Old Lyme - Mike Hallberg wasn't always the best student. But at The Country School in Madison and later at The Williams School in New London, "Mikey" made his mark. He was happy, and goofy, and kind with a heart of gold, an artist and lacrosse player who endeared himself to faculty and students alike, said his mother, Susan Hallberg of Old Lyme.
Mike had potential, Williams' director of college counseling wrote in her recommendation. Teachers across the board believed he would thrive once he stopped getting sidetracked and decided to start paying attention to his studies, Meghan Ryan wrote.
But unbeknownst to his mother, Mike was struggling at Champlain College. He was depressed, doing drugs and failing out of school.
In May 2010, just one year into college, Mike returned home, kicked out of school, burnt cigarette marks on his torso. He told his mother they were the result of a drinking game.
They were the first in a series of red flags, as self-harm is a hallmark sign of depression.
On Nov. 27, 2010, two days after Thanksgiving, Mike slipped away from his family, posted one last Facebook status update - lyrics from "Happiness," by Elliott Smith, who committed suicide in 2003. Then he went to his father's house in Ledyard and shot himself in the head with a shotgun. He was 20.
The baby in a family of four children, he was found by his sister, Elizabeth, and brother, James, his mother said.
Mike left behind family and friends who couldn't stop thinking about the what-ifs. What if they'd insisted on getting Mike help, even if he said he was OK? What if they'd taken all the signs of depression and connected the dots sooner?
"I think all of us wish that we'd done something different, but how could you know? How would you know?" Susan Hallberg said.
Because they can't bring Mike back, Hallberg and a group of family and friends are headed to Burlington, Vt., today to walk for suicide prevention so that others can recognize the signs of depression early and get help for their loved ones, Hallberg said.
Suicide is preventable, and advocating for suicide prevention is something Hallberg feels she can do in the wake of her son's death.
"For me, I was either going to dig a hole and get in it or I was going to try and do something about it," she said.
Hallberg formed a group, "We Walk for Mikey~And Others," and set a goal of raising $5,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention by participating in the Burlington "Out of the Darkness" community walk this morning at Battery Park.
As of Thursday the group had raised $1,521. Hallberg will continue to accept donations well past the event date.
"It's not hard to ask people for money for something that's good," she said.
Some in Hallberg's family are not as open about talking about Mike's suicide as Hallberg. But for her, Mike's story is an important one to tell.
Suicide is not uncommon, she said: it's the third leading cause of death among people 15 to 24 years old, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. But because the media doesn't typically cover suicides, and people shy away from the topic, awareness is lacking, Hallberg said. Medical professionals, too, need to do a better job of assessing patients' risk of hurting themselves, she said.
Nearly a year after Mike's death, his loss is no less painful, Hallberg said. But becoming an advocate for suicide prevention has created a sense of purpose for her.
"I don't know if we could have saved him," Hallberg said. "But I carry this forward so that people are more vigilant of the people they love."