MONTVILLE, NJ – Matt Sefcik remembers his 16-year-old brother T.J. stalked out the night T.J. died, even though T.J. had stalked out many other nights. But this time it was different.
“My dad came into the room and said ‘T.J.’s gone,’ and my mom was in the living room, sitting on the couch, surrounded by ten cops with hollow eyes,” he said. “When they signed on to be cops in a small town like Montville, they probably pictured themselves writing speeding tickets, not having to do this.”
In 2010, T.J. Sefcik committed suicide, and parents Wendy and Steve Sefcik have decided to use their grief to educate other parents about teenage depression and suicide in the hopes of saving a life. The pair presented “Remembering T.J.: A Story of Teen Depression, Lessons and Hope” at Montville Township High School to the students during the school day and to parents on the evening of Sept. 25 to that end. Their son, Matt, also spoke in a video made a few years ago.
“When you are physically ill, you know just which hospital you want to go to, yet most people don’t know what mental health facility is available in this area,” Steve Sefcik said. “It’s St. Clair’s. And yet mental health is just as important as physical health, and the chances of a friend, family or associate having a diagnosable mental health illness are one in four. We want you to feel empowered to seek help for yourself or someone else. Most of all, we want you to speak about mental illness.”
“Before I lost my T.J. to suicide I worried about so many things – them getting sick, car accidents – but never about suicide,” Wendy said. “But since losing T.J., I’ve learned that so many kids struggle silently. And added stressors like bullying, breakups, pressures at school, can increase suicide risk for a child who is already struggling silently. It’s so important to teach our kids to simply be kind, because we never know who is struggling and how.
“Risk factors that lead to suicide are usually a combination of health, historical and environmental factors that all come together. Unfortunately, so many times we only hear about an environmental factor ‘causing’ a suicide – a breakup for example – so we think that’s the reason. But suicide is very complex and there are usually other factors that come into play. Our kids need to know there are always other options,” Wendy said.
The Sefciks shared the story of their seemingly “perfect” home life, and the “perfect” story of T.J. growing up, loving sports, happy, intelligent, funny.
“He certainly knew how to enjoy life,” Steve said. “How could a boy like this choose suicide?”
The Sefciks said they noticed problems increasing during T.J.’s teenage years, when he became irritable at home. He went on a weekend drinking binge at age 14, for which he was punished and sent to counseling, but the counselor said it was a one-time mistake, Steve said.
Next they noticed his enjoyment of his favorite sport, lacrosse, decreased. Even his coaches noticed, Steve said, but T.J. couldn’t put his finger on why.
“I want to play but I’m not having as much fun,” Steve said T.J. told him.
A new therapist said this was just normal teenage changes, Steve said.
In ninth grade, T.J. was drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, Steve said. The Sefciks tried every punishment they could think of: taking away T.J.’s cell phone, instilling a curfew.
“He would calm down and then it would escalate again,” Steve said. “We didn’t realize at 15 and 16 he was trying to self-medicate to alleviate the pain of depression.”
Finally the Sefciks took T.J. to the emergency room during T.J.’s sophomore year when they saw he was “feeling overwhelmed and spiraling out of control,” Steve said, and were told he was suffering from depression.
Steve said he couldn’t understand how T.J. could feel this way when he had such a great life and told him to snap out of it.
“By the end, T.J. thought he was not worthy of love, and that’s how insidious this disease is,” said Wendy. “Depression is so much more than being sad. It’s common but treatable, if you let someone know you are struggling. As a parent, you have to listen, hear, and be willing to do something about it.”
Signs that the Sefciks saw in their son but didn’t realize were signs of depression included unexplained aches and pains such as headaches or stomachaches, extreme irritability, and extreme sensitivity to criticism.
Brother Matt was also diagnosed with depression, which frightened him.
“But depression is not a death sentence,” he said in the video. “You don’t have to battle it alone.”
Matt encouraged people not to “talk” to people with depression – “Just listen and let them know you’re there to listen.”
Wendy encouraged parents to be patient about finding the right therapist, to be sure to find one who specializes in adolescent treatment, and to make sure a risk assessment is conducted. Plus, “there are different therapies,” she said, “not just talk.” She told parents to “trust your gut.” She also encouraged families to familiarize themselves with genetic disorders and to not brush off substance abuse problems because they can be indicative of a child in pain.
“And please talk about suicide,” she told parents. “It’s a myth that talking about it plants the seed. Ask the question. ‘Have you considered committing suicide?’ If the answer is yes, don’t gasp and tell your child not to do it. Ask, ‘how?’ If there’s a plan in place, get them to the emergency room. Get help immediately.”
Steve encouraged dads to “not solve problems.”
“That’s what dads do,” he said. “They solve. But don’t. Take the time. Bite your lip and listen. This is not something that can be just ‘solved.’”
The Montville Township School District Student Assistance Counselors also introduced themselves to parents. Carol Candelario and Catherine Lomauro work at the high school, while Kelly McCorkle works at Lazar Middle School. SACs deal with students’ social-emotional needs regarding issues such as bullying, feelings of depression or anxiety, issues with self esteem or body image, substance abuse, trouble controlling or expressing anger, difficulty adjusting to a major life change, or the death of a loved one, according to the district’s website.
For more information about the Sefciks, including resources on teenage depression, click Remembering T.J. .
To contact the high school’s SACs, please go to Student Assistance Counselors - h.s.
To contact the middle school SAC, please go to Student Assistance Counselor - Lazar