Lindsey Kato had it all – a loving family, amazing friends, financial security and good grades. But looks can be deceiving – and beyond the façade lingered a deep depression.
In high school, Lindsey was diagnosed with a chemical imbalance that caused her depression. On top of that, she struggled with an eating disorder and a reluctance to talk with others about her condition, which led to loneliness and eventually self-mutilation.
As a result, she began to isolate herself from the world, to the detriment of friendship and social activities, spending days on end in bed.
As if she didn’t already have enough on her plate, she suddenly went from being an only child (she has a half-sister 18 years her senior), to being a big sister to four foster children.
What she initially looked at as yet another challenge in her life ended up being a lifesaver. She became inseparable with her 5-month-old foster sister.
“She is my reason that I’m even still here on this Earth,” she says. “We have a very maternal, sisterly relationship because I’m so much older and she was the apple of my eye.”
It was because of her sister that Lindsey was able to get her life back on track. She decided to devote her life to improving the lives of others and was accepted into Oregon State to study public health.
But being on her own wasn’t easy. After her junior year, she fell back into old habits, this time losing nearly 30 pounds in one summer.
And it wasn’t long before another roadblock stopped her in her tracks. Three people she was close to committed suicide during her time at Oregon State – a coworker, a cousin and a former boyfriend whom she grew up with.
“I wasn’t mad at him for leaving; I was jealous that I wasn’t able to do it, too, and I realized at some point how sick that is,” she says. “It was then that I decided to focus on suicide prevention.”
Time for change
It was time for her to turn her life around – again. She didn’t want to be depressed, and she wanted to graduate from college.
“There comes a time in your life where you need to make a decision, and the decision is between basically darkness and light,” she says. “I made a decision between life and death and I chose life. My parents are happy, my sisters are happy and instead of causing pain, I’m doing good.”
Lindsey chose the topic of suicide prevention in a health program-planning course at Oregon State. She wanted to use knowledge learned in the class to help prevent suicides in her hometown of Juneau, Alaska, where suicide rates double the national average.
But just before graduation she fell ill.
For months, Lindsey suffered from chronic head pain, severe fatigue and difficulty breathing. “It’s kind of scary because your mind is a really powerful thing and I was like, ‘Gosh, am I just making this stuff up? Am I forcing myself to be sick?’” she says.
But she wasn’t making it up. After completing her courses, her parents took her to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix where doctors found a tumor that had taken over the entire right side of her sinuses, traveled into her nasal passageways and was continuing down into her throat.
“They really prepared my family and I for the possibility of it being serious,” she says. “Out of all the things, depression, an eating disorder, wanting to commit suicide, harming myself, etc., that was one of the most difficult things I had to go through because I wasn’t trying to take my own life. I had no control.”
A month later she successfully had surgery to remove the tumor.
Still, recovery wasn’t her only focus. She needed an internship to graduate – and the deadline was closing in. That’s when everything began to fall in place.
Just days before the deadline, she received an email from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Statewide Suicide Prevention Council saying they’d like to interview her for an internship position. “I felt like it was exactly where I’m supposed to be,” she says.
Lindsey got the position and went straight to work. There, she was involved in everything from board meetings to designing a collaborative suicide prevention plan in Alaska’s five regions.
“It was eye opening and it was overwhelming to see the need,” she says. “Trying to get communities to work with us so we can build a comprehensive plan for them is something that Alaska really needs.”
Before her internship was over, Lindsey got the opportunity of a lifetime and is now the new National Alliance of Mental Illness’ Community-Based Suicide Prevention Services Coordinator in Juneau.
“To be able to create a safe, healthy environment for future generations and to give back to the community that literally helped me up when I was down, is just amazing,” she says.
Since December, she’s been working with schools and the community to distribute knowledge and resources about suicide while establishing suicide prevention programs.
She plans to focus on hard-to-target populations – those who have graduated from high school, are unemployed and difficult to locate – so they don’t fall through the cracks.
She’s already made great strides. Within her first few weeks on the job, Lindsey organized a community-healing event to help those affected by recent suicides.
“We’ve got this community and culture where we turn to alcohol constantly for depression, when we’re having a hard time or when we lose something,” she says. “I wanted some place safe for people to come and be able to heal in a way that doesn’t involve going to bars or drinking themselves to sleep every night. It felt really, really good to help others heal.”
And it has helped with her own healing – even after she was recently diagnosed with occipital neuralgia, a medical condition characterized by chronic pain in the upper neck, back of the head and behind the eyes. She’s since received treatment that has helped manage her pain.
“It’s very rewarding to be able to say that I’ve come full circle, that I’ve been there and now I see myself as a success story.”
“I feel like life really started within the last couple of months. Even within the last couple of days I feel like I was reborn into this new, happy person that I am now,” she says. “I’ve been smiling all day.”
And she hasn’t stopped smiling.
“Is it too cliché for me to say the greens are greener and the sun is brighter and the wind feels great?” she asks. “It feels like I’m walking on a cloud, like it’s almost too good to be true. It definitely hasn’t been without a struggle to get here, but the fact that I’m here after the darkest thoughts that I’ve had in my life, is crazy. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling, and I just wish everybody could feel how I feel.”
To continue her efforts, Lindsey recently served as a motivational speaker in front of a group Alaskan high school students. She hopes to serve as a role model for those in need.
“It’s scary to think I was there, that I could have hurt people the way that I’ve seen people be hurt,” she says. “But it’s also very rewarding to be able to say that I’ve come full circle, that I’ve been there and now I see myself as a success story. It gives people hope. It shows that suicide is preventable, people can be helped and depression doesn’t have to be forever.”