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Family loss inspires exec to start teen suicide prevention program in Bloomfield Hills
Detroit Free Press - 11/30/2020
Michael Bassirpour understands how to crush metal.
He also wants to crush the fear, anxiety and sadness that can lead to suicide.
"It's an overwhelmingly challenging mountain to try to climb to help someone going through depression," said Bassirpour, 38, of Bloomfield Hills. "If I can save one life, help one person, nothing would make me happier. I've been through those struggles. I lost my brother to mental illness. ... Every second of every day, he's in the back of my mind. I constantly think about him."
His brother's death happened immediately after Thanksgiving 2010 -- on Nov. 28.
Sometimes people can't find the words to describe their pain and confusion, and when they can't find the words then they have trouble getting help. Feeling alone and isolated can make a bad situation worse. Bassirpour has witnessed this and felt powerless.
So he decided to turn a tragedy into something beautiful.
The man who makes his life running a rapidly growing regional scrap metal company based in Livonia reached out to Churchill High School with the idea of creating a powerful program, and its debut last year was transformational, students in Livonia said.
It was all part of a bigger vision.
"Crush the Stigma" involved leaving old cars in a courtyard on campus and having students write their thoughts and fears on them. After four days, Bassirpour crushed the vehicles and the words of struggle too.
Since the death of his older brother, Bassirpour needed to do more than write a check to help. He said he wanted to build a plan to get people mental health care and try to prevent other families from the shock of dealing with suicide and lives lost unexpectedly to mental illness.
"I wanted to start a conversation and help people feel comfortable," he said. "I wanted to integrate my life in business with the issue of mental illness. We crush cars for a living. The concept behind this -- to have students write things they're going through on the cars. They write about depression and obesity and being not liked. Someone wrote, 'My dad judges me.' It really brings tears to your eyes."
Words also included "unloved" and "home life" and "toxic relationships" and "anger."
On other cars, students wrote messages of hope like, "We'll be here for you" or "Come see me" or "Let us know." Experts talked about suicidal ideation to a group of about 900 students.
"You could hear a pin drop," said Principal Kevin Etue, who has been at the school 10 years. "We had some hesitation at the beginning, it was a new idea. This was about not being afraid to talk about mental health or suicide prevention -- to speak up, because people are listening to you. This is about crushing the stigma, the idea that you need to stay quiet."
Booths outside the auditorium Friday, Oct. 4, 2019 -- the last day of the week-long program -- included psychiatrists, rehabilitation facilities, addiction experts. A key player in shaping the program was the National Alliance on Mental Illness metro Detroit chapter, long supported by Bassirpour. Partners included the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, St. Joseph Mercy Behavioral Health Clinic and Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.
Afterward, student surveys said the experience had been profound. They told teachers and counselors and parents that it helped them understand better, and offer support to friends and family who may be in trouble. Students asked for Bassirpour to return.
"When we first started the conversation and introduced it to staff and parents, there was trepidation -- what if you talk about suicide and it invites students to think about it," Etue said. "Quite honestly, it had the complete opposite effect. We sent out a community letter about what it was going to be. We probably met every other week for the better part of three months."
Now the experience learned that week has been incorporated into a social-emotional curriculum that's part of coursework for high school students, Etue said. School officials recognized a strong need to manage the impact of social media and other pressures.
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Mental health issues are on the rise with kids, said Gina Zerka, child and adolescent health center program coordinator at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. "We know that there's an increase in suicidal ideation and risk, based on data. There's a need for kids to get support."
Livonia is just a snapshot of what's happening all over the state and country.
Gretchen Moran Marsh, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist based in Franklin, treats high school and college students from Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and the Troy area for anxiety and depression. She is seeing a measurable spike in client need.
"Anxiety and depression affect us in three different ways: How we feel, how we think and how we behave," Marsh said. "A depressed person has sleep problems, appetite problems, difficulty concentrating and difficulty with balance. They can feel jittery, have panic attacks -- and our thoughts become negative and even irrational."
The importance of talking about struggle and how you cope actually teaches people to manage negative feelings rather than escaping them by eating or drinking or avoiding, Marsh said. "If we learn to cope with what's going on, we become resilient."
Discussion of suicide can't be left to textbooks and clinical settings anymore, said Paul Mercier, director of student activities at Churchill High. "We've had so many kids tell us, "This is so important. This doesn't get talked about.'"
And the school did have counselors say students went in to get help as a "direct result" of the special program, he said.
Bassirpour realized everything he hoped to accomplish went as planned. He started to imagine how to expand the idea in Michigan and into Ohio, where his companies operate.
"That's my dream," he said. "It is really emotional and powerful. Crushing the stigma is more important now than ever."
He is haunted by memories of his brother, Glen, who died at 35.
"We played basketball together almost every day," Bassirpour said. "Growing up, there were two of us; now there's one."
Crush for a sustainable world
Meanwhile, COVID-19 safety protocols fuel isolation and the need for mental health support. But business at a car recycling company is stronger than ever. That's what inspired Bassirpour to think of ways to reinvest in community.
As just one of many recyclers in Michigan, his company expects to recycle 65,000 cars this year, up from 55,000 in 2019. And business is growing, as the company buys cars from dealerships that do trade-ins and mechanics -- mostly cars older than 2008.
Cars get crushed when they aren't safe, running or roadworthy, Bassirpour said. "There's 16 million cars scrapped each year in the country now."
His business drains the vehicle fluids, sells the vehicles to steel shredding companies who then sell the material to steel mills to make bridges, beams used to build houses and auto companies to produce new vehicles.
GLR has six locations as a family business that has been around since 1927. Bassirpour joined the company in 2012, and it has partnered with Padnos Recycling of Grand Rapids as part of an ongoing national expansion. They're buying cars in 11 states.
Bassirpour came home to Michigan so his girlfriend -- now wife -- could attend medical school at Wayne State University. An allergist, she has helped out at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit during a surge in coronavirus.
All these years later, they both appreciate the role of health professionals.
"Take things seriously when people say things; they're not just crying out for attention. Confront them. Help them," Bassirpour said. "If you can't do it, try to find a professional. Make it comfortable for people to talk."
He and his wife, Gillian, are the parents of Hannah, 5, and Brielle, 3.
"Crush the Stigma can help improve the mental illness epidemic in the country and make it a better and more tolerable place for my children," Bassirpour said. "That would be a big win in my book."
On hold for now
His personal mission to expand the mental health project for students is on hold now. Calls have poured in from throughout metro Detroit. The planned program for 2020 in Livonia was postponed. Everything is in flux.
While health workers do their best to contain the pandemic, Bassirpour is creating a strategy to get back into the schools. For now, though, he has inspired some school and church officials to figure out how to have the discussion while they're waiting.
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Jackson Prepolec, middle school director of the Birmingham campus at Kensington Church, is part of a team ministering to more than 10,000 attendees at five sites in metro Detroit and Traverse City who is waiting and hoping to become part of the Crush the Stigma project. Surveys at church have helped identify a concern, he said.
"We asked students, 'What is something you're struggling the most with and want to release over to God. The largest selection of responses would have been mental health, anxiety, worries," Prepolec said. "Even our middle schoolers. We were kind of surprised. There is really a stigma, a kind of pressure students put on themselves to be a certain person, to put on a certain facade in social media that they think is not enough or not who they should be."
Social distancing prevents crowds from gathering but the desire to adopt the program remains strong.
"We are looking to raise awareness. We really believe in the power of moments and creating impactful memories," Prepolec said. "A car crush fits that mold of a marked moment, one they can remember … when they decided to get help to fight the battle."
How old cars help
In addition to buying vehicles directly from consumers, GLR Advanced Recycling has begun a special program. In an effort to provide long-term support in the community, people may donate vehicles to the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Mental Illness as a tax-deductible gift at the Kelly Blue Book value and GLR will donate 100% of the purchase value to NAMI Metro. The organization supports more than 1,000 people affected by mental illness each year. Go to glradvanced.com to donate a car or call 1-800-cars4cash.
Contact Phoebe Wall Howard at 313-222-6512 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid. Sign up for our autos newsletter.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Family loss inspires exec to start teen suicide prevention program in Bloomfield Hills
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