McHenry County Local News

McHenry County Suicide Prevention Task Force hosts its inaugural 5K Saturday

The family of Anthony "AJ" Pantaleo, 27, gather over Labor Day weekend 2019. This was the last family photo taken before he committed suicide Nov. 8. Left to right is Pantaleo's stepfather Bob Buelow, Kyleigh Buelow, Anthony "AJ" Pantaleo, his wife, Christina Pantaleo, Heather Buelow, and Brianna Buelow (center) with AJ's dog Cooper.

On Nov. 8, 2019, Anthony “AJ” Buelow, 27, told his family he was headed out to a counseling session.

But later that day, he texted a family member letting him know the truth of where he was – and what he was doing.

Using the tracking on his cellphone, the family found him.

The 27-year-old man described in his obituary as “a beautiful soul” had killed himself, his mother, Heather Buelow, recalled Tuesday. Her son’s death is why she’ll be taking part in Saturday’s inaugural Never Walk Alone 5K walk/run for suicide awareness and prevention.

This is the first time the McHenry County Suicide Prevention Task Force is hosting the event, which has a goal of raising $5,000. Every penny raised will be used to raise suicide awareness and prevention within McHenry County, task force members said.

Never Walk Alone steps off at 10 a.m. Saturday at The Dole, 401 Country Club Road, Crystal Lake. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m., and the cost is $15 per person. For more information and to register, go to NeverWalkAlone.5K.run.

More information on task force meetings, conferences, support groups and QPR training is available by emailing education@namimch.org. Those in need of immediate support can call the McHenry County Crisis Line at 1-800-892-8900.

The task force has participated in other walks for suicide awareness and prevention in past years but under the banner of the National Alliance on Mental Illness where the money was shared nationally.

Buelow said the task force and such events are important in changing the dialogue, encouraging people who are suffering to open up and share, whether they lost a loved one to suicide or they need help and resources themselves.

“At the walk, there are people who understand what you are going through,” said Buelow, a Crystal Lake resident who works as a school nurse in Huntley and Crystal Lake. In the schools, she said she sees a great need for suicide and mental health awareness and support among students and members of the LBGTQ+ community.

She knew her son, who was living in Indiana with his wife, had been taking medication and dealing with anxiety, depression and migraines but said she wasn’t overly concerned at that time. She had spoken with him the night before and said, “There was no indication ... that that was where his mind was.”

Buelow said once she and her husband began sharing the story of her son’s death, they discovered more people around them who also had lost loved ones to suicide.

The conversation surrounding suicide needs to change so people feel safe to share stories of their grief and for those struggling with suicidal thoughts, to feel safe to speak up and ask for the help and support they need to survive, said Buelow and others involved in helping the cause.

This is where training in suicide-based prevention QPR – Question, Persuade, Refer – can help.

Nicole O’Dea, co-lead on the task force’s outreach and advocacy committee and a therapist at Samaritan Counseling Center, said “anyone” in the community could and should be trained in QPR.

QPR training, available through National Alliance of Mental Illness in McHenry County, to anyone and teaches people how to respond should “something look off” with a loved one, an employee or even a stranger on the street. The training provides tips for how to engage, open up the dialogue, encourage someone to seek help and provide resources.

“Anybody can participate in the training, from adolescents through older adults, regardless of age or experience,” O’Dea said. “We are trying to spread awareness. Let people know suicide is a public health concern.”

O’Dea and others provide training at schools, churches and businesses and to 911 operators, firefighters and police officers.

“We can all be a link in the chain to prevent suicide,” O’Dea said. “You don’t have to be a professional therapist. Everybody can play a role in helping to prevent suicide.”

According to the McHenry County Coroner’s Office, the number of suicides have remained steady in recent years, even through the pandemic.

O’Dea said the numbers of suicides “were not negatively impacted” by the pandemic, but the number of phone calls seeking help and virtual counseling sessions were much higher.

She suspects more people felt comfortable meeting with a therapist from the privacy of their homes or cars and were more likely to ask for help. It also was the first time insurance companies began covering telehealth for everyone, she said.

So far in 2022, 28 suicides have been confirmed, according to data provided by Chief Deputy Coroner Olivia Zednick at the McHenry County Coroner’s Office. That compares to 29 in 2021, 28 in 2020, 28 in 2019 and 35 in 2018.

O’Dea said a key factor in suicide prevention is communication, showing support and letting people feel that someone has their back and events like Saturday’s 5K provide that opportunity.

“The walk is really important to show the community there are people out there who support them and that we are not afraid to talk about suicide,” O’Dea said. “I think when people are willing to talk about suicide and shed light on suicide that kind of propels a conversation. It opens the lines of communication.”

Buelow, whose team name for the 5K is “AJ’s Warriors,” looks forward to Saturday’s 5K.

“The walk is important to the community (because) there are people who understand what you are going through,” she said. “Grief is not linear.”

She cries at the thought of her 50th birthday approaching, knowing her son will not be there with her two daughters to celebrate.

“There is always a void,” she said.

She hopes to do more in the future for suicide prevention and awareness and wants to change the attitude and terminology surrounding suicides.

“It’s an illness,” she said. “It is just like an alcoholic or cancer, but there is a different attitude around it.”