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Newark Life

A place of hope and help

May 23, 2022 11:56AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Ken Mammarella
Contributing Writer

Eight words explain why Chris Locke founded Sean’s House: “This is what Sean wants me to do.”

Sean’s House is a unique safe haven in downtown Newark for young people to learn about mental health and reduce the threat of suicide.

Sean Locke was a “kid who looked like he had everything,” said Chris, his father. He was voted as having the best smile at St. Mark’s High. He captained the University of Delaware basketball team. And he lost his battle with depression 19 days before his 24th birthday.

Although Chris didn’t know that his son was depressed and feels he wouldn’t have known what to do if he had, he knows now that he has a mission in Sean’s House, an expensive and potentially expansive creation. “Sean knew that I was the type of person who was just not going to let it lay there.”

Sean’s House is a 24/7 place of hope and help at 136 W. Main St., a house that Sean rented with friends while he was studying at UD. Since it opened in the fall of 2020, staff members and volunteers have presented programs to 20,000 people in the community. At the house, about 8,000 people have used its resources, including its library on mental health, and 1,500 have been helped by its volunteer peer support specialists. And 45 have been saved from their suicide crises.

Chris, who’s 62 now, was 44 when he lost his best friend to suicide. He was still unprepared when he lost Sean 14 years later. “I believe that was his message to me to change what was going on,” Chris said about the note that Sean left before his death. It was the first time he ever opened up to me. I was a Neanderthal when it came to mental illness and suicide. I think one of the reasons why Sean did not come to me was I would have said all the wrong things. I would have told him to suck it up.”

3 objectives for UnLocke the Light

Sean’s House focuses on ages 14 to 24, which Chris called “the most stressful time in life.” People as young as 10 and and as old as 32 have sought help. Chris called Sean’s House unique in the country. and it has generated interest about replicating its best practices. “We’re looking to make this kind of a bellwether for people to use in other locations,” Chris said.

Sean’s House grew organically, Chris said. In his spirit, the Locke family began the SL24: UnLocke the Light Foundation. When 3,000 people showed up for two basketball games that raised $200,000, they knew there was community support for an ongoing project. They came up with the house.

“After the Lockes lost Sean, their lives were forever changed. They wandered aimlessly and sometimes still do,” Chris told city council before its vote to OK zoning for the house. They decided the way to fight mental illness was to “remove its most powerful tools: darkness, guilt and silence.”

The foundation has three objectives:

• “Educate high school and college students to the signs of depression, remove the stigma of depression, and make available resources to help people with depression and the real threat of suicide.

• “Assist high school and college athletes with the transition from a life of sports to a life without sports free from depression or with the tools to manage depression. Over 30% of [Division 1] athletes will deal with depression either in their last year of playing or the year right after playing.

• “Create a safe haven where high school and college students receive professional help and speak to peers about their struggles with depression and the threat of suicide.”

Dozens of peer support specialists

The house was built in 1910 for John R. Downes (the elementary is named for him) and for decades was the home and office of Dr. Arthur Mencher. “We need to let these young adults know that it’s OK to talk about their feelings and thoughts,” Nina Warren, Mencher’s granddaughter, wrote to council.

It costs $250,000 to $300,000 a year to run Sean’s House – all services are free – all covered by people, businesses and nonprofits, Chris said. There’s no government funding.

The house operates with a staff of two (Scott Day and Tianna Wagner), plus assistance from several UD graduate psychology students who live there and hence are around a lot to provide risk assessment and advice. And 150 peer support specialists – most having fought depression, anxiety, eating disorders, assault, the pressure of being a student athlete or other stressors – have been trained and volunteer for varied shifts.

These peer support specialists “have a basic education of how to help other people struggling with mental illness,” Chris said. “After they leave us as volunteers, their training will affect them professionally. And when they become parents, they’ll be able to have those conversations.”

“We use our own lived-in experiences,” said peer support specialist T.J. Roche, a UD junior psychology major who became depressed after a shoulder injury meant he could no longer swim competitively and was not satisfied with assistance from the university wellness center. “We tell our stories to empower their lives.”

Roche praised the eight or 10 young people he’s had conversations with at Sean’s House. “It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to spill to a stranger,” he said. “People are scared to feel their emotions. But it’s OK to not be OK.”

Sometimes people cry’

“It’s so incredibly validating and empowering to use what I learned in my mental health journey,” said peer support specialist Madeline Riordan, a junior majoring in medical diagnostics. “In a way, I’m helping myself by being a peer. I’m still healing.” She recalled one moving encounter with a high school student. “He left visibly lighter, standing taller and thanking me profusely.”

“Our job is to listen,” said peer support specialist Alli Burns, a junior psychology and human services major. It’s also about sharing experiences, she said, referring, for example, to the stressors of social anxiety from being sent home during the pandemic and then returning to classes. “I can say ‘I’m also experiencing that.’” One telling time was with a young person at the house saying “In the past, she felt shut out,” Burns said. “Now she felt heard.”

“Sometimes people cry. Sometimes they can’t express themselves. Sometimes they just want to talk. And I’ve walked in their shoes,” said Day, the executive director of the house, referring to his own depression and suicidal thoughts. Some young people who come to the house have abused their bodies with alcohol, street drugs, medications, food and sharp objects, he added.

A flyer posted in the house explains its 24/7 emergency support: “ Every night, at least one trained individual stays in the house. … Their job is to sit and talk with you to make sure you’re OK. … ‘Emergency support’ is a purposely open-ended term. … Our goal is to make sure that even in the middle of the night, you never have to feel truly alone.”

“Sean never was able to say, ‘I’m dealing with something, I need help,’ Chris said. “And he never showed it. That’s why this place is here. Have that first conversation. And then we will assist you to get the help you need.”

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