Removing the armor: Former student's suicide shows struggle to ask for help

It's incredible the difference one question can make.

Justin Zimmerman was unable to ask for help, and ultimately it cost him his life.

"We had a safety net, that's what really hurts in this situation," said his father, Calvin Zimmerman. "For whatever reason, he didn't have it in him to verbalize whatever was going on inside him. He didn't have that ability to ask us."

Justin was raised in a strict, but tightly-knit Christian family, the second oldest child with three brothers and a sister. He had the ideal midwest upbringing, growing up in Hudsonville with 12 acres of woods, ample space to play paintball and enjoy the outdoors with his friends and family.

It was in those woods that the former Central Michigan University student took his life.

Statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention state that 75 percent of all suicides give some warning of their intentions. The blow is heavier for family and friends of the other 25 percent who kill themselves with no signs of being at risk for suicidal behavior.

Justin was a well-known figure in Hudsonville, and had a close relationship with his family, who could be described as supportive and tirelessly concerned for one another. Despite a strong network of friends and loved ones, Justin never told anyone the pain he was dealing with.

He was described by many at his funeral as having an electric personality, always the first to crack a joke and owner of an infectious laugh.

In many ways, he was a personification of the idea that "it could happen to anybody." He fit a familiar mold with thousands of other students, a dedicated young adult from rural Michigan, who shouldered the responsibility of meeting his own expectations and those of his family and friends.

"It's so easy to hide behind our cars, phones and our money, but we are all broken--every one of us," said his older brother, Joshua, at the funeral. "Swallow your pride, tell someone how you truly care about them, tell someone you love them. It would do our family proud if we could see a community change and see people love each other."

The long fall

Graduating high school with a 4.02 GPA and nine college credits, he was on the path for a prosperous future. In 2009, he chose to attend Central Michigan University to stay close to home and begin his career as a walk-on for the wrestling team.

Justin came from a wrestling family; his father raisedfour highly-successful athletes. Justin was a two-time state placer and set multiple season and career records at Hudsonville High School.

He met Tyler Keselring, now a junior on the CMU wrestling team, on the mat in the state championships and beat him in the regular season.

"I always remember him working hard," Keselring said. "I remember him on my recruiting trip, everyone had great things to say about him, everyone thought he was a great guy and a hard worker. He had goals and he worked hard at trying to accomplish them."

Keselring said many of the seniors on the team had fond memories of Justin and thought his final actions were uncharacteristic of the friend they had known.

Like many others, Justin was attracted to the social atmosphere at CMU.

His charisma naturally made him the life of the party and he began consuming alcohol frequently.

As time went on, Justin was unable to balance drinking with Division-I wrestling and class work, and dropped out of school. He did not compete for CMU.

"A lot of lives don’t reach the potential that they have to reach when they start to go into that next phase of life and they want to experience partying and less regulation on themselves," Calvin said. "I think it started out as fun and the next thing you know he's more gripped by it and he feels like he wasn't achieving what he expected of himself."

Attending a university can be stressful. For the first time in many students' lives, they are thrust into a life without the family support system they have grown accustomed to.

Ross Rapaport, director of the CMU Counseling Center, said feelings of hopelessness, relationship struggles, a lack of social support and a sense of isolation are all risk factors for suicide that can be felt during college life. The abrupt new lifestyle and heavy workloads invite the temptation to use and abuse alcohol and other drugs.

Justin returned home to Hudsonville to work and pay off his debts, while trying to enroll in North Central College, a small school in Naperville, Ill. In the fall of 2011, Justin was accepted and on track to get his degree, even joining the wrestling program.

However, in November 2013, Justin called home after waking up in the hospital with no memory of how he arrived. He told his father that his drinking habits were out of control and again dropped out of college with the understanding that he would stay sober and start working at home.


Calvin speculated that his son's feelings of uncertainty, failure, fear and loneliness stemmed from perceived failures up to this point in his life.

Justin may have felt he had let everyone down, and became increasingly unsatisfied with the pace his life was going.

Calvin described him as reserved, but a deep and reflective thinker. The pain of a role model falling below his own standards stayed bottled up inside, and his closest friends and family were always kept unaware of his inner struggle.

"What I think we do such a great job in (wrestling) is of building men to be so strong that they can't break," Calvin said. "We don’t do a good job of recognizing or teaching the fact that physical pain is different than mental pain. The missing thing I can think of that wouldn’t allow him to reach out is he had built an armor around himself. He had compassion; he could reach out to others’ problems, but I don’t know if he saw it as a sign of weakness to reach out for himself."

Rapaport said students often rely on their network of friends to provide emotional support while away from home. Bringing up these feelings is difficult for some, be it because of pride, embarrassment, social stigma or innumerable other reasons.

"Even though the stigma about seeking help has lessened over the years, I think it's more supportive for people to seek help now," Rapaport said. "We live in a culture that suggests, at times, we should be able to handle our problems on our own and that it would be a sign of weakness if I reached out and acknowledged I had a problem and need to get help."

According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suicides are the third-leading cause of death in young adults aged 18-24. In addition, 18 percent of undergraduate students have seriously considered suicide in their lifetimes and between 40 and 50 percent of these students report multiple instances of life-taking thoughts.

Facing and dealing with problems takes strength and courage, Rapaport said. If you are concerned about a friend, he said it is best to ask them directly if they are having thoughts of suicide.

Calvin stressed that people at risk cannot expect family and friends to put together a puzzle of their feelings.

"There were things that you could see Justin was struggling with," Calvin said, "but truly not even at the depth that we see many kids in, where they're just trying to find themselves and where they fit.

"We needed, his friends needed, his family needed, more of a direct conversation that he’s hurting"


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