Jeff Fuller said he’s not embarrassed his son Cole Fuller died from suicide in April.
He’s proud of Cole and who he was, which inspires Jeff to talk about Cole with as many people, reporters and state legislators who will listen, he said.
“Part of my healing is to talk about this, and part of my healing is to say this stuff happens,” Jeff said. “Too often, people want to hide in the shadows, and they are embarrassed of it.”
Cole’s family asked for donations to Mental Health America in lieu of flowers in Cole’s obituary. Those donations and others will be used to fund mental health programs in local schools.
Jeff has collected enough money to put Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program, into four schools for four years, and he hopes for more in the future, he said.
Elkhorn High School, where Cole attended his freshman and sophomore years, is set to start using Hope Squad next year. The Delavan-Darien and Muskego school districts are working on joining, too, Jeff said.
Jeff said the principal at Milton High School, where Cole attended his junior year, declined Jeff’s offer to fund Hope Squad there, saying he was looking at implementing a different suicide prevention program.
In an email to Jeff dated May 28, Principal Jeremy Bilhorn said staff at Milton High School believe Sources of Strength, another peer-lead prevention program, is a better fit.
Bilhorn asked Fuller to give his funds to Milton to use for Sources of Strength.
“I tried to explain (to Milton officials) we don’t want to get involved in your politics,” Jeff said. “Take it or leave it.”
Hope Squad was appealing to Jeff because students choose which of their peers they want to talk to, and those peers become trained by the program, allowing students from all walks of life to become leaders.
With Sources of Strength, teachers and staff choose the peer leaders, which Jeff believes makes it less likely a cross-section of students will be chosen.
Hope Squad also costs about $2,500 less than Sources of Strength does, Jeff said.
Milton High School student Hailey Ehle spoke at the June 10 meeting of the Milton School Board to share her disappointment in school officials turning down Jeff’s offer.
“I see cries of help and do not know how to respond,” Ehle said, speaking of peers struggling with mental illness.
NAMI of Rock County has started offering programming in schools to teach about suicide prevention, said Patty Slatter from the organization.
Slatter speaks during health classes, telling students of her experience as a suicide attempt survivor and teaching students the importance of asking for help, she said.
Reaching out to a friend or making a phone call to schedule an appointment for someone in need can make a world of difference, Slatter said.
Jeff urges people to call their state representatives and demand more help for those suffering from mental illness. Jeff has spoken with multiple state legislators, seeking policies that would equip officials with resource pamphlets they can give to people in mental health crises.
“I was offered a number of contacts once my son was dead,” Jeff said. “Groups are all over, but they are not on the same page.”
“Things will change, people have to stop being complacent.”