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Once Depressed and Suicidal, Young Catholic Puts Painful Past to Good Use

By Denis Grasska

SAN DIEGO — Six years ago, Luke Maxwell hit rock-bottom. Struggling with an undiagnosed major depressive disorder, he was feeling unliked, unloved and completely alone.

“I tried everything ... to feel better, except talking to someone else,” the 22-year-old said.

His family and friends only became aware of his private struggle on Dec. 3, 2012, when he got behind the wheel of his family’s 12-passenger van and attempted to take his own life.

Having learned the hard way the need for open discussion about mental illness, Maxwell founded U Can’t B Erased (ucant berased.com), a movement whose stated mission is “empowering teens and those around them to recognize, overcome, and be unashamed of their mental illnesses.”

On Thursday, March 7, he will bring his message to the diocesan Pastoral Center, where he will give a presentation on “Families and Suicide Awareness” to an audience of local clergy, parish leaders and others from 10 a.m.-noon. That evening, he will deliver a second presentation from 6:30-8:30 p.m., which will be open to the general public. Maxwell’s talk is an installment of the diocesan Office for Family Life and Spirituality’s workshop series, “Reaching Out and Ministering to Hurting Families.”

For the office’s director, Laura Martin-Spencer, the workshops are a response to Pope Francis’ vision of the Church as “a field hospital” and his encouragement “to get out and see where our people are hurting, where they need Jesus’ healing presence.”

According to a recently released report from San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency, suicide ranked ninth on a list of the leading causes of death among county residents in 2016, with some 407 people having taken their own lives.

Martin-Spencer said Maxwell’s story illustrates “that idea of resurrection and transformation” that lies at the heart of the Gospel.

Looking back, Maxwell said he can recognize signs of his mental illness as far back as age 6. But it was between ages 12 and 16 that he really found himself in “a dark place.” By age 16, he was convinced that no one could help him, nor would they want to, and that the world was better off without him anyway. At a speed of 60 miles per hour, he intentionally crashed the family van into an oncoming vehicle.

“Both cars flipped multiple times in mid-air,” said Maxwell, who hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt. “It probably looked like an action-movie stunt.”

“I wasn’t trying to hurt another person,” he explained. “I just saw an avenue for my own exit out of this world, for my own death, and I took it.”

His mother, Carol, told The Southern Cross that no one had even suspected that he was depressed.

“As a parent, when bad things happen to other people’s children ... you always try and differentiate yourself,” she said. “You do this to make yourself feel better, that it’s not going to happen to you. And there was no sign at all, and he came from a big, loving, very Catholic family.”

Miraculously, Luke Maxwell’s only physical injury was a small cut on one arm. But there would be serious ramifications for his actions. He was held for a 72-hour psychiatric hospitalization and placed on medication. He was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and, were it not for the fact that he was actively seeking treatment and that the driver of the other vehicle was “fighting for me” in the courtroom, Maxwell said he also might have received prison time for the crash.

About six months after the incident, as he began to improve thanks to therapy, medication, and positive lifestyle choices like regular exercise and a better sleep schedule, Maxwell found himself at a crossroads: He could forget about the past and move on, or he could put his painful experience to good use.

“I wanted to help others who were going through the same thing, because I survived and so many others don’t,” he said, noting that statistics show that one out of every four teenagers are depressed and that one in 12 will attempt suicide.

Maxwell launched the U Can’t B Erased movement with a YouTube video about his personal story of depression, suicide and recovery. Published on Sept. 21, 2013, the video now has more than 20,000 views.

Visitors to his Web site can read his blog, listen to his podcast, subscribe to a monthly e-newsletter and request a copy of his e-book. The site also includes a wealth of resources, including a mental health checklist that can be filled out by teens and their parents and serve as the basis for a conversation.

Maxwell has no illusions about his role in others’ healing. He’s not a therapist, nor does he pretend to be. He’s there to listen to others and offer suggestions based on his own experience. And, he says, “I answer every email.”

Since summer 2014, he also has become an accomplished public speaker, delivering almost 100 presentations to more than 10,000 people nationwide.

Erick Rubalcava, president of St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy in Downey, California, was the school’s principal when he invited Maxwell to speak to students and parents in February 2017.

“I believe it provided hope for some of our students to know that they are not alone in their struggles and that it’s okay to talk about these things,” said Rubalcava. “If I recall, at least one or two students sought professional help.”

Carol Maxwell, who attended all of her son’s early speaking engagements, believes her son has “a gift” as a speaker.

“He’s touched a lot of lives,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “There’s a lot of kids suffering out there.”

Though proud of his decision to help others, she cautioned him prior to the website’s launch that “nothing [on the Internet] ever goes away” and that he risked “always being known as the kid that tried to kill himself.”

“And he said, ‘I don’t care. If I can help one person, then it’ll be worth it.’”

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