Mary & Larry's story
He was truly the best Christmas present ever. It was December 2009, and their months-long journey to adopt 11-year-old Sergei from Russia was complete. Sergei was an orphan and had lived a troubled childhood, but Clive couple Mary Neubauer Larry Loss wanted to help this young person in need.
In his late teenage years, Sergei would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, likely caused by his upbringing. But when he first arrived in the United States, Sergei adapted well. He started speaking conversational English in just a few months. He played sports and had artistic talent.
“He could just sit down and draw anything in front of him,” Neubauer said.
But like a lot of young individuals with a history of trauma, Sergei’s struggles became more apparent over time. Starting when he was about 16, Sergei’s anxiety and depression spun out of control. Neubauer and Loss searched thoroughly for assistance, but there was none to be found in Iowa.
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They expanded their search nationwide, and eventually, found residential mental health care facilities in Arizona and California, where Sergei was in treatment for four months. But after he returned home, his symptoms only seemed to get worse.
Two weeks later, in September 2017, just a few weeks before his 19th birthday, Sergei took his own life.
"By standing up and telling Sergei’s story was it enabled others to step out of their comfort zone. And because that happened, changes have been made.”
Neubauer, a former news reporter and editor, wrote a touching obituary. She chronicled Sergei’s life, his struggles and the importance of mental health. After The Des Moines Register picked up the story, the obituary was shared thousands of times, all over the country. That was just the start of Neubauer and Loss’ advocacy in Sergei’s memory.
“We felt the need to honor our son, but be honest about his struggles,” Neubauer said. “So we were telling his story, and beginning to be activists for him shortly after the time he died. We’ve continued that work in the years since.”
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Neubauer, 52, and Loss, 61, were part of a large group of folks that worked with the Iowa Legislature to push for more measures in addressing children’s mental health. They’ve had success: Gov. Kim Reynolds created a first-of-its-kind Children’s Behavioral Mental Health System last year and that’s thanks in part to people like Neubauer and Loss telling their stories and consistently pushing back the stigma associated with mental illness.
“I don’t think people realize that you as an individual can make a difference,” Loss said. “Lots of people say 'I can’t do anything because of all these reasons.' But what Mary and I found by standing up and telling Sergei’s story was it enabled others to step out of their comfort zone. And because that happened, changes have been made.”
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Make It OK is community campaign to reduce stigma by starting conversations and increasing understanding about mental illness. Start by learning what a mental illness really is. Then, find out what to say and not to say when someone opens up to you. You can also help others by sharing your own story to help people know they aren’t alone. Learn more about how you can get involved at MakeItOK.org/Iowa.