By Andrew Kahn | firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Miskelley wants to talk about an unspeakable tragedy.
He is willing to get on the phone with a stranger to discuss, in detail, the worst thing that can happen to a parent. Doing so, he hopes, will help you or your child or your neighbor or your teammate.
Steve’s son, Ian, died by suicide this month. Ian was entering his junior year at Michigan, where he was a member of the swim team.
To an outsider, Ian had so much going for him.
“You wouldn’t know there was this demon lurking under the surface,” Steve says.
When Ian was 11 years old, he realized something wasn’t right in his head.
“Dad, I don’t know what’s going on,” Steve recalls him saying. “I just feel angry all the time.”
Medical professionals determined Ian had anxiety brought about by depression. By the time he was a teenager he was on medication and had regular visits with psychiatrists and therapists.
“It was an ongoing struggle,” Steve says.
For a time, Ian was cutting himself as a means to cope with the mental pain. That led to increased therapy visits, more careful monitoring of his medication.
All the while, Ian was ascending the ranks as a youth swimmer in Holland, Michigan.
He started swimming at age 7. By 10 he was part of USA Swimming and a two-time state champion. Ian traveled all over the country for meets. Colleges showed interest midway through his high school career. He visited several top programs and chose Michigan, a national power.
Steve and his wife, Jill, were relieved their son picked a school just 160 miles away. “It was within reach if something happened,” Steve says.
Proximity alone didn’t ease their minds. They trusted Michigan’s resources: the counselors, psychiatrists, and world-class medical facilities.
“The other schools we visited -- none of them gave any thought to (mental health),” Steve says. “It wasn’t even on their damn radar. Michigan is way ahead of the curve there.”
Sure enough, Ian had a strong support team on campus. His personal psychiatrist was the director of psychiatric emergency service at the university hospital. Ian also saw a therapist in the athletic department. Josh White, the swim team’s associate head coach, “took a personal interest in Ian and stayed very close to him,” Steve says.
“The problem you have as a parent in this situation is you second-guess yourself,” Steve says. "'Should we have done something different? What if we had pulled him out of there? What if we had done this?' And it’s killing us.
“But at the end of the day, he was in the best environment he could be in.”
In the pool, Ian had successes and setbacks. He missed some meets due to an illness. He was named to the All-Big Ten Academic team this year. He also contracted COVID-19 this summer and quarantined at home.
Nothing he faced in the water or the classroom or anywhere else compared to the battle inside his mind.
“On good days we were always cautiously optimistic,” Steve says. “On bad days we were scared to death.”
More than once he and Jill drove the 2.5 hours to Ann Arbor because Ian or one of his roommates called or something just didn’t feel right.
Ian’s thoughts would occasionally spiral. Steve described it as an illogical, irrational process in which one bad test score had Ian thinking he was stupid. One bad race and he was slow, even worthless. Within an hour, he’d be in a really dark place.
During Ian’s final weeks, his parents believed he was doing well, better than he had been in a long time. In reality, he’d just gotten better at hiding his issues.
“It was those demons of depression that he lost the battle against that day,” Steve says.
It was Sept. 7, two weeks before Ian’s 20th birthday.
“There is no playbook for something this tragic,” Michigan swimming coach Mike Bottom told Swimming World magazine. (Through a team spokesperson, Bottom declined to speak for this story.)
“As soon as we found out that Ian had taken his life, we were obviously devastated,” Bottom said. “We got to the house as quickly as possible and there were members of our administration there and a counselor.”
White told Swimming World that Ian was “a great person that thought about others most of the time.”
Steve says he’s received many messages from Ian’s former teammates telling of kind deeds.
There was the freshman swimmer who was sick and lonely. Ian hung out with him for a day. “Why are you here?” the freshman finally asked. “Because nobody else is,” Ian said.
A former club teammate shared that he would have quit the team had it not been for Ian’s encouragement.
Steve wants more Ians in the world: people who are attuned to the needs of others.
He wants people to understand that depression is different from sadness. If you squinted, Ian had a great life. There was no traumatic event. But he had a disease.
“This can happen to anybody,” Steve says.
He wants depression destigmatized. It enraged him watching FOX Sports' Skip Bayless recently criticize an NFL quarterback for admitting he battled depression.
High-profile athletes going public about mental health is exactly what the cause needs, Steve says.
Ian came forward with his issues early on. He got help. He had a great support system.
And yet he still lost the battle.
His father wants the millions of others suffering to at least have the means to fight.
We have to discuss the demons, Steve says. We have to be more aware of their presence in others. Anxiety. Depression. Suicide. These topics can’t be taboo.
Failure here has dire consequences.
Before he hangs up with a reporter, Ian Miskelley’s father has a final message: "I’m hopeful this story reaches a lot of people and touches them in a positive way.
“Let’s avoid this terrible fate for as many people as we can.”
Anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide can seek help from:
· The 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Military veterans press #1.
· The Ozone House, a 24-hour hotline for youth, at 734-662-2222.
· The 24-hour hotline at University of Michigan Psychiatric Emergency Services at 734-936-5900.
· The Washtenaw County Community Mental Health crisis team at 734-544-3050.