Giving Back

Posted on May 10 2019

Hello Maude Specklebelly Friends!!  I know.  You are probably asking yourselves, “Who is this lady calling me her friend?”.  Please allow me to introduce myself!  My name is Jennifer (Robbins) Starr.  I have been friends with Erin and Jaime for our entire lives!!!  We have been friends since kindergarten!  How many people can say that, huh?  It’s an honor and a privilege to still count them as two of my best friends all these years later.  I treasure their friendship more than anything in this world.  So, if you are a friend of theirs, then you are a friend of mine by default!

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.  Erin and Jaime have the most beautiful and generous hearts of any two people you will ever know!  They contacted me recently to let me know that in honor of Mental Health Awareness month they would like to give 10% of their sales for the month of May to The JBR Foundation.  (Cue the happy tears here, please)!!!  I am so touched by their generosity.  They believe in this little dream of mine wholeheartedly and I am so thankful for their support!

I am pleased to have the opportunity to tell you about The JBR Foundation and how we came to be.  The JBR Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.  It has been established by myself and my brother, Chad, in memory of our beautiful brother, Jamie Bryant Robbins.  Jamie died by suicide on April 3, 2018 at the age of 39.

Although Jamie’s family and a few close friends knew that his life was in turmoil, most people in his life did not.  You see, Jamie, was one of the most social, outgoing, successful, and productive human beings to ever grace this earth.  Just this week I ran into a family friend at Panera.  Her exact words were, “I was so shocked to hear of Jamie’s suicide.  He lived on top of the world.  I had no idea that he was in so much pain”.  I don’t think there could be a more accurate description of my brother than that.  “He lived on top of the world”.  Yes, my friends, he sure
did. At least from the outside looking in.  But, you see, that’s the problem with mental illness.  You can’t see it.

So many people in this world are carrying the burden of mental illness alone.  They are burying it inside themselves and hiding it shamefully while living in fear that someone might find out their “secret”.  Why is that so?  I believe it is because there is a stigma and a shame that surrounds the topic of mental health.  People are quite simply terrified to talk about it.  Honestly, how ridiculous is that though given the statistics?  Statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) show that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US experience mental illness in a given year. Additionally, approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13-18 experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their life.  Think about that for a minute. 1 in 5 people experience mental illness.  That is a LOT of people!  Yet, we are still afraid to talk to each other about it.  How absurd, right?  My friends, we must be willing to talk about our mental health just as openly as we do our arthritis, or our diabetes, or our cancer, or our heart disease.  Mental illness is no different than any other disease that you don’t ask to be diagnosed with!

In the immediate aftermath of Jamie’s suicide, we heard repeatedly how shocking it was.  Of course, that is a standard response to learning that somebody you love has taken their own life.  But it wasn’t just the act of suicide that shocked people.  Many people were just as surprised to learn that Jamie had an addiction to alcohol and suffered from depression.  We all have these preconceived notions of what an alcoholic or a person living with mental illness should look like, and Jamie didn’t fit the mold.

On the surface, Jamie had it all.  As a teenager he was an honor roll student, and one of the most accomplished athletes in school.  It didn’t matter if he was playing golf, basketball, football, or running track, he excelled at it.  He was good at everything and it came to him almost without effort.  Jamie was a dad to three beautiful children that adored him.  He had a career that he loved.  He worked in management for BNSF Railway as a Trainmaster.  Most people don’t know what a Trainmaster is.  He was basically the Air Traffic Controller but of railways instead of airplanes.  It is a job that required an incredible amount of responsibility and
focus, and he was very good at it.  He wasn’t withdrawn socially either as many alcoholics are.  In fact, Jamie was the most social person I have ever known in my entire life.  He literally knew EVERYONE, and he valued his friendships more than anything.  He was an extrovert by all definitions of the word.  He had a passion for other people that was unparalleled.  He simply LOVED people.  My family and I hugged over 750 people at his visitation.  The following morning, the funeral home had set up 400 chairs for his funeral.  It wasn’t enough.  They set up more until it was standing room only.  THAT is how social of a person he was.  THAT is how
incredibly loved he was.  In his free time, he loved to hunt geese and was a very accomplished golfer.  So accomplished, in fact, that I had the privilege to caddie for him in May 2017 when he golfed in the US Open Qualifier!

Jamie was what we call a high-functioning alcoholic.  He was extremely productive in many aspects of his life, which allowed him to mask his alcoholism and maintain an appearance of success.  I believe that a person’s dependency on alcohol is a progression that happens over time.  A person doesn’t just drink one beer and “catch” alcoholism.  Chronic consumption and abuse of alcohol over an extended period changes the brain’s wiring until eventually it leads to dependency.  Jamie’s dependency on drinking was a long, slow progression that happened over the course of 20 years.  Making it even more problematic was that Jamie never saw himself as an alcoholic.  He was highly functional, and for that reason he was in deep denial about his problem, as are most functional alcoholics.

So, what did Jamie’s alcoholism have to do with mental illness?  Most would argue that alcoholism is a substance abuse disorder, not a mental illness.  That is correct.  I won’t deny that.  However, there is still a connection between the two.  Alcoholism and mental illness often go hand in hand.  They are like fires that dance together in the night, fueling each other with flames that become dangerously undistinguishable.  People with mental illness tend to develop substance abuse disorders to self-medicate.  Likewise, people with drug addictions or
alcoholism tend to develop mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.  That was exactly the case for Jamie.  His alcoholism ultimately catapulted him into mental illness.  He drank himself right into a depression that was so dark he ultimately chose to die by suicide.

If you happen to be one of the 400+ people that attended Jamie’s funeral, then you already know that right out the gate my family chose to address the role that alcoholism and mental illness played in his suicide.  There was an audible gasp in the room that day as those words were first spoken.  It is not easy to say that my brother was an alcoholic with mental illness or to say that he died by suicide.  The words are hard to speak.  The words are hard to hear.  The words are even hard for me to type.  So, I understand that our willingness to address it in that moment was shocking.  However, even then, in our darkest hour and while we were drowning
in sorrow, we immediately recognized the need to open this up for discussion.  Pretending that none of it existed in Jamie’s life would only continue to fuel the stigma that surrounds addiction and mental illness.  That stigma is in turn fueling the suicide epidemic in our country.  WE MUST PUT AN END TO THE STIGMA.

The only way to end the stigma surrounding these sensitive topics it to talk about it.  My friends, we are all human.  We all suffer. We all carry pain.  We all know or love someone whose life is affected by mental illness.  We must normalize mental health and make it an acceptable part of our day to day lives.  There will be consequences if we don’t.  More people will continue to suffer in silence until they can’t bear the pain anymore.  More people will die by suicide.  I don’t know about you, but I am not ok living in a world where that is acceptable.  I am tired of people suffering in silence and I am tired of people dying by suicide as a result.

That’s how The JBR Foundation was born, my friends.  It was born out of an unbearable loss and out of love for my late brother.  He suffered in silence instead of using his voice to say three very simple but effective words, “I need help”.  My brother’s suicide has changed my life in a million ways.  Suicide prevention and awareness as well as the education and awareness surrounding substance abuse and addiction, and mental health have become incredibly important to me and my family.  I feel called to tell my brother’s story, no matter how painful it is to tell.  I feel called to advocate for him and for all you who can’t find the strength to do it

The JBR Foundation has two core goals: Education and Outreach.  Our hope is to provide funding for schools and other youth organizations so that they can in turn provide more education to our children on mental health.  We must teach our kids that they have a voice inside of them.  And, we must teach them how to use that voice to speak up for themselves and how to ask for help if they find themselves needing it.  We must remove the shame that’s associated with mental illness.  We must teach kids that it is ok to not be ok.

In addition, The JBR Foundation is excited to implement our outreach programs and to connect with other families that have suffered suicide loss.  Our first outreach program is called Project Thumbies.  Please feel free to visit out website, www.jbr-foundation.org, to learn more about it!

THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for shopping at Maude’s in the month of May and for helping support our cause.  Together we can make a difference! Together we can remove the stigma surrounding mental health.

You are loved.  You are worthy.  Your life here matters.  You are somebody’s Jamie.

XO – Jennifer

National Hotline for Suicide Prevention: 1-800-273-8255 or Text Help to 741741

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