CHARLOTTE – Heather Bonner said she never saw any of the warning signs that ended with her son, Sean, taking his own life on Nov. 7, 2018.
Sean had grown up like most kids do, playing sports and dreaming big.
“Our son Sean was an athlete,” Bonner said. “He played baseball and basketball and football for a while, but he was always active. When he went off to college to play baseball, that was his dream. He always wanted to be a pitcher in college.”
Sean played varsity all four years at Charlotte Latin as he grew into his body and baseball career.
As a freshman and sophomore, Sean was mostly a pitcher for the Hawks, posting a 2-8 combined record during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
But then something must have clicked as Sean grew into his 6-foot-5 frame.
Latin wasn’t very good record-wise during his junior and senior seasons, but Sean was their rock, going 8-8 on the mound with and ERA under 3.00 those two seasons. After struggling at the plate his first two years, Sean led the team with three home runs his senior season and he logged a team-best 65 innings on the mound.
Sean eventually signed to play at Division III Denison College in Granville, Ohio and fulfill his dream.
He made 13 relief appearances over two seasons, but it was at college where Bonner thinks problems began.
She said he got a concussion during his sophomore season that could have triggered the mental illness, but talking about the subject may have seemed taboo for Sean.
“We feel like we brought him up in a loving family and talked a lot about a lot of different things, but mental illness was not one of them because we didn’t see any signs,” Bonner said. “For us to not be aware he was going through a rough time – we had no idea – we think the reason for that is growing up in an environment around sports where you had to be tough, rub some dirt on it and get out there. We think it forced him to stifle his feelings.”
Another big factor in him suppressing his feelings, Bonner said, is the year-round culture of sports.
With fall and winter practice schedules combined with the lengthy spring season and constant competition of being a relief pitcher, Bonner said he may have not wanted to show a perceived weakness on the mound.
“He never spoke up about it – we think – because he was afraid of losing his spot on the team,” she said. “Baseball is not just a spring sport like it used to be, it’s year-round. Even in Division III, and he just didn’t want to lose his spot by saying he had a concussion.”
When Sean took his life, the pain and grief was – and still is – very hard to take.
But there is good coming from tragedy.
Peter Pitroff is a lacrosse player at Denison, a Country Day graduate and one of Sean’s best friends.
He and Bonner helped start Mission34, a soon-to-be nonprofit that aims to raise awareness about mental health, suicide and prevention.
The group spreads its message using the hashtag #anewtypeof tough.
Earlier this month, with the help of two more of Sean’s close friends, Mitchell Malak and Wilson Salisbury, Mission34 hosted a kickball tournament to raise awareness and money.
It was a huge success as more than 175 people came out to play, socialize and remember Sean.
“It was really special,” Bonner said. “We really couldn’t have asked for a better day. The weather cooperated, everyone was in good spirits and seemed to have fun playing and even the end in the championship game it was an exciting game where the winners came from behind to win. It was a really fun day and for all ages.”
And it was a big day for Mission34.
The initiative isn’t trying to counsel, but rather offer resources, numbers to call and people to talk to. Bonner would one day like to reach out to schools, high school or college, to bring speakers and printed materials to help them recognize mental health issues within themselves or others, but for now she’s spreading the word and hoping it sticks.
“The stigma still exists,” she said. “It’s becoming a part of people’s vocabulary talking about mental illness and suicide, but there’s still a stigma there and especially with the older generations. It’s an epidemic and we all need to be aware and step up and help.”
Bonner hopes Mission34 can be just that, a bridge to open communication and get the conversation started for someone who needs help.
If she can do that, then something good can come from Sean’s tragic passing.
“If we keep educating these kids we can stop this or at least give kids the resources where they can step forward and advocate for themselves and know it’s OK to speak up and that you don’t have to hide from mental illness,” she said. “If we can help one person, I feel like we’ve done our job.”