Local resident shares perspective on suicide
Outgoing, successful, community minded… these are all characteristics that describe Sharp County businessman and resident, John Kunkel. He stays involved in the community as an advocate for many organizations in the area.
One thing people might not know about Kunkel is at the age of 24, he attempted suicide when living in Little Rock.
“It was built up pressure from years of struggling with being different than the norm,” said Kunkel, when asked about how he was feeling before the attempt. However, it was while he was in the ER at UAMS in Little Rock where he met his first therapist. For him, it was “a great way to have an open conversation and really understand my root problem was depression.” He had never considered therapy as an option before.
“I knew that I was struggling but I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to.” Kunkel was adopted as an infant, and although he was blessed by God putting him in a wonderful home, he still felt alone at times.
“It goes back to when I was in school. I wasn’t the type that was in town on Friday nights, I was at home on the farm. I had chores. In Sharp County, we always, especially back then, lived sheltered lives. The world is so different than what we experience in our area, there is always someone who needs help. When you travel or have been to third world countries, you see the reasons why people want to live in America. We are blessed.”
Mental health is centered around one’s brain, and is just like any other organ, therefore mental health is just as important to receive treatment if needed.
“Mental health does not discriminate. It touches everyone; socioeconomics, race, ethnicity, it doesn’t care, everyone struggles at some point in their life. Some people have greater coping skills and some have people they can talk to. It depends on what the ideology is whether it’s anxiety, depression, ADD, ADHD, etc. that really makes it, ‘where do I go for help, who do I talk to?’,” he said.
Kunkel was asked what he would say to someone contemplating suicide. “The first thing I would not say is, ‘think about all the people you are going to leave behind’ because that is like telling someone your opinion but have never experienced [what that person is going through] and they don’t know how they would react. In that moment, you are not thinking about other people, you are thinking about yourself. If someone were to tell me they were contemplating suicide, I would talk to them and help determine ‘what is the issue that is bothering you?’ Is it that you’ve been bullied, struggling with identity, mounting debt, health, etc., and then guiding them to a professional. But I would never tell someone to think about all the people they are going to leave behind because that is not the way to talk to someone struggling with suicidal thoughts.”
He feels one of the most important things to do if you are struggling is to find someone who is a “safe zone”. “They are not going to judge you, they want to help you. That is when you find that friend whom you know you can trust and talk about anything. If you need them to help navigate through connections or experiences, that is your best option.” Kunkel said one thing which should never be done is to desensitize suicide.
He also offered words of encouragement. “When you do get out of your depression, and you will, though you may need medication, and that is perfectly fine. At this point you will see the world through a clear lens and realize the importance and significance of ones self. So much is driven by what we’ve created as a society by wanting instant gratification, we watch people’s lives in social media, but what we see are the great times, you don’t see the bad times.”
If you are “friends” with Kunkel on social media, you will notice he likes to share life’s moments. “I am an open book. I talk about it. I don’t care if people agree or disagree with what I post, or if they believe I share too much. If I can touch someone to where they realize someone else is experiencing life struggles, and then see they are not alone then my goal is complete” he added.
The negative stigma attached to mental health plays a big factor in those who need mental health treatment. “We’ve got to stop thinking that if someone asks for help, they are weak or that they aren’t capable of something. Until you experience what depression is, just like in life, until you experience an event, you can’t empathize with someone else. You can sympathize but can’t empathize. Being empathetic, you can relate to how that person feels.”
It is important to talk to a therapist or a group of people who are suffering the same way you are. “The key is getting to the right doctor, the right help, and getting the right medication if needed,” said Kunkel.
One thing he has found helpful in recent years is a new technology which tests your genetics and determines which medications would or wouldn’t work best for you based on your DNA markup. “One of the greatest medical advancements we have today is the technology of swabbing ones mouth and identifying optimal medications,” he said about the program available at White River Health System in Batesville.
Another important thing people need to talk about is family history. “A lot of times we don’t want to talk about the negative things in our families. Being adopted, I didn’t know any medical history surrounding my birth family. I found some of my birth family in 1993, and found out three years ago that on my birth mother’s side, my oldest sister committed suicide and on my birth father’s side, a brother had committed suicide. Knowing hereditary history helps you be more aware of yourself.” Self-awareness and self-care are also keys in treating mental health. “Families have got to break down and talk about it. There is nothing wrong with it. It is just making sure you are healthy; physically and mentally.”
Death by suicide is growing in youth, a very scary statistic, in fact, according to to statistics provided by WRMC Community Education Coordinator Lindsey Bowers, suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24. “More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease – combined,” is another statistic provided by Bowers.
Kunkel encourages parents to be involved in their children’s lives and to watch for changes in attitude or mood. “There are so many things that can cause mental health issues whether it is a pet dying, family member dying, , moving to a new school, anything can trigger depression.” Identifying triggers is another key when having control on suicidal thoughts/tendencies. “Once you get older, at least I have experienced, you are going to know what those triggers are. Right now with my health scare, if I wasn’t mentally healthy, I probably would be freaking out. It is the unknown,” he said. “You have to have a healthy mentality to be able to manage those potholes in life, because we are all going to have them.”
One way Kunkel has found to relax and enjoy some “him time” is his farm, his “escape”. “If you allow your mind too much free time, it allows you to think about worst-case scenarios. Is there a time to think about worse case scenarios? Yes. Because you want to mentally prepare yourself so if something happens you are prepared. But we can’t do it every time. If you don’t make an A on that test, it is ok. If you have people who do not bring positivity into your life, it is ok to distance yourself. Loving yourself and being comfortable with who you are is important and also one of the hardest things for anyone to do.”
“One of the things that brings me the most joy is being able to help others and share my experiences that I’ve had living away, working in corporate America and working side by side by someone from almost every country, going overseas on buying trips with Walmart. At the end of the day, we are all here with the same mission and we all bleed red. That is the common thread that links everyone on this planet.”
After Kunkel’s suicide attempt, he received a college degree from Harding University, went up the ranks at Walmart to Senior Buyer (responsible for $1.2 billion in retail sales), moved to Scottsdale, Ariz. to be Senior Director for PetSmart Corporate. At this point in his career his dad was battling the final stages of dementia. He moved back to Bentonville and went back to Walmart as a Sr Brand Manager for all of the Apparel Division. Three months after moving back to Arkansas his dad passed. He continued to work for two more years with Walmart before making one of the toughest decisions; he chose family over career I came back to Sharp County and to me, it makes me happy to be able to help others. One of the great things about that is I get to work for a company who puts community first. When you align your values with your employer values, that allows you to do even more.”
Another scary statistic is Arkansas is the ninth ranked state for suicides. One thing Kunkel has done through his involvement in the community and urge to help others is organize a group of individuals concerned with mental health issues in the state, and see what can be done to combat those issues. As a part of the group, a meeting with Arkansas’ First Lady, Susan Hutchison, was established.
“When we went down and met with the First Lady, we had diverse people in the room: I had attempted suicide, a person whose husband died by suicide, and someone who works with people who struggle with mental illness, however the common thread was they didn’t know what they didn’t know and they didn’t know what resources are out there. This is why it is so important that we start talking about mental health because it is ok to be depressed at times, but when it consumes you there is help. When you find that resource, you will realize just how good life can be.,” he said.
He ended the interview with some more words of encouragement. “Whenever you get past that feeling of loneliness or helplessness, and you realize how blessed you are, your life will change. For mental health, always remember no one should ever feel inferior, threatened, belittled, or intimidated when asking for help, and if you need medication, by all means take it. Once you get to your happy place, you are going to realize how little someone else’s opinion matters.”
Social media, though often used for good, can sometimes be hurtful and not on purpose. “We always need to remember not to compare our lives to someone else’s. What you see on social media is only a depiction of what people want you to see. Just because someone is social, if you don’t like it, scroll on,” said Kunkel. Identifying the positive instead of negative should be everyone’s primary focus. “Something healthy for me is making fun of myself. If I mess up or do something, I make a joke of it, and I don’t mind sharing it.
You have to surround yourself with friends who accept you as you are and don’t want you to be something that you are not,” he added.