211 Maryland speaks with Amy Ocasio on honoring her son Thomas and preventing suicide with the LIVEFORTHOMAS Foundation.
If you’re thinking about suicide or know someone who is, get immediate support by calling or texting 988.
Click on the show note section to jump to that part of the transcript.
1:15 About the LIVEFORTHOMAS Foundation and Thomas’ life and impact
The Foundation honors Thomas brings awareness to mental health, mental illness and suicide prevention. His mom shared that Thomas always had a smile on his face and always helped others, reinforcing that you never know when someone is struggling.
3:21 Overcoming mental health stigma
Thomas never had an official diagnosis of depression. His mom says he refused treatment, even though he acknowledged it would help him because he wanted to enlist in the military.
6:11 Talking to your children about their struggles
Amy said talking to her son about his struggles was a balance between listening and asking questions. Her son talked about being numb and how she approached those conversations, sharing practical guidance for all parents.
7:13 Advice for teens and young adults
When you’re in crisis, it’s momentary, even though it seems like it will last forever. Amy wants teens and young adults to know they are not alone and work through difficult situations because they can get past that moment.
If you need help, call or text 988 for immediate mental health and substance use support.
8:10 How to talk to someone with depression or mental health concerns
Language plays a big role in mental health conversations. Amy provides insight into the words parents and family members can use to support their children.
9:17 Warning signs of suicide
What are the critical warning signs that someone may be thinking about suicide? Amy shares eye-opening information about the shift in mood. She said her son had just received approval to graduate early to enlist in the military.
“He got that news on a Wednesday. And, unfortunately, I found him that Sunday. But, there was like this shift. He was more upbeat. And I have since learned that’s one of the things to look for is when somebody goes from being depressed to all of a sudden having this complete shift in mood. That’s a huge red flag that they may have kind of just come to terms with their plan and that they were going to follow through with it.”
10:28 Cecil County suicide prevention efforts
There are many ways to connect with suicide prevention support groups and speak with others who have experienced loss.
13:58 Health Check Impact
Amy talks about how 211 Health Check can support people like herself and the power of checking in with others.
15:25 Honoring Thomas
Amy talks about her special tattoo, which memorializes Thomas.
17:31 Starting the conversation
How do you start the conversation with someone who is struggling? Amy talks about breaking the stigma of getting mental health support and getting everyone, especially men, the support they need.
She shares valuable information to start the conversation.
19:52 Learn how to connect with LIVEFORTHOMAS and other mental health support
Get information on LIVEFORTHOMAS and another peer support program that’s helped teens through its peer support program.
[Editor’s Note: The transcript was edited to reflect the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in Maryland, which is now 988.]
Welcome to What’s the 211 podcast where we provide you with information about resources and programs in your community. 211 Maryland is a health and human services line for anyone seeking help for themselves or someone else. You can dial 2-1-1 if you need help with food, rent or other services.
If you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis or needs help with substance use, dial 988 to immediately be connected with a trained professional.
Quinton Askew (00:42)
Hello and welcome to What’s the 211 podcast. We’re honored today to have our guest, Amy Ocasio, president of LIVEFORTHOMAS Foundation.
So, in the next couple of podcasts, we will be discussing topics around mental health. I encourage anyone who needs support for stress, anxiety, crisis or thoughts of suicide to contact 988. You will be immediately connected to a crisis support specialist. It’s free and confidential.
Good morning, Amy. Thank you for joining us. How are you today?
Amy Ocasio (1:12)
Good. Thank you for having me.
About The LIVEFORTHOMAS Foundation
Quinton Askew (1:15)
Can you tell us a little bit about LIVEFORTHOMAS Foundation and why this nonprofit was created?
Amy Ocasio (1:20)
So the LIVEFORTHOMAS Foundation was created in honor and memory of my son, Thomas, who passed away July 28, 2019. He was 16 years old when he took his own life. LIVEFORTHOMAS, during his funeral service, the hashtag #LIVEFORTHOMAS took hold, which is kind of where we came up with the name LIVEFORTHOMAS Foundation, and it’s just for his life, honoring him, bringing awareness to mental health, mental illness, and suicide prevention.
Quinton Askew (1:49)
And that that’s definitely a wonderful way to continue to memorialize Thomas. Can you tell us a little bit about who Thomas was?
Amy Ocasio (1:56)
So, there are so many things to say about Thomas that I could probably talk all day long about him. The one thing, when I think about like who he was, people would tell me so much about like the joy that he brought and his smile. People would refer to him just having this contagious smile, the life of the party. You knew when Thomas was there like he was the kid that his friends went to, other people, went to him. Just the messages I got following his death from kids I didn’t even know about how he helped them through either being bullied or other circumstances that they were going through. And just the impact that he had on different people’s lives.
Now, Thomas, he was, to me, I say your typical boy. He loved to hunt, loved to fish, played sports. Anybody that knew Thomas knew he loved to eat crabs. That boy would eat crabs like morning, evening, night if he could like all season. But, he was really all about like family and friends. That’s what was important to him. He was definitely a mama’s boy. He and I had a really good relationship. So, he just really had a heart for people. And there’s some comfort in knowing that both in his life and in his death, he has left an impact on people.
Overcoming Mental Health Stigma
Amy Ocasio (3:21)
Thomas never had an official diagnosis of depression because he refused treatment. And, a lot of that is related to the stigma of treatment.
Thomas, very much his goal was to get in the military. And, he had been informed that if he had a mental health record, that he wouldn’t be able to enlist.
We had multiple conversations about what treatment could look like for him. And, he acknowledged that treatment would be helpful for him, but he was very much fixated on wanting to be able to join the military. There were other factors in his life that I know that contributed to him really wanting to enlist in the military.
And, unfortunately, I think that became the biggest barrier for him getting treatment. He did acknowledge that treatment would help him.
Quinton Askew (4:16)
And you mentioned stigma. I know that’s one of the things that you have definitely been advocating for, especially with the organization. What role do you think, I guess culture plays in stigma and how do you think stigma just plays a role in mental health?
Amy Ocasio (4:28)
I think there is still very much that men are weak if they ask for help if they show any type of emotion. For most of Thomas and Michaela’s life, Michaela’s my daughter, his sister, I’ve been a single mom. Thomas would use the phrase with me, I’m the man of the household. Things like that. And, I’m like well, you don’t have to be the man of the household. I’m a mom. You can be my son.
There were things he would tell me that while I don’t want you to have to shoulder this. Like, you know, I’m the man, I should take care of this. So I think there’s still very much this perception that men can’t be vulnerable, that they can’t talk about what they’re going through. That they have to uphold some type of expectation or standard or responsibility that I think very much gets in the way.
Amy Ocasio (5:18)
During Thomas’s funeral, I mean, I don’t remember specifically everything I said because truth be told I had not planned on speaking at his funeral, but I did. And, I remember addressing the men and the boys, in his service about really reaching out to each other and like for men to set that example and model behavior that like it’s okay, you don’t have to keep these things in and to change that narrative.
I do think now with more athletes coming out, talking about their own mental health struggles, I think there is starting to be a shift. But, I do think just even in conversations with adolescent males or other adult males that I’ve talked to, there still definitely seems to be that barrier though.
Quinton Askew (5:57)
Yeah. And we are glad to see that more athletes and men are discussing it. And so, with the organization and as a mom, how was your daily experience and supporting your son, supporting Thomas through each day?
Talking To Your Children About Their Struggles
Amy Ocasio (6:11)
So, I definitely found struggles with finding that balance because with both of my kids I’ve learned that if I let them come to me, that they’ll talk.
If I started asking questions, that’s when they just kind of shut down. So, as he started opening up more about what he was going through, what he was experiencing, it was finding that balance. I want him to keep talking. He talked to me one time about just wanting to be numb.
What most people don’t know was that Thomas had started self-medicating and he started engaging in self-harm. And, when we had those conversations, it was, I just want to be numb. I don’t want to feel anything.
So, when asking questions, well, what do you want to be numb from? Like, I couldn’t ask those questions because he would shut down. So, it was finding that balance of how much do I push? When do I pull back? And, unfortunately, in Thomas’ case, we just ran out of time having those conversations because he did start opening up more and more. And, we just ran out of time.
Advice For Teen And Young Adults
Quinton Askew (7:13)
And, so with the work that you’re doing now with the LIVEFORTHOMAS Foundation, are there things that you wish parents knew more of or you wish teens and young adults probably knew more about mental health and just dealing with the day to day?
Amy Ocasio (7:28)
I would say when I think about teens and young adults is recognizing that when you’re in that crisis moment, that crisis moment is not going to last forever.
I recognize in that moment, it feels like it’s going to, but if you can just get past that crisis moment and know that you’re not alone. There are people who love you. There are people who care about you. There is help available.
You can get past that moment because in that crisis situation, you make a decision that unfortunately you know, you can’t come back from.
So, just recognizing that there are people out there that do want to help you and that you don’t have to go through this by yourself.
How To Talk To Someone With Depression Or Mental Health Concerns
Quinton Askew (8:10)
I’ve learned, even with family members and kids, language plays a big role. And, so what are your thoughts around language and how we speak to someone who may be dealing with depression or just other mental health concerns?
Amy Ocasio (8:29)
I think it’s important to not dismiss what somebody is saying. Like as a parent, I recognize that sometimes what my kids were going through that you think really? This isn’t that big of a deal, but as a teenager, it is a big deal in their life at that moment. So, while I may not have recognized certain things as a big deal, it is to them. So, I think not minimizing or just downplaying what they’re going through. You know, just listen. You don’t even have to understand like, okay, I don’t understand why this is a big deal, but you know it is to my child. So let me find out more about what’s going on and ask them, you know, what do you need from me? Like what will be helpful for you in this situation?
Suicide Warning Signs
Quinton Askew (9:17)
That’s definitely great advice. Is there anything that you’ve learned this year from the advocacy work and the work that the foundation is doing and your involvement in the community about mental health that you didn’t know before?
Amy Ocasio (9:29)
I think one of the biggest eye-openers for me was learning that when someone has made the decision to follow through with their plan to take their own life, that you can see a shift in their mood. Thomas, I’ve recognized that his depression was on a decline. I had become aware of some things and we had lots of conversations. And then it seemed like all of a sudden he was like on this upswing, like he kind of seemed to bounce back to being Thomas.
Again, he had been approved to graduate early in order to enlist in the military. And, he got that news on a Wednesday. And, unfortunately, I found him that Sunday. But, there was like this shift. He was more upbeat. And, I have since learned that’s one of the things to look for is when somebody goes from being depressed to all of a sudden having this complete shift in mood. That’s a huge red flag that they may have kind of just come to terms with their plan and that they were going to follow through with it.
Cecil County Suicide Prevention Efforts
Quinton Askew (10:28)
And so I know that you are part of a group in Cecil County Families and Communities Experiencing Suicide (FACES). And that vision is to be a leading advocate for suicide prevention, intervention, and post-intervention efforts in Cecil County. So what does the group do and how is it helping others in Cecil county?
Amy Ocasio (10:47)
So, the group was actually formed by another mom who lost her son to suicide. Her son passed January of 2018, and then the group was formed in September of 2019. And, we have all kinds of committee members on it. There are other loss survivors, mental health agencies, Cecil County, and public school systems on it. Sheriff’s Office, 211 is part of it, which we appreciate and many other community members. The idea behind the group is really just getting awareness out there, providing information, helping people break that stigma and having those conversations.
How do you have conversations with people changing the narratives? We do a lot of outreach work. We’ve been present at the Cecil County Fair. We were at Pause for People. We do have some exciting stuff coming up in 2022, but because logistics are being worked out, I don’t want to say what those are yet.
So, just stay tuned for the things that we do have in the works.
Amy Ocasio (11:41)
But, there’s been a lot of movement and we’re headed in the right direction in being able to provide services to people who are struggling with mental illness or suicidal ideations, or even the loss of somebody to suicide.
Two of the members, I feel like I need to talk about them while we’re talking about FACES. So, the mom that created the group, Stephanie, she also has a nonprofit, Be My Voice in memory of her son.
Jen, who lost her husband to suicide. He was a Veteran. Her foundation is the Doc Perry Foundation.
And, then we have Becky who runs the Sunrise Support Group. And we’re not sure that people know we do have a support group here in Cecil County. So if you lost somebody to suicide, there is a support group available. So I just feel like when we’re talking about FACES, like really showing that we have multiple nonprofits support in our county that people might not be aware of.
Quinton Askew (12:40)
I’m sure that makes a difference when you can have sort of the community come together to provide support where there’s the county government, there’s the health department, you mentioned other nonprofits and especially the school system, which is unique to have the school system be a part. How do you think that’s helping, with the school system and understanding what others may be facing? How do you think that is really helping with the group and really advocating and getting the word out?
Amy Ocasio (13:03)
I’m going to speak from a parent’s point of view and advocate that having the school be a part of it, it provides a different perspective. Sometimes I think it’s easy to be like, oh, they should be doing this. Or, they should be doing that.
And having those conversations about even what their barriers are, and it’s not that they don’t want to promote mental health, suicide prevention and all of that. But, recognizing, and not just with the public school system, but with really any agency or program, like there are other factors that may be a hindrance. So, being able to have those open and honest conversations about, okay, what do you guys need from us? This is what we’re looking for from you. And then how can we work together? Because we all have the same common goal. Everybody, that’s a member of FACES. We all share the same common goal. And, now it’s just navigating all the different nuances with the different agencies and how they have to operate.
211 Health Check Impact
Quinton Askew (13:58)
And so, as you are aware, 211 Maryland, has created the 211 Health Check program in partnership with several legislators and the Maryland Department of Health, Behavioral Health Administration that anyone can sign up for whether they have trouble with anxiety or stress. And, so this provides weekly check-in calls to individuals who will sign up by text or by calling 2-1-1.
How do you think this resource might be helpful for those in the community with having someone to call and check in on them?
Amy Ocasio (14:25)
I love this concept. I can speak for myself personally, that I struggle with asking for help. Those that know me know I’m a helper so for me to turn around and say, I need help, it’s been a struggle. I’ve been trying to work through that, but I have found that I’m more inclined to tell somebody when I’m struggling, when they reach out to me, like, hey, I’m just checking in. How are you doing? And I’m more inclined to say, you know what, today I’m just not really having a good day. I’m really missing Thomas, you know, versus me sending a text message to somebody going, Hey, I’m really struggling today. Right?
So, I think the concept of this really works with that. And, having somebody reach out to them, which then opens up that conversation to make it easier, especially for people that struggle to reach out. Whether they’re in crisis or headed toward crisis, they may not have the capacity at that moment to think of, let me reach out to somebody. So, by having somebody reach out to them, then that opens up that conversation.
Honoring Thomas Ocasio III
Quinton Askew (15:25)
As we have learned that most folks who may be in crisis and really just trying to survive. And, so really having someone check in on them is great.
I read where, you know, Thomas wanted to get a special tattoo when he was old enough. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to, but can you tell us a little bit about that story?
Amy Ocasio (15:41)
So, Thomas and I would watch Ink Master together and he would tell me when he was older that he wanted Halo who was on season four of Ink Master to do his first tattoo. So, June of 2019, Thomas and I kind of started looking at ideas that he wanted. He knew he wanted a full sleeve. And, I told him when he turned 17, which would’ve been that September, I’ll sign you up to get your tattoo. Especially if he was going into the military, he could get it before he went.
Unfortunately, he passed July of 2019. So, he did not get his tattoo.
But, I reached out to the shop probably about a month after Thomas died and shared his story and asked about how can I get scheduled with Halo? So we got my appointment scheduled. It was a little bit of a wait to get booked with him, but I will say it was definitely worth the wait because there’s a lot of meaning behind it.
Amy Ocasio (16:33)
So not only did I have a full memorial piece done for Thomas, I had who he wanted to do it. And we incorporated pieces of what Thomas wanted. So, some of the pieces that Thomas saved. I noticed in the pictures was a lion.
So, I do have like the stopwatch with the roses. I have that tattoo on me and then all the other pieces, like I have Thomas’ portrait. I have a flag and dog tags to represent his love of the military. And, we have a hunting scene to represent all of that. And, then I have sunflowers because I used to sing you’re my sunshine to him. So, it’s representative of that.
So, being able to tie what Thomas wanted into his memorial piece, and I feel like I should add that Halo is at Black Lotus tattoo shop in Hanover. I feel like I need to mention where he’s at since he did such an amazing tribute to my son.
Starting The Conversation
Quinton Askew (17:31)
Such a great story. So, with everything that you sort of learned this past year and with the advocacy work, what is it that you hope to achieve through the organization and that you would like to see in Cecil County and really across Maryland for those in need of mental health support?
Amy Ocasio (17:48)
More conversations. More people getting the help that they need without feeling the shame of asking for help, without feeling that there’s something wrong. I’ve had conversations with people when the idea of going into a therapist, they’re like I’m not crazy. I think recognizing that just because you see a therapist or get help in whatever capacity that looks like, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It’s exploring what happened. How did you get to this point? What can we do to help you get, get beyond this?
Amy Ocasio (18:26)
And, I am a huge advocate. I mean, anybody that knows me, like really just breaking that stigma about men. It just grinds my gears when I hear people still talk about, oh, well boys will be boys or suck it up. Or, you know, boys don’t cry. Like no, let’s encourage them to have those conversations and really change the narrative of what it means to be strong. And that strength is getting help that you need.
Strength is meaning you don’t have to carry this by yourself. And, strength is, I’m here to do this, walk with you. That you don’t have to do it by yourself and really lifting each other up as opposed to putting each other down.
Quinton Askew (19:03)
Yeah. I, I definitely agree. And especially during the holidays. It is a good time to have those conversations and you know, you’re around the family. And just to really talk. Is there a good way, do you think to at least to start those conversations during the holidays when you’re around friends and family?
Amy Ocasio (19:16)
Yeah. Ask how you’re doing and point things out. Like, hey, I noticed that you haven’t been hanging out as often, or every time we have plans, you cancel. Not coming at them in an attacking way, but like is everything okay, because when we used to have plans, we always got together. Has something changed? Really be intentional about what you’re asking and encourage that conversation. When somebody says, oh, I’m fine, or I’m okay. Ask, what does fine mean? What does being okay mean? Because what’s okay to me might be very different to you.
Quinton Askew (19:52)
That’s a great point. How can others learn more about Thomas and the foundation and how they can help support it?
Amy Ocasio (19:59)
So we have a website, LIVEFORTHOMAS. We also have a Facebook page, which is LIVEFORTHOMAS and then Instagram is LIVE4THOMAS. So, we have a couple of different ways. Our email address is LIVEFORTHOMAS@gmail.com. So if you want to reach out, ask more questions, so a couple different ways you can get in touch with us.
Quinton Askew (20:20)
Okay. How can someone support the foundation?
Amy Ocasio (20:26)
Reach out, sharing their stories with us. Because the more we get people talking about it, I think just expands support network and helps in the mission of having those conversations and changing those narratives.
Financial support is always great because there are things that, you know, we have to pay for with running the foundation. We recently just had a toy drive. Christmas is Thomas’ favorite time of year. And the toy drive benefits our local domestic violence rape crisis centers. I had worked there years ago as our outreach coordinator and ran the Christmas program. So, Thomas and Michaela would help me with that program and do the shopping for toys and wrapping the gifts and stuff like that. So, to be able to tie that back into Thomas as well. So, even just showing that type of support is helpful.
Quinton Askew (21:13)
Great. And closing, is there anything else you would like to share for listeners to know?
Amy Ocasio (21:17)
So, there is one resource that I would like to share as well. It’s out of Newark, Delaware. It’s Unlock the Light Foundation, and they have Sean’s House, which is on Main Street, and they’re a 24/7 crisis facility. And, teens can go there anytime. It’s open to anybody, but it’s a peer support center.
And, I think it is phenomenal. I wish it had been around when Thomas was here because I think that may have, I would like to think he would’ve used their services because it was peer support. It wasn’t technically seeing a therapist, but he could go talk to somebody. We’ve had kids go to Sean, I’m aware of kids who have stopped by there. When we say we, the foundation and the football program at Northeast High School, we took some of the players there. And to hear the feedback that we’ve got from that resource, how it’s opened doors. I think it’s really a huge resource, especially for teens, young adults, to be aware of that. You can just go in and talk to somebody without having that stigma of I have to go see a therapist. No, you’re just going to talk and hang out.
Quinton Askew (22:27)
That great. And so again, thank you again for joining us and telling your story for Thomas and the foundation and the work that you’re doing.
Just a reminder for those who are in Maryland to call or text 988 for mental health and suicide support.
You can also sign up for weekly check-in calls with a crisis support specialist by calling 2-1-1. Learn more about 211 Health Check.
Amy, thank you again for joining us. Good luck with the foundation, and definitely look forward to continuing to work with you.
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