Local student’s death opens dialogue on stigma

By Gianluca D’Elia, Megan Lupo and Brianne Remy

When a Notre Dame High School graduate and aspiring Broadway actor went missing on Sept. 20, his family and friends didn’t think their search for him would end with the police finding his body on Oct. 23. But since Nick Pratico, 18, was found dead last week, the conversation around the recently enrolled Mercer County Community College student has shifted.

Though police have not yet confirmed his cause of death, investigators have told local news outlets they believe Pratico committed suicide. Posts on social media following his death have involved discussions of mental health awareness.

Pratico’s friends remember him as a bright, upbeat and fiercely talented individual with big acting dreams. He was a star soccer player and singer who volunteered with the Special Olympics and local senior centers. Following his disappearance in September, a video of him singing “Waving Through a Window” from the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” circulated social media, in addition to other photos and videos displaying a smiling and laughing young man.

“I will love you, defend you and honor you for the rest of my life,” his sister Marysa Pratico wrote on Facebook. “I might not understand all of this now, but I hope one day I will, guided by your light and strength.”

Whether the symptoms are present or not, more than 100 Americans commit suicide every day. Some have identifiable mental health issues, but some don’t, research shows.

“As far as subtle signs go, one thing we think is depression, but what if it’s not that?” said Lisa Spatafore, a psychologist at Rider’s Counseling Center. “There’s persisting irritability or waves of anger, but you can also have the opposite — pretending you’re not upset and denying all those feelings. Or we hear about people having a lack of interest, but what about the person who has the opposite, which is being overly involved because they don’t want to feel their feelings?”

“Unfortunately, a family and loved ones can do everything right, yet a person can still lose a battle with depression or lack of coping ability, just as a person can have all the best doctors and treatment and still die of cancer,” said Jason Briggs, the principal of Pratico’s former middle school. “Even though it’s 2017, mental illnesses and afflictions are still often shrouded in secrecy and shame, and those who deal with such afflictions are often stigmatized.”

Whether it’s the stigmatization or another underlying reason, most college students let their diagnosed depression go untreated, or they receive inadequate treatment. More than 60 percent of the 19 million young Americans who have depression commit suicide, according to the National Data on Campus Suicide and Depression. For 20- to 24-year-olds, suicide is the second-leading cause of death behind unintentional injuries.

“We have so many health classes in school that teach you about our body and physical illnesses, but rarely any that helped me understand mental illness and the myths around it,” said a sophomore psychology major who wished to remain anonymous, having struggled with a mental illness herself. “I believe early education is super necessary. I once learned that about half of people who are diagnosed with a mental health disorder get that diagnosis when they’re 14.”

“There is nothing to be ashamed of, but that doesn’t make it less hard,” she said, emphasizing the need to reduce stigma around mental health disorders. “I know people who are fairly open about what they’re going through, while others, despite looking fine initially, start to show the signs as they spend more time with you. Personally, I try to be open about certain symptoms I’ve dealt with, but there are some others I’ll still find myself feeling ashamed of.”

Personal struggles can be exacerbated when students deal with changes, such as the transition from high school to college. Conover Hall community assistant and sophomore health science major Kiarrah Johnson said she understands the pressure of adjusting to a college environment.

“For me, as a freshman last year, it was very different. I felt like we were going from a small pond into the ocean, and we didn’t know how to swim on our own,” she said. “You’ve got to feed yourself, go to class, make sure you get your stuff in on time. And you get homesick. You have to time-manage while adjusting to the college life.”

Johnson was able to manage her struggles and share her wisdom with her freshmen residents, having helped a fellow student who was struggling to adjust.

“I went to her room and she was very emotional,” Johnson recalled. “I just sat down on the floor and was there and talked to her. She just opened up to me and said she was very overwhelmed. She hasn’t been going to her classes. I told her what she’s feeling is normal — like when I was a freshman, I had a lot of breakdowns. I still do. As a sophomore now, I know college is not easy. It’s hard but you’ve got to continue to motivate yourself to reach your end goal.”

Spatafore said sharing stories of hope and survival can also help others who are suffering.

“If someone else can tell you, ‘I was there, and there’s help,’ so people know,” she said. “We hear a lot of stories of suicide, but not those about someone who was suicidal and isn’t now. Why don’t we hear about those? Perspective can change, and you can get through certain things. We need more of that information going forward because it can be helpful to someone in the moment.”

Pratico’s family asked members of the community to support performing arts scholarships in his name by donating to Recreational Arts at www.rexarts.org, or to support his appreciation of those with special needs by donating to the Special Olympics at www.specialolympics.org. The New Jersey Hopeline can be reached 24/7 at 1-855-654-6735.

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