Remembering Mike

My younger brother, Mike Kutilek, would have turned 32 on April 26 had mental illness not taken his life almost three years ago, on May 22nd, 2020. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and in light of his recent birthday, I wanted to share part of our family’s story. 

It is a personal story, one that is filled with heartache and missing a loved one dearly. It’s also a story about empathy, first-hand experience with mental health, and awareness efforts that have sprung forth in response to this event. What better way to honor Mike, and to help the many others who suffer from mental illness, than to share our message with others? 

Birthing a child, losing a loved one, getting married to another – all life events that demand being experienced first-hand to understand their full impact.  Trying to explain to another person what it’s like to lose a brother is like trying to explain what a color looks like to someone who’s never seen that color before. Or how your favorite song makes you feel to someone who has never heard music. The cliche “something like this would never happen to my family; that’s only stuff you hear about in the news” rings all too true in this situation. 

Mike was the kind of person who didn’t have a deceitful bone in his body. Growing up with three brothers, he was the most patient and easygoing of the bunch. I always envied his zen nature and happy-go-lucky attitude. Of the four of us, he was also the most socially inclined. He had tight friend groups spread out over the city of Omaha, NE. Even though I was three years older, I often found myself invited to take part in after-school shenanigans with Mike and company.

We started seeing deviations in Mike’s demeanor after college, around the age of 25 (on a similar timeline to many others affected by schizophrenia).  Absence at a social event or a lack of self-confidence were not in his genetic makeup. Our family would intermittently notice and comment on these changes, both internally as a family and directly to Mike.  A lack of experience and knowledge of existing mental health resources didn’t serve us here. 

There would be ups and downs. Things would get better for a time, then get worse. We would say things like, “He’s just in a slump,” or “Maybe he can figure out his passion and thread it into his career.”  Among the many things I didn’t know about mental illness, was that the individual affected by the condition generally has no awareness of what’s happening to them.  Leading them to general confusion and a self-defensive nature.  Combine that with mental health being a taboo subject publicly, and it leads to an illness going undiagnosed. 

After three years on this trajectory, and after several attempts with different medications and therapists, things entered a much more serious phase when, in December 2019, he entered into what is clinically known as “psychosis.”  A mental disorder that can be characterized by a disconnection from reality, commonly seen in correlation with schizophrenia.  Our family didn’t know this could happen to a person, let alone someone you know so well. We found ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place as we tried to navigate the waters of the situation and find available resources, or lack thereof, for Mike. 

Someone being affected by a mental health disorder has to be personally willing to admit themselves to a psychiatric emergency clinic to receive aid.  If they are not willing, then they have to be a danger to either themselves or another person. Mike, like many others, fell into a category between these two options. Therefore, he continued to suffer as our family continued the arduous process of trying to seek out resources that, to our knowledge at the time, didn’t exist. 

Mike’s struggle with mental illness caused him to take his life on May 22, 2020. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him and what he went through. Schizophrenia, and mental health in general, is still a black box of unknowns for the medical community. It is an area that is all too often overlooked and underfunded at the state and federal levels. In the wake of everything that’s happened to my family, we’ve all continued our journey of discovery into what can be done. I’m so proud of my mom, dad, and brothers Joe and Hank. Families are very often torn apart in the aftermath of an event like this.  I think what’s happened to our tribe is one of the most difficult things there could be to bear, yet it happens to millions of other families each year. 

As we heal with time, we’ve continued to educate ourselves, take action, and work to decrease the stigma around mental illness. The more we can all talk about how “It’s ok not to be ok”, the more those suffering can get the support they need. 

This June 10, 2023 ,will be our third time hosting the annual Bike with Mike mental health awareness fundraiser event.  It is a bike ride on Mike’s favorite bike path, the Wabash Trace, followed by tacos for lunch and a mental health awareness presentation.  All proceeds from the event are donated to the local mental health organization, Community Alliance.  The types of intervention, counseling, and educational resources Community Alliance provides to the Omaha community are so unique and needed.  We know there are individuals out there that need their services right now, and we want to help spread that word. 

 ThIn theast two years (‘21, ‘22) the event has raised over $400K in donations, and over 750 riders and walkers have participated.  We are hoping to continue that incremental growth with this year’s event on June 10, 2023. This cause not only helps to keep Mike’s wonderful spirit alive in the community, but it’s also filling a gap in mental health services for those that need help right now. If you or someone you know, have had experience with mental health and would like to get involved, we would love your involvement in this year’s Bike with Mike Ride 2023!