Matt Krueger pedaled 100 miles on Labor Day to finish the last leg of his self-described “crazy challenge.”

He biked from Janesville to Rockdale to Cambridge to Waterloo to Lake Mills to Fort Atkinson to Milton and back to Janesville.

Some five hours and 48 minutes after starting, he returned home to Janesville.

When Krueger felt weary during the journey, he thought about all the people who have reached out to him personally or online with their own struggles or the struggles of loved ones.

He knew that what he felt was not as hard “as the pain of those battling with mental illness and depression,” he said.

Krueger began his biking challenge Aug. 10. He vowed to finish 750 miles by Sept. 7 to raise money for the Rock County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

He and his team raised $3,000 to help NAMI develop a new peer-support program in cooperation with Rock County schools.

The program is designed to give young people a safe, nonjudgmental place to talk about mental health challenges.

“We are hearing from schools,” Krueger said. “There are a lot of kids dealing with this.”

Supporters say such a program is critical at a time when suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young Americans ages 15 to 24.

“It is alarming,” said Lindsay Stevens, executive director of NAMI Rock County. “It is saddening. We need to do something for our youth.”

Program to help youth

The nonprofit NAMI Rock County wants to raise $50,000 during fundraising activities to support the new program and established programs.

“We don’t have any peer-based programs for youth to attend,” Stevens said. “Even if adolescents are seeing a therapist, they might still feel like adults don’t know what it is like being in their shoes. We know that providing a peer-support program is beneficial.”

Currently, the pandemic has put the brakes on implementing the program.

“The priority for schools has been how to continue educating our children,” Stevens said. “So it has been hard for us to step in and ask what the best way is to bring this program into the school.”

Such a program would stop misconceptions about mental illness, provide support and resources, and give young people a safe place to talk without fear of being teased or bullied, she added.

“We need to normalize the conversation,” Stevens said. “We know when mental-health conditions go untreated, they can lead to substance abuse and criminal activity. We don’t want our youth to end up in the criminal justice system because they are not getting the support they need.”

NAMI wants to work as a team with teachers, school staff and clinical providers, Stevens said.

“No one can do it alone,” she said.

Ending the silence

Krueger started his business, Krueger Financial, in 2004. His brother, Nathan, died by suicide the next year.

“For 10 years, I just buried it,” Krueger said. “It is almost like a taboo subject. I didn’t talk about what happened. Men are supposed to be strong.”

With the urging of his wife, Carrie, Krueger sought help.

“About four years ago, I woke up and asked myself what can I do to leave a legacy in Nathan’s name,” he said.

Krueger began sharing his story with financial groups and donated the money he earned from his talks to NAMI.

“The more I talk about my brother and the more I share my story, the better I feel,” Krueger said. “I want it to help others share their stories.”

He also got involved with NAMI Rock County, where he is president of the board of directors.

He has advice for others who suffer as he once did:

“There are people out there who want to help and who can help,” Krueger said. “Talk to someone you trust. Don’t hold it in. Getting help is not a weakness. I look at it as a strength.”

Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.