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Retired Illinois fire chief speaks in Alexandria about son's mental health battle, suicide

Patrick Kenny is a mental health advocate, author and inspirational speaker.

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Patrick Kenny, retired fire chief from Illinois, is an author and mental health advocated. He spoke to a group of firefighters, law enforcement and emergency services people last week in Alexandria. Contributed photo
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Patrick Kenny, a fire chief for more than 25 years, couldn’t save the one person he wanted to save the most – his son, Sean.

Sean struggled with mental illness his entire life and at the age of 20, died by suicide. Patrick vowed that he would not let Sean die in vain and is now a mental health advocate and motivational speaker. He is also the international best-selling author of “Taking the cape off: How to lead through mental illness, unimaginable grief and loss.”

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Patrick Kenny's book, "Taking the cape off: How to lead through mental illness, unimaginable grief and loss," is available on his website, patrickjkenny.com. Contributed photo

Patrick, who lives in Illinois and was a firefighter for nearly 40 years, spoke to a group of firefighters, law enforcement personnel and others who work in emergency services, last week in Alexandria.

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Jeff Karrow, Alexandria Fire Chief, heard Patrick speak back in 2014 and then brought him to Alexandria for a speaking engagement in 2015. Since that time, Karrow has become a mental health advocate and now budgets to have mental health professionals available for his firefighters.

Colin Modahl and Ronna Severson are the Alexandria Fire Department’s mental health professionals and are available for firefighters, spouses, family members and retirees.

Since Patrick presented in 2015, Karrow said the fire department has sworn in 17 new firefighters.

In addition, Karrow listed off just a few incidents area firefighters, law enforcement and others working in emergency services have dealt with in the last few years, including three fire fatalities, aircraft fatal crash, helicopter crash, downtown fire, fish house fatal, several fatal vehicle crashes, multiple suicides, silo gas fatal accident plus a plethora of other fatal and non-fatal incidents, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It takes a toll on a person,” said Karrow, which is why he thought it was so important to have Patrick come back and speak again. “Chief Kenny’s story would rock most people’s world or leave one wondering how he has come through as resilient as he has.”

‘It’s a complex disease’

Patrick said people who work in emergency services are trained to help people in a variety of ways, like when someone is showing the signs and symptoms of having a heart attack, but that most often, they are not trained in the signs and symptoms of mental illness.

If people suspect someone is dealing with mental illness, they should never ask, “Are you OK?” Most people, he said, are going to respond that they are fine. Instead, Patrick said people should ask, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

But, he said, people need to be ready for whatever that answer might be.

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“Just listening is a gift,” he said. “It’s important and it may be the one shot to get that person some help.”

When Patrick’s son, Sean, was just 5 years old, he was diagnosed with clinical depression and at that time, Patrick said he didn’t even know someone could be diagnosed with depression at such a young age.

He thought his son was just headstrong and that it was just a phase. But as the years went on, he learned.

“Mental illness is a physical illness. It’s not a choice. You don’t choose it, it chooses you,” said Patrick. “It’s not easy. It is a complex disease.”

He recalled a conversation he had with Sean on the first day of high school. Sean told him he couldn’t do it and that he then told Sean it was OK and everyone goes through it and that it was just a stage.

“My wife told me to be quiet and she asked Sean what he meant and he told her he wanted to die,” said Patrick. “I told him that in my job when people say that, we bring them to the hospital and they get locked away. He said, ‘I know dad, let’s go,’ and then he got in the car.”

Patrick said there were many times he took people away and that there were times he thought they were “losers.” He said there was a time when he judged people who struggled with mental challenges. But, when he looked through the window of his car, he said he didn’t see any losers, he only saw his son – a person who was physically ill just like so many others who had been locked away in a hospital previously.

His son was 14 years old at that time.

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Patrick Kenny

Suicide isn’t selfish

Patrick had previously told the story of when he, himself, was 14. His dad, his hero, had just died, plus Patrick said his own hopes and dreams of becoming a star athlete were crushed when he was involved in a car accident. He recalled how he went to the cemetery to visit his dad’s grave and that he laid down on the ground with every intention of dying.

“People say suicide is selfish, but I am here to tell you it’s not,” he said. “When I laid down to die, I wasn’t thinking about my mom or my grandma or my friends and family and the pain it would cause, all I could think about was that the world for me was dark. It was pitch black. There was no hope for me. My life was over. My dad was gone. I didn’t care how pissed off anyone would be, I couldn’t take the pain anymore.”

While he was on the ground, eyes closed, freezing cold, Patrick said he heard a voice and that it was his dad’s voice telling him to sit up and get out of there.

“I did get up and got out of there,” he said. “I went from I hope like hell I die to I hope like hell I don’t. Could I have used counseling back then? Oh my God, yes!”

He stood up for others

Patrick said throughout his son’s life, he was in and out of hospitals and that it was a rollercoaster ride of emotions. And that Sean had tried committing suicide on more than one occasion.

At one point, Patrick remembered telling Sean not to give up because he was going to find an answer to help him.

Shortly after, when Sean was living in a group home, Patrick and his wife received a phone call that Sean was missing. And then shortly after that, they received a call from the hospital telling them that Sean was there, he was on a ventilator and that he was dying.

The next few days were rough, but Sean pulled through.

Patrick recalled a conversation he had with Sean about his own dad, Sean’s grandpa.

“He described my dad in detail,” he said, noting that Sean told him stories of his dad that Sean had never heard of before. And he said that his dad told Sean, ‘Tell your dad I am proud of him and that I am sorry I had to leave so early.”

All that happened around St. Patrick’s Day, which for Patrick’s family is a big deal as comes from an Irish Catholic background.

Sean continued to get worse and that June, he took his own life.

Someone asked Patrick if he was angry and he told them he wasn’t.

“I watched, but I didn’t understand,” he said. “I watched Sean fight for his life, but I didn’t understand. He taught me what I am now trying to teach others. He was physically ill, but we looked at him differently.”

Committing suicide, stated Patrick, isn’t about being selfish. He said it is about being in so much pain that a person can’t take it anymore.

“Sean didn’t lose the battle, he stood up for others. He just couldn’t do it for himself,” said Patrick. “I vowed I wasn’t going to let him die in vain. And since I have been sharing his story, things have gotten better, but there is still that stigma out there about mental health.”

Patrick said he won’t quit sharing his son’s story or quit talking about mental health until the discussion at people’s kitchen table is the same for a child with diabetes as a child who has a mental health illness.

He said that no one would ever accuse someone with cancer of faking their pain, but if someone says they can’t get out of bed, they are told they’re not trying hard enough.

“When you’re in a mental health challenge, you can’t just push yourself through it. You can’t do it, folks,” said Patrick. “It’s tough. You can’t just will your way through it. You need to raise your hand and you need to ask for help.”

For more about Patrick and how he is leading the charge on mental health awareness, visit his website, patrickjkenny.com. If anyone is struggling, he said his email is on the website and to reach out.

Related Topics: PEOPLEDOUGLAS COUNTY
Celeste Edenloff is the special projects lead and a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press. She has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in 2016 to once again report on the community she calls home.
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