Mother continues late son's suicide prevention work

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net
The Examiner

Editor's note: This article has been changed to better reflect the Pierson Project's advocacy.

When Pierson Phillips spoke to the public, he usually based his discussion on the theme “Changing the Story.” 

Two years later, his mother Hilaire aims to continue Pierson’s story of that theme. 

Pierson started speaking publicly at age 10, a couple of years after he realized and first revealed to his parents that he had some form of mental illness and sometimes had suicidal thoughts. He talked openly and unashamed of his struggle, which was complicated by an additional diagnosis of Tourette Syndrome. He hoped to remove the stigma of mental illness and convince more youngsters to talk and adults to listen about it. 

Pierson Phillips spoke about the need to reach our when help is needed.

Hilaire said Pierson often said that while he had a mental illness, it didn’t simply mean he was mentally ill. Rather, he recognized his condition and tried to talk about it so he could address it effectively.  

But in January 2019, Pierson’s illness became too much for him. He died at home less than two months after he turned 14, during his eighth-grade year at Nativity of Mary School in Independence. 

“It was his illness; it was not a decision he made,” Hilaire said. “We have to change that narrative. 

“If Pierson could’ve chosen ‘happy,’ he would have. You can’t just decide to not be ill. He said, ‘My parents let me speak because they never want me to be ashamed of who I am, and I’m not.’ There’s plenty of people with a mental illness who’ve done great things.” 

Even if she can’t offer the exact same perspective her son once did, Hilaire has tried to continue The Pierson Project (thepiersonproject.org), speaking to groups or at causes to encourage greater awareness of mental illness, either in one’s self or in others. With pandemic restrictions easing, she hopes to make that work more regular like she had the year between her son’s death and the pandemic. Comprehensive Mental Health Services, based in Independence, has been a strong partner for herself and Pierson, she said. 

Part of that work also involves some of Pierson’s former classmates, who have finished their sophomore years mostly at Rockhurst or St. Michael the Archangel, carrying that message to their peers. 

“They can make a difference,” Hilaire said. “He fought really hard to get something happening here.” 

In addition to removing stigmas about mental illness, Hilaire would like to see better insurance coverage – mental health parity – for treatment. Just as important, though, is trying to ensure the people that individuals like Pierson would talk to know how to handle such discussions. 

“It’s not just about insurance companies covering it,” she said, “but do we tell these people (who first listen to those in crisis) how to help?” 

The free 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for individuals in crisis, 1-800-273-8255, will change in a year to “988” – similar to the nationwide “911” long used for emergencies. Competent support and local connections can better help callers in crisis, and that requires reliable funding, Hilaire said. Thus, it’s important to advocate for and for state legislatures to fund those services, she said. 

Hilaire said she can understand the initial skepticism of someone as young as a pre-teen saying they have suicidal thoughts, and she acknowledged that some people believed Pierson faked his condition for attention – a notion she immediately scoffs at – but at his age one can’t point to the hormonal complications of puberty. She also knows youths are far from the only population group where one can find a growing number of those in mental-health crisis. The main goal, she said, is to carry on the message of her and her husband’s only child – to normalize the conversation of mental illness, so people have a better chance of getting help. 

She recalled one parent telling her some time after one of Pierson’s speeches, “If it wasn’t for Pierson, my daughter wouldn’t have known to ask for help.” 

“The number of lives he was able to change in a short amount of time was amazing, and this is what he left us,” Hilaire said. “We’re going to do the best we can.”