Josh Anderson Foundation sponsors speaker during Mental Wellness Week

Josh Anderson Foundation sponsors speaker during Mental Wellness Week

Jordan Burnham, a professional public speaker on mental wellness, sits with sophomore Lizzy Merin and the Anderson family. The Andersons sponsored Burnham’s appearance through their foundation, which was created in honor of former South Lakes student Josh Anderson.

Grace Erard, news editor

Josh Anderson, a former South Lakes student, seemed to have everything going for him in high school.

He played sports and had friends, decent grades, and a girlfriend. Externally, he looked like a typical student, but internally, he suffered from depression.

This depression, along with the threat of expulsion from Fairfax County Public Schools due to drug use, led Anderson to take his own life in March 2009 during his junior year of high school.

Anderson’s death had a profound effect on the community and motivated his family to create an organization, the Josh Anderson Foundation, dedicated to promoting positive mental health.

“We want to make sure that his death was not in vain,” said Josh’s mother Sue Anderson. “If what we’ve gone through can help save other lives, then it will be better. At least this way something good can come out of it.”

Part of the foundation’s mission is eliminating the stigma associated with mental health issues.

“If we can remove the discrimination so that kids who are struggling can feel comfortable and safe sharing their experiences and being open about them then we can prevent bad things from happening,” said Anderson.

According to Anderson, this will require a cultural change.

“For kids there is such a focus on academics and extracurricular activities, but there is not an emphasis on mental and emotional wellbeing and we feel like that is arguably the most important thing,” said Anderson. “If you’re feeling good about yourself and you’re emotionally and mentally healthy, then the other things that you are pursuing will be easier and better. And vice versa, if you’re not feeling well then you’re not going to be able to perform as well as you would like to.”

Because of this, the foundation works to provide schools with the resources that they need to address mental health. Eventually, the foundation would like to set up peer to peer programs in high schools modeled after the Active Minds chapters on college campuses.

“We have partnered with a great organization called Active Minds, and what they’re doing is changing the conversation around mental health on the college level,” said Anderson. “It has really been effective and we feel like, rather than reinventing the wheel, we can bring Active Minds to high schools. Students can come up with programs that will really resonate with their peers and provide education and nonthreatening resources that will allow them to reach out for help.”

The foundation began the process of establishing these programs by helping South Lakes to set up its Mental Wellness Week and sponsoring the appearance of a professional public speaker on mental health and suicide prevention. The speaker, Jordan Burnham, shared a personal story that had many parallels to Josh’s.

As a popular and athletic student, Burnham felt much pressure to live up to others’ expectations. This caused damage to his mental and emotional wellbeing, but he chose not to confide in those that cared about him. Instead, he turned to alcohol as a coping device because he felt as though he could only discuss his feelings with his friends while they were under the influence.

Burnham began to see a therapist when he was in tenth grade after he failed his third driving test and suffered a breakdown. He was diagnosed with clinical depression, but he didn’t take the diagnosis or his therapy sessions seriously and he inconsistently took his medication.

Burnham now knows the importance of finding a therapist that you’re comfortable with.

“I always think about it like a bad first date,” said Burnham. “I’ve had plenty of bad first dates, None of them were my fault. But that didn’t stop me from dating completely, I just moved on until I found the one that was right for me.”

By his junior year, Burnham was sleep deprived and his grades were suffering. He became increasingly frustrated, and this in turn led him to cheat on his girlfriend. Wracked with guilt, Burnham began contemplating suicide.

One night, he called his girlfriend and told her he was considering taking pills to end his life. After she notified his parents, who then called the police, Burnham was placed in a mental hospital.

There, Burnham learned that how people perceive a situation and deal with it matters more than what the situation actually is.

“We can never choose the bad things that happen to us, but we can choose how we cope with them,” said Burnham.

When Burnham came home, he had trouble adjusting and quickly fell back into his old habits. His suicidal thoughts soon returned as well.

“I didn’t necessarily want to die but I wanted the part of me that had depression to die,” said Burnham.

On September 28, 2007, Burnham’s parents confronted him with a duffel bag full of alcohol that they had found in his car. The pain of disappointing his parents led Burnham to jump out of his nine-story bedroom window.

Burnham suffered many injuries, but miraculously he survived. He now travels around the country telling his story in the hopes that it can benefit the teens that hear it.

Students that attended the assembly were deeply affected by his experiences. Many people asked questions and waited to talk with him and share their own stories. In fact, the line to meet him extended well outside the theatre.

“I think that Jordan’s story was interesting and it brought to light a very serious issue,” said sophomore Nate Galbraith.

Junior Miyoko Spratley found the personal aspect of Burnham’s story appealing.

“Jordan was very relatable, and I think that students listened to him because it’s best to hear these kinds of things from someone who has experienced it first hand,” said Spratley.

Anderson also found Burnham’s story moving.

“I appreciated how open Jordan was,” said Anderson. “He really didn’t hold back. I think that it was really good that he shared his progression to his suicide attempt because I have a hard time thinking that a kid goes from zero to boom, taking their own life, without anything in-between. I also think that it was helpful that he talked about how his alcohol abuse was a form of self-medication because I think that it’s all related.”

According to Anderson, things might have turned out differently for Josh if he had been able to hear a story like Jordan’s when he was in high school.

“When I listened to Jordan speak and looked around at the audience, I could picture Josh sitting there and listening,” said Anderson. “I do think that Jordan’s talk would have had an impact on him.”

More information about the Josh Anderson Foundation can be found at: