. Four years later, the scholarship is still supporting the program, allowing the facility to expand its services and locations.
Inspired by the scholarship, Gainesville students have showed support for increasing mental health awareness in memory of Howell.
Howell’s sister, Ellyn, now 20, and her friends who are members of the Distributive Education Clubs of America, or DECA, at Buchholz High School’s entrepreneurship academy decided to remember Howell in a way that reflected the light he brought to the world through a color run.
In 2018, she planned the inaugural March4Minds color run 5K to support Howell’s scholarship. The event not only supports the community living facility where Ryan found a support system, but it facilitates a conversation regarding mental health resources and suicide prevention.
Breaking the silence on mental health
Teresa Howell, Ryan’s mother, said her son struggled with schizophrenia and addiction for nearly two years. She hopes increased awareness will inspire others to seek help sooner.
“That’s our real message: the sooner they get the help and the treatment, the better,” she said. “The earliest intervention that we can possibly do is where we’re gearing our efforts toward.”
After the inaugural 5K event, she received Facebook messages from families facing similar struggles and letters from Perspectives clients who said the aid they received thanks to the scholarship saved their life.
“Maybe somebody from such a sad, tragic situation is going to be helped because of this project,” Howell said.
When Ryan was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 21 while battling addiction, he was considered “dually diagnosed.” His family traveled across the country in 2016, searching for treatment in Texas, Georgia and Tennessee. The options for someone with a dual diagnosis were slim — and expensive.
Later that year, they found help in Gainesville; Perspectives Integrated Treatment and Sober Living was willing to serve one Ryan as one of their first dually diagnosed clients.
Steve Blank, the operations director at Perspectives, said mental health challenges and addiction often become intertwined. Though Perspectives’ focus is on addiction recovery, psychiatrists and licensed mental health professionals are on staff to aid the underlying or resulting mental health struggles of addiction.
Blank said Ryan moved into a sober-living house, an independent community where individuals typically stay for six months and are guided by recovery coaches. Guests in the homes can enter the workforce and continue to stay in Perspectives housing.
Blank said the scholarship contributions will be used to sponsor individuals and fulfill Perspectives’ goal to never turn someone away due to a lack of funding. In addition, the money may sponsor recreational activities or weekend trips.
Perspectives is continuing to expand its services, including a new outpatient facility it plans to open in Gainesville. Though treating people with dual diagnoses is not the program’s specialty, Blank wants to provide treatment resources for as many people as possible.
“Staying positive is tough because everything we hear is not always upbeat and pink clouds and unicorns,” he said. “So it’s important to instill hope, and it’s also really important to remember that for some of us, those individuals may have been us at one time or a family member.”
Running for recovery. And the hurdles of 2020.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the color run was not a safe possibility, and Howell said she thought it may mean the next class of DECA students would choose a different cause to support. But Ellie Jones, Dillon Menefee and Sophia Butler decided to plan another chance for community members to cross the finish line.
On Nov. 13 at Trinity Methodist Church, DECA hosted the third March4Minds Color Run 5K.
Between the GoFundMe page and the race entry fee of $20, this year’s color run raised close to $12,000. As was the case in 2019, the Perspectives program matched donations, which helped the students raise over $18,000, nearly $15,000 more than the first race in 2018.
Jones, 17, said she has known the Howell family since she was young. She recalls seeing them at Christmas Eve mass in Trinity church, bunched together in a pew. After Ryan’s death, her family brought meals to the Howell’s front door, and she ran in the 2018 March4Minds race.
Now a Buchholz senior serving as the DECA vice president of hospitality, Jones joined forces with Menefee and Butler to continue the tradition — and make it bigger than ever before. Close to 100 runners and 20 volunteers gathered the morning of Nov. 13 after nearly four months of planning and working with sponsors.
“None of it ever felt like a burden,” Jones said. “We were all very passionate about it, and one of our goals was to get more participants than they ever had just because we know how much it means to the whole family.”
She added the passion from younger students makes her believe Buchholz DECA will continue to support the scholarship after she graduates this spring, and she hopes to see her peers elevate positive conversations about mental health.
“I think people want to help, they just don’t exactly know how,” she said. “This event and all of the awareness, I think it was a really great way for people to learn how you can get involved in a small way, and it can mean a lot.”
Butler, the president of Buchholz DECA, said the event helped her to see how the community — and she as an individual — can make a difference, even if it starts small. The 17-year-old said a conversation with Howell and her fellow DECA executive members after the race was her favorite moment of planning the event. Howell told the three students the day was one of the best she’d had in a long time.
Pushing the conversation on teenagers and mental health forward.
Like Jones, Butler thinks serious mental health conversations should start early.
“I think that young adults and teenagers definitely are dismissed often when discussing their own mental health,” she said. “There needs to be more of an open space to talk about it. People shouldn’t be ashamed.”
Whether the run continues or not, Ryan’s legacy prevails. Howell recalls the time her daughter, Ellyn, went to Bagel Bakery, one of Ryan’s favorite spots, to ask for a donation for the race.
“Do you remember my brother?” she implored at the bakery. “His name was Ryan.”
“Oh my gosh, I know Ryan,” an employee responded. “What do you need? We’ll do anything.”
A compassionate and communicative community can make a difference in the life of someone who is struggling, Howell said.
“It takes people reaching out to people, whether it’s the kids reaching out to other kids, reaching out to their families, reaching out to the teachers,” she said. “Those kids, we can’t expect them to know if this is something that is a phase or if this is something that’s a full-blown mental illness; they do not know. All they know is they’re in a rough place at a rough time.”
If you or a loved one is battling with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, please call the national suicide hotline at 800-273-8255 or visit https://nami.org/Home for resource information.