In recent years, we’ve seen the conversations about mental health become much more common, both privately and publicly.
It is with an eye toward further breaking down taboos for the youngest among us that two writers have teamed up on a new project, just in time for Suicide Awareness Month.
The new storybook by Dennis Gillan and Stephen Pihl, two men who met at the University of Delaware, aims to encourage children to consider their own mental health and the well-being of those around them. After all, checking in on those around you, especially in these times of pandemic, climate change and social upheaval, is an important way to care for your community.
According to the authors, simply asking a friend or family member how they are doing — and really listening when they respond — goes a long way. In fact, they say, even something as simple as sharing a compliment can change someone’s day — or even save their life.
At least that was what happened for Pihl, a UD alum.
“Sophomore year, I was just like, I don’t want to be here anymore,” he recalled. “To put it bluntly, I didn’t want to. I just didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to get bullied anymore. I didn’t want to feel sad anymore. So I was like, ‘OK, today’s the day. I’m checking out for good.’ I had a plan and everything.”
Thank goodness, something happened that changed that plan — and the course of his life, he said.
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“It came to like second to last period, before the bell, and a kid came up to me,” he remembered. “I just gotten new shoes like that week. And a kid that I didn’t really — wasn’t like, super good friends or anything, came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, I like your shoes.’”
Yup, his shoes.
That true story inspired the title of the newly released children’s book, “Nice Shoes!: A Little Compliment Can Go a Long Way.”
“That little compliment changed my day,” Pihl said. “I’m still here. So it definitely had a big impact on me.”
Pihl went on to graduate from the University of Delaware in 2022 and is back in his home state of Massachusetts working in the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital. He plans on continuing his education in developmental neurophysiology in an M.D./Ph.D. program, he said.
The storybook “Nice Shoes!” follows Derek, a young boy who is having a rough day where everything seems to go wrong. He wakes up late, barely makes it to the bus, forgets his gym clothes. He doesn’t do well on a math quiz.
Derek begins to wonder if every day will be just as bad as this day.
Just as Derek is leaving school, the most popular kid in school stops to tell him he likes his shoes. Suddenly, nothing looks quite as bad as it did before.
It may seem simple enough, but Pihl said he could not have created the book without co-author and friend Dennis Gillan.
Gillan, executive director of the Half a Sorrow Foundation, has dedicated his life to speaking out about mental health issues, including suicide prevention.
“We met at a Friends4Friends event [at UD] called Fall Fest, where Dennis was the keynote speaker and I was one of three students that were asked to speak about their struggles with mental health,” Pihl recalled. “After he heard my story, he wanted to stay in touch because he said he couldn’t get it out of his head. Then, after a couple of years, he pitched the idea of writing a children’s book and here we are!” Pihl said.
“I always thought Stephen’s story was unique,” Gillan explained. “… Finally I said, ‘We got to do something with this.’ And then by that time, I had a foundation. And we had some money to self-publish.”
Gillan told his friend, “I’m thinking about a children’s book. … ‘I can’t do it without you. It’s your story. Can we do it together?”’
Pihl’s response? “Hell, yeah!”
Gillan is originally from Valley Cottage, New York, and now lives in Greenville, South Carolina. He has traveled around the country for years, talking to schools about the importance of mental health and suicide prevention.
Sadly, his career path became evident after losing two brothers, Mark and Matt, to suicide.
“My brothers, I wish they could have benefited from hearing this, or a kind word,” Gillan reflected. “They may be here still. So that’s my connection. And that’s … you know, I never wanted to be a public speaker for suicide prevention. But God had other plans for me. And here I am, and I go around and I get to meet great people like Stephen.”
While the topic of mental health may be discussed much more openly than in the past, it is still not common to discuss a topic like suicide with young children.
This was something Pihl and Gillan thought a lot about while creating this story.
“It’s really understanding that you can break this stuff down into very basic components; it doesn’t have to be disordered thought,” Pihl said. “But it’s just — if you’ve had a bad day, you qualify to talk about your mental health. And so we understood that we can break down this complex, intimidating subject of suicide [and] of learned helplessness. And we can break it down into simple components of just feeling bad, of negative thoughts.”
“We talked about sadness,” Gillan added. “And in the book, we’re very intentional about [it]. You know, we have kids 4- to 10- years old, possibly reading this book. We never mentioned suicide, [just] that the person is sad and thinks every day could be like this.”
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The authors feel their storybook can serve as a launching point for all sorts of discussions about feelings, mental health struggles and, yes, suicide.
Writing this book has helped Gillan and Pihl, who already are very open about their own mental health, to become even more open and honest about it, they said.
“It allows us to articulate it better,” said Pihl. “And it allows us to reach different age cohorts, right? … I think it not only helped us in terms of reflection about things we’ve been through. But it also allows us to better our communication, especially to vulnerable, vulnerable populations, like children,” Pihl explained.
Beyond the idea that a compliment can reroute someone’s bad day, what do the authors most want children to take away from reading it?
“Kindness. Kindness always wins. Love always wins,” Gillan said.
Pihl uses a different analogy to drive home the point.
“I think just the simple: ‘It’s gonna be OK.’ And it’s, it’s not easy to see the sun through blackout curtains, right? So that’s where friends come in. That’s when their friends are like, ‘Well, let’s move these curtains a little bit.’ And that’s what a little compliment is, it’s moving the curtains, showing you the sun, showing you that everything’s gonna be OK,” he explained.
“Nice Shoes!” is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
More information about Dennis Gillan can be found on his website dennisgillan.com.
Suicide prevention resources
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call 988 or use some of these available resources: