Bob Feliciano brings suicide out of its shadows

DOWNEY - Bob Feliciano never thought he would live to bury one of his own children. It wasn't natural.

But there he was in March 2009 - nearly 70 years old - making funeral arrangements after his youngest boy, Sean, took his own life at the age of 20.

Sean's suicide defied logic. He was a gregarious, good looking kid: tall, curly brown hair, former captain of the Warren High water polo team. He was a boy scout, literally. His picture appeared in this newspaper after he earned Eagle Scout honors.

A third-year college student, he was studying engineering at UC Santa Barbara. His brothers in the Sigma Pi fraternity loved him.

"He was always smiling, there was no sign of sadness on his face," classmate Tomek Jagoda told the campus newspaper. "He was always social and made friends so easily."

Everything seemed fine, except it wasn't. Sean was taking medication for depression and saw a psychologist regularly. In February 2009 he checked himself into a Santa Barbara hospital and asked for help, telling nurses he was haunted by thoughts of suicide. Doctors doubled his prescribed medication.

Bob called his son on the night of March 2. They chatted and Bob asked how he was, if he still struggled with suicidal thoughts. Sean assured his dad things were OK.

"Sean said, 'I would never take my life. I know what it would do to you and Mom,'" Bob remembers. "I believed him."

Hours later, Sean did, indeed, take his life. What was going through Sean's mind at the time is a mystery, but Bob thinks "something snapped." Sean resigned from school, but requested in his resignation letter information on reinstatement. Then he wrote goodbye letters to friends, family members and fraternity brothers. He ended his final letter with, "I need to stop writing or else I'll never do this."

Finally, Sean went online and researched ways to take his life. He died March 3.

Many questions remain. If Sean was serious about ending his life, why did he request information on reentering school? Why did he stall by writing so many letters? Why did he check himself into a hospital and report his suicidal thoughts if he truly wanted to die?

The questions weighed heavily on Bob. Devastated, he stayed in his east Downey home for two months. He didn't sleep. He didn't eat. He lost 15 pounds. A retired sheriff's deputy, he had seen enough tragedy in his line of work - he didn't expect it in his own household.

Miraculously, Bob managed to transform his grief into a determination to help the thousands of young adults like Sean around the country who wrestle with suicidal inclinations on a daily basis. The more he researched the issue, the more frustrated Bob became by the multitude of college students who turn to suicide - a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

He launched the Amazing Day Foundation, rededicating his life to reduce the rate of suicide among college students. His first fundraiser, a 5K walk that started at Stonewood Center and followed a similar path as the Arc Walk, drew 500 participants and raised enough money to help place a mental health intern at UC Santa Barbara.

The walk has grown each year. The third annual event takes place Saturday morning at Stonewood. Though the walk is held in Sean's honor, the reality is that the walk isn't about him, Bob says.

"Sean is dead. He's gone. He's not coming back," Bob says. "He's just a symbol. Is that selfish? Yes, but this is my way of helping other kids like Sean who are going through the same issues. Suicide is the No. 2 killer of college students."

Through networking and hard work, Bob continues to grow the foundation. He is working with his former boss, Sheriff Lee Baca, to propose legislation that would require all first-responders such as police and firefighters to document instances of attempted suicides.

Last month, Bob gained the support of Sigma Pi International, meaning each of the fraternity's 130 chapters will fundraise for the Amazing Day Foundation. (UC Berkeley students held their first fundraiser in support of the foundation last month: a sumo wrestling contest.) With Sigma Pi's help, Bob envisions holding his annual walk concurrently across the country and in Canada.

Bob hopes this all culminates with his ultimate goal: bringing suicide out of the shadows and to the forefront of our conversations. Too many people choose to deal with suicidal thoughts on their own, without asking for professional help. Too many think the thoughts will go away, but they may not.

The tragic irony is that Sean did all the right things. He saw a therapist, spoke openly to his parents and checked himself into a hospital at his most vulnerable moments. It wasn't enough.

"Before Sean's death I was cavalier about life but now I look at it with reverence," said Bob, who now works as a criminal justice professor at Rio Hondo College. "I have a different purpose in life. I will teach until I can't climb the two flights of stairs to my classroom so I can speak to those kids. I don't lecture them, I speak to them as a dad.

"I'm 72 and I'm still here. Sean was 20. That just doesn't seem fair."

********** Published: September 6, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 21

FeaturesEric Pierce