When someone takes their own life, the effects are devastating for loved ones left behind.
Michaela Cook, a Cranston native, knows well what it can mean to confront such a sudden and enormous loss.
In October 2003, while living in Essex Junction, Vermont, she lost Jonathan – who she describes as her “best friend” and college sweetheart – to suicide. It was shortly before his 25th birthday.
“He put on a good show. He was always smiling, you always thought he was happy – and he was, for a significant amount of time,” Cook recalls. “But then things started to unravel.”
The aftermath was extraordinarily difficult. She and Jonathan had lived together, and it fell on her to let many of their friends know he was gone.
“I had to make all those calls … I don’t wish that on anybody,” she said.
Soon, in addition to her grief, Cook found herself dealing with mental health issues of her own. She returned to Rhode Island, and “for a long time, it was just me processing and taking care of myself.”
With time and support, Cook found her path forward.
She pursued a master’s degree in social work through Boston University’s satellite program in Fall River, completing internships at the Metropolitan Career and Technical High School in Providence and Bradley School in East Providence along the way. After finishing the program and receiving her degree, she found work in 2014 as a clinician at Jammat Housing and Community Development Corp. in Providence, where she remains today.
The fit has been a natural one. Cook has extensive experience working with children, having been a substitute teacher in Vermont and spent several years as a coordinator of before and after school programming at the Joslin Community Center in Providence.
In those roles, she found she was drawn to the aspects of her job that made a deeper difference in the lives of young people – communicating with families, and focusing on social skills and well being.
Now, her “life’s work” as a clinical social worker is focused on providing comfort, hope and encouragement to adolescent boys in the care of the Department of Children, Youth & Families.
It is hard work, but through building trust and setting a positive example – what she calls “opening that expressway to discussion and conversation” – she sees the difference that can be made in the lives of some of the states most vulnerable young people.
“I love my job. I love what I do … I’ve come a long way,” she said.
Making a positive difference in the lives of others – and, indeed, helping to save lives – is more than a professional pursuit for Cook.
She serves as a field advocate for the Rhode Island chapter of the American Federation for Suicide Prevention, or AFSP, and last month she traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of the state’s congressional delegation on a number of legislative priorities.
“It was an amazing experience,” she said.
Becoming involved with the local AFSP chapter was another step in Cook’s journey after returning to Rhode Island. It began when Cook connected with Missy Ames – the field ambassador for the Rhode Island chapter, with whom she made the recent trip to D.C. – and took part in one of the organization’s fundraising and awareness walks.
“The rest was history from there … Once I got the walk under my belt my first year, that’s when it really opened up. I wanted to do it because it made me feel better about this whole situation that I was thrown into at 23 years old,” she said.
In the years since, Cook has taken part in AFSP’s advocacy efforts on the local and state levels. Her boyfriend, James – who she has been with for several years now – has also become involved, and Jammat has been supportive as well.
Cook and Ames traveled to D.C. as part of a nationwide advocacy event on June 8. On that first day, a Monday, they listened to a keynote address from former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who has become a prominent voice on mental health and substance abuse issues.
Each advocate in attendance received a signed copy of the former Rhode Island legislator’s book “A Common Struggle,” and Cook had the chance to speak with Kennedy and share her story.
On June 9, Cook and Ames met with U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse to advocate for a number of legislative priorities – increasing funding for a national suicide prevention hotline, enhancing youth suicide prevention programs, addressing the need for parity in physical and mental health in terms of insurance and supporting veterans who deal with mental health issues.
Cook and Ames were also scheduled to meet with U.S. Reps. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline, although those lawmakers were pulled away by business on the House floor. They did have an opportunity to meet with representatives of each lawmaker’s staff.
As it turned out, Cook and Almes visited the Capitol on the same day comedian Jon Stewart appeared to testify regarding compensation for 9/11 first responders.
“It was very wild and crazy that day for everyone,” Cook recalled.
On the evening of June 9, the advocacy trip concluded with the Rally to Prevent Suicide at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Reed addressed the gathering and recognized Cook and Ames in his remarks.
“That was really incredible,” she said.
Justin Alves, who founded the Rhode Island chapter of AFSP in 2014 and also resides in Cranston, praised Cook for her efforts on behalf of the organization. Like Cook, he spoke of the importance of opening lines of communication for those who feel they have nowhere to turn.
“Normalizing talking about it is one of the biggest things that we try to do. If people are afraid to talk about it, we can’t help them,” he said. “So if you can get the kids to open up and talk about suicide, mental illness, stuff like that, then they’re more likely to come to adults or teachers or case workers or whoever if they’re struggling, and reach out that way.”
Cook said connecting with AFSP has been an immensely rewarding experience. She has no plans to slow down her efforts or her advocacy.
“I was lucky because I have a lot of friends and support, and some people don’t,” she said. “And that’s part of the issue, they don't think there’s anyone there to help them.”
Alves said the local AFSP chapter is “always looking for help.” Among the group’s upcoming events are the Southern Rhode Island Walk on Sept. 14 at Warwick's Goddard Park and the Northern Rhode Island Walk on Sept. 29 at Roger Williams Park in Providence.
To learn more, visit afsp.org/rhodeisland.