FAIRFIELD — After Jim and Kristen Kuczo’s son, Kevin, took his own life in February 2021, Jim started to see his son’s experience reflected across the country — a 16-year-old in Brunswick, Maine. An 18-year-old in Chicago.
All were stories of teenagers who had been good students, athletes – young men who were making plans for the future. In all three cases, the parents said that isolation from COVID had exacerbated the depression that the teenagers were suffering.
Jim Kuczo said that beyond what he was hearing in the news, he was also receiving phone calls from parents nearby, telling him that their children were struggling. He described it as a “malaise” — children withdrawing, their grades falling. In some cases, he said, parents told him that their children had said they didn’t want to live.
“So many people come up to us and say, yeah, my daughter had a problem last week. My son’s having a problem. What should I do?” Kuczo said.
In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency for pediatric mental health, noting “dramatic increases” in the number of emergency room visits for mental health issues. A 2021 analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics section found that anxiety and depression in children and teens around the world had doubled in comparison to 2019, with older teens and girls seeing the worst increase.
In the hope of drawing attention to this issue, Jim and Kristen decided to start a nonprofit focused on children’s mental health. The nonprofit, called “Kevin’s Afterglow,” is dedicated to providing mental health education for children from elementary school through high school and assisting graduates who want to pursue a career in the mental health field.
Jim said that along with providing resources for young people, they wanted to educate parents about mental health. Kristen said she believed that, had she been more aware of what to look for, she might have recognized the signs of Kevin’s depression earlier.
Jim said that before his son began to struggle with depression, he didn’t know much about mental health. He said he had a hard time distinguishing Kevin’s behavior from typical teenage boy reticence, and, later on, from the general disengagement that happened during COVID.
Jim said that while Kevin had struggled with depression before, he believed the pandemic made everything far worse. He spent his junior year learning in a hybrid model, going to school half the time and spending the other half learning from home. A service trip he’d planned, improving houses in West Virginia, was canceled. So was the family’s annual summer camping trip. Football was touch-and-go, whether or not the team would play changed based on the situation with the virus.
“He started failing a class. His grades were dropping. He wasn’t engaging as much,” said Jim.
Still, Kevin had continued going to school. He continued going to work as a lifeguard. His psychiatrists told the family that he wasn’t in danger of taking his life.
“We need to get in front of these kids to understand. And not only … talking to the kids who are depressed, but letting the other people know that this is going on and we’ve got to be there for each other,” said Kuczo. “We have to talk to each other. Not [Zoom], not texts, not Snapchat. We need to talk to each other.”
In a eulogy for Kevin, Rev. Dr. Alida Ward of Greenfield Hill Congregational Church mentioned a letter that another teen had written about Kevin, saying that “Kevin’s afterglow would last forever.” The name for the nonprofit – “Kevin’s Afterglow” — came from that phrase.
The Kuczo’s said the nonprofit was also a way of honoring Kevin’s memory. Kristen said that Kevin was constantly trying to help others. In the evenings, when Kristen would take Kevin’s phone and keep it in her bedroom to charge, she said her son would sometimes come to her and ask to hold onto the phone just a little while longer, because he was talking to a friend who was having a tough time.
“Kids talked about how Kevin was always there for them. He would listen to them. They would call Kevin when they had problems,” said Kristen.
After Kevin’s death, Jim started visiting schools and organizations to speak about Kevin and about mental illness, he said he wanted to continue that as part of the nonprofit’s work. Kuczo said he was heartened by feedback they have received so far — that he had been able to open up conversations within families and made people realize they weren’t alone.
“[Depression] is a disease like any other. And we tell people it’s treatable and it’s beatable,” said Jim. “Depression is common and the most important thing to say — it’s okay to not be okay.”
Donations to the Kuczo’s nonprofit will be directed toward purchasing “buddy benches” for elementary schools and offering scholarships to young people interested in becoming psychologists, psychiatrists or child pediatricians.
A “buddy bench,” Kristen explained, is meant to make elementary school children more aware of their peers’ emotions and help them empathize. A child who is feeling sad or left out, for example, can go and sit on the bench. The other children are taught to recognize that as a sign to go over and ask if they can help.
Kristen, who works as a 2nd grade teacher at Tokeneke Elementary School in Darien, said that her school collected money to donate a bench to the elementary school where Kevin went, Jennings Elementary School. Jim said his goal was to get a buddy bench installed at all nine elementary schools in Fairfield.
Kristen said that over the summer, she wants to look at how Fairfield can incorporate mental health education into the middle school curriculum, hopefully in collaboration with other staff members. She said there are many resources available to teach children about mental health.
“Obviously it’s a huge process getting a new curriculum approved by a school district as large as fair, as large as Fairfield,” she said. “But I think it’s something that would be really valuable.”
Jim said the idea to fund scholarships for pediatricians and psychiatrists was in response to the shortage in providers for pediatric mental health. He said that despite Kristen’s excellent insurance, finding a psychiatrist to help Kevin was very difficult. Going outside of the insurance network, he said, was prohibitively expensive, and created a situation where “only super wealthy people can fix their kids.”
Kevin’s Afterglow will be hosting a golf tournament on June 13. The tournament is sold out, but the Kuczos are still accepting donations of silent auction items or raffle ticket purchases.
Anyone who wants to learn more about the organization or find information about mental health support can visit Kevin’s Afterglow.