A California family who lost their son to suicide following a battle with anxiety and depression knows better than anyone that awareness is key — and now, they’re transforming their grief into good with a nonprofit that aims to do just that by erasing the stigmas surrounding mental health.
Steve and Mannie Nimmo lost their son Zachary, 14, to suicide in October 2018, something that caught the couple “completely” off guard, Steve, 50, tells PEOPLE.
“We thought we were doing all the right things,” he says, noting his son had been on an upswing and was looking forward to various events when he took his own life the night before his 15th birthday.
Zachary was a high school freshman in Pleasanton with a passion for video games, sports and fishing — and though he’d recently been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, he worked hard to hide his symptoms from those close to him.
“He had such a sense of shame over his anxiety,” Mannie, 49, says. “He didn’t want other people to know.”
Adds Steve, “His old friends saw him withdrawing but had no idea what he was dealing with. For his newer friends he wore a ‘mask’ to hide his pain.”
Though an athlete all his life, Zachary had given up playing sports, and instead spent hours alone in his room playing video games. His parents noticed the change and sent him to a therapist who put him on Prozac.
Despite the steps Steve and Mannie took, Zachary’s shame surrounding his mental health struggles remained — even though the National Institute of Mental Health says that more than 30% of kids under 18 in the U.S. suffer from anxiety disorders.
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“Zachary felt like he was alone in this space. Kids are suffering in silence, and someone needs to get out there and be their advocate and help them through it,” Steve tells PEOPLE. “And that’s what we’re trying to do: let them know that they’re not alone. They’ve got somebody to talk to.”
With that mission in mind, Steve, Mannie, and their daughter Samantha, 18, launched the Z-Cares Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at erasing the stigma attached to social anxiety disorders so that those who suffer don’t feel as isolated as Zachary did.
The foundation has placed an emphasis on speaking out, and recently organized a series of community screenings of Angst, a documentary about teenage anxiety that they followed with panel discussions of teens and therapists talking about their experiences.
“It’s empowering for not only the teens but the adults to actually hear teenagers sharing their stories,” says Samantha. “That hits harder than just an adult talking about the facts.”
So far, the initiative has already seen results, as Steve says he’s had kids reach out to him to say that the conversations they’re hearing are ones they wish they could have with their parents.
“We can’t let another family go through this,” he says. “That’s what keeps up going.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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