Ian Miskelley was a bright light.
He set four state records in swimming at Holland Christian High School, achieved an Olympics trial qualifying time at age 16, and was attending the University of Michigan on a swimming scholarship.
U-M swimmers who competed in the Tokyo Olympics this summer have described Miskelley as a valuable teammate and a cherished friend whose nature was to gently encourage anyone who was struggling.
Despite a loving family, devoted friends, top-shelf mental health care, a strong religious faith, and a bright future, Miskelley took his own life on Sept. 7, 2020. He was 19 and just starting his junior year. He would have celebrated his 21st birthday this year on Sept. 21.
Teammates feared the worst when Miskelley didn’t show up at the pool for a pre-dawn workout because he was never late for practice. Ian was open with peers about the challenges with anxiety and depression that had plagued him since he was 12 years old.
In the 12 months prior to his death, Ian had a psychiatric hospitalization — as well as a seizure and COVID-19 — which caused him to be red-shirted for collegiate sports eligibility. Nevertheless, his suicide still struck friends and family like a bolt from the blue.
Ian lived in Ann Arbor with five teammates, some of whom spent lighthearted social time with him the night of Sept. 6. Parents Steve and Jill Miskelley had checked in with Ian by phone from their home in Holland at 5 p.m. that evening, and nothing seemed wrong. Ian did not leave a note, and no external event that may have triggered Ian’s decision to end his life has ever surfaced.
“With the help of a therapist, I was able to accept Ian’s suicide as kind of a psychiatric heart attack,” Steve Miskelley says. “Internally, the pain was so great that he couldn’t think rationally. It was like he was in a burning building. Dying seemed like the only way out.”
Ian Miskelley Be Better Mental Health Center
Although grief-stricken, the Miskelleys are determined to build on their son’s strengths to help Holland-area 14- to 22-year-olds like him, who are battling mental illness.
Steve Miskelley imagines a counseling center that works kind of like a fire station — a centrally located building with meeting and gathering spaces, and short-term sleeping quarters — that operates 24/7/365 to serve area youth, regardless of whether their parents have health care insurance that includes mental health services.
“This center will provide for others the type of things that Ian needed most for himself,” Miskelley says. “The goal is zero suicides — that our community will not lose another young person like this again.”
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teens and young adults in America, and the 10th-leading cause of death among adults, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study.
The Miskelleys say their son received excellent “wrap-around” mental health services at U-M and wish that drop-in and easy-access services had been available to him at an earlier age in his hometown.
Too often, seeking adolescent mental health services when they are needed leads to a series of “hand-offs” to other agencies, where no professional help is available until weeks or months after the precipitating crisis, Jill Miskelley says.
Frustration compounds for well-meaning parents when there are no opportunities, beyond their independent research skills, to understand what anguish their child is dealing with and what they can do to promote growth or ease the situation, she adds.
Building the scaffolding for a dream
The Miskelleys’ concept for a nonprofit center where young people experiencing mental health issues — as well as their family members and other supporters — could receive effective, same-day care and participate in support groups that meet daily could have remained a dream if it were not for joining forces with Steve Miskelley’s therapist at Outcomes That Matter.
Dr. Michael Brashears, formerly the executive director of Ottawa County Community Mental Health, is lending his expertise in how to develop and organize a counseling center. Brashears has forged partnerships with Grand Haven-based Mosaic Counseling, Ottawa County Community Mental Health, Be Nice, and other organizations in the community to help provide services.
Ian Miskelley dives into the pool during competition.
Operational funds would come from a blend of health insurance, government grants, and corporate and private donations.
In recent weeks, Brashears has also begun leading Be Better support groups for young people, one for 13- to 17-year-olds and another for 18- to 24-year-olds. He’s also leading a support group for parents and guardians who have lost a loved one to suicide.
Interest in support groups has been so great on the organization’s website, bebetterholland.com, that Brashears already has plans to train a half-dozen additional facilitators to accommodate demand.
Like the Miskelleys, Brashears knows first-hand that no one is safe from the effects of suicide. His beloved wife, Aimee, took her own life in 2009, leaving him to raise their three young daughters alone.
“We have lots of mental health awareness programs in the United States, and I think now most people are aware, and there is less stigma about seeking treatment than there once was,” Brashears says. “What we are lacking are treatment options. The office-based appointment model we’ve had, as it turns out, is not an effective way to deliver services.”
During the pandemic, it has not been uncommon for insurance company authorization for counseling services to take about three months, Brashears says. Furthermore, about 60% of people receiving outpatient therapy don’t stick with it past the third session, and most problems require more time to adequately address.
A better way to be better
The Miskelleys and Brashears are following an Alcoholics Anonymous format in developing the Be Better Mental Wellness Center. Individual or group services will be available every day of the week. No one in need will be turned away for lack of having insurance, or because the insurance they have doesn’t cover mental health services.
“If someone has the courage to walk through our door, I want them to have the assurance that we’ve got their back from there to get them the care they need,” Steve Miskelley says, adding he believes this is what Ian would have wanted.
The reality is that, right now, Be Better only has a tiny office on Ottawa Beach Road — not the one-stop-shopping “fire station” that Miskelley envisions to efficiently meet the mental health needs of area youth.
He began fund-raising this summer toward the goal of purchasing a suitable building. A strength training competition and swim meet in Ian’s honor have also been held, with proceeds going toward establishing the Be Better Mental Wellness Center.
Brashears estimates that start-up costs would run about $5 million, with an annual budget of about $1.3 million.
Tax-deductible donations are accepted at the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area through the Ian Miskelley Memorial Fund. Contributions can also be made via a donor box on bebetterholland.com