Family tragedy inspired Summit County man to champion mental health
Ray Freer’s son’s suicide encouraged him to become a community advocate
May 19, 2017
In 2002, when Ray Freer's son reached the "depths of his despair" and took his own life after a 15-year battle with mental illness, people suggested he quietly move on from the tragedy and gradually forget about his son's struggles.
But, Freer said he didn't want to. He wanted others to know about his son, the demons he faced and how they ultimately led to his death. Freer explained how his son suffered several psychotic breaks before he was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at the age of 19.
"That was my experience with my son, but I didn't want to just let it go," Freer said. "That's one of the things that prompted me to keep working and, ever since then, I have been heavily engaged in mental health issues."
Freer, a longtime member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and former vice president, has openly shared his experiences surrounding his son's death and, as a result, has been recognized as a community advocate for better mental health and substance abuse services in Summit County.
Freer joined a community steering committee that, along with the Summit County Council, Valley Behavioral Health and Summit County Health Department, created a survey to assess the community's mental health and substance abuse needs. He is also an active member of CONNECT Summit County and heavily engaged with the activities associated with Mental Health Awareness Month.
Since the survey results were released in January, Summit County's Mental Wellness Alliance has made significant strides in engaging the public on the topic. According to Aaron Newman, Summit County's mental health and substance abuse coordinator, people like Freer have "really humanized" the conversations.
"Here is someone who has truly experienced and suffered a loss, but was able to take that loss and challenge it to improve a community," Newman said. "For me, he (Freer) embodies hope. He didn't let what happened stop him, it became his motivation to really engage the community."
Newman said Freer has personified the issue for the community, adding "his story is so impactful."
"It is sad what happened, but he was able to move beyond that experience and turn it into something positive," Newman said.
Rich Bullough, Summit County Health Department director, said he first met Freer nearly two years ago. He described him as a quiet, humble guy who "does not seek the limelight."
"I was in that meeting and began to learn the reality that people brought to this issue. Ray came not because of his personal experiences, but because of the way he has channeled energy and sincerity on the topic to benefit the community. He impressed me from the get-go because he brings a reality, a reasonableness to this."
Bullough said Freer asks the tough questions and lends a sense of urgency to the issue. He attributed it, in part, to his "calm demeanor."
"The rest comes from the fact that he has lived this. For lack of a better analogy, he is the canary in the coalmine," Bullough said. "I have heard individuals say he needs to get more credit for what he is doing. He has been in my ear and telling me why this important, not just to him but, to our community, more so than any other individual. He has been very persistent and strategic in ensuring that the county understands the importance of these issues."
When told he was considered an "unsung hero" of the community's mental health effort, Freer simply said, "If that is true, I am thrilled."
"People are speaking out and are emotionally very supportive of all that we are doing," Freer said. "It's special and when I say it's emotional, it's because of this outpouring of support that has suddenly made this acceptable to talk about. In my opinion, it is destigmatizing it."
Freer said it was devastating watching the spark in his son's eyes diminish as his illness took over. However, he said, "That's the nature of beast. It is a terrible affliction."
"When my son's death occurred, it was at a time when people thought it was a lack of parenting skills. But we had two children who were both offered the same opportunities and love. People just didn't understand the illness at the time," Freer said. "It is just so rewarding to see now that we can have these open conversations without the same judgement as in the past."
There are about 20 free talks, films and panel discussions planned throughout May as part of CONNECT's Mental Health Awareness Month. Visit http://www.connectsummitcounty.org to learn about the events.