After son's suicide, Pa. parents become advocates

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NAZARETH, Pa. (AP) — Bushkill Township parents Jim Presto and Laurette Johnson-Presto knew something was not right with their 19-year-old son.

Josh Johnson was a lively teenager and a member of Nazareth Area High School's 2011 championship football team, and he was eager to play for St. Francis University's team in Loretto, Pennsylvania. He attended both high school proms, had been on the honor roll a couple times and aspired to be a doctor.

"He was very popular, well-loved," Johnson-Presto said of her only child. "He had lots of friends."

When Johnson last February committed suicide, it shocked a community that loved the blond-haired, blue-eyed teen whose smile could light up a room. His parents believe he struggled with anxiety and depression so deep that he was too ashamed to seek help.

"Depressed? You would never hear it," Johnson-Presto said. "He hid it well."

The couple also could have hid what happened: Sweep it under the rug as some would have wanted them to do, they said.

Instead, they became advocates for suicide prevention and were instrumental in encouraging the public to write to Gov. Tom Corbett, urging him to sign House Bill 1559 into law.

Corbett on Wednesday afternoon signed the bill. It mandates that schools adopt an age-appropriate youth suicide awareness and prevention policy, inform school employees and parents/guardians of the policy, post the policy online and train educators for four hours every five years in youth suicide awareness and prevention. Educators involved are those teaching grades six through 12.

The law goes into effect immediately.

Johnson-Presto said if the bill passed before Johnson's death, her son might have reached out to someone informed on the issue.

"He didn't even share that sadness with his closest friends," she said.

It wasn't until Johnson had a setback the summer before he started at St. Francis that things began to unravel, his stepfather and mother said.

He endured seven surgeries for various leg injuries during his high school football years, but a meniscus tear in his knee left him on rest from playing as a college freshman. Johnson also suffered at least two concussions playing offensive tackle and defensive end for Nazareth and his parents suspect there might have been a third concussion.

The constant injuries, Presto and Johnson-Presto believe, led to their son developing anxiety and depression.

"He was going to St. Francis to live in a room with a football player and he can't play football. He lived for football," Johnson-Presto said. "Josh was a perfectionist in every sense of the word. For him not to be able to fix that, he could not deal with that."

Presto said the couple had difficulty finding a good therapist, noting lots of offices had waiting lists or wouldn't accept new patients. A college clinic prescribed Johnson an anti-anxiety medication, but Johnson-Presto claims her son only became addicted to the drug. And Johnson began to have panic attacks.

"When I asked how he was feeling, he said, 'Honestly, I can't tell you. It just feels like someone sitting on my chest,'" Johnson-Presto said. "That wasn't him. He wasn't that guy."

Johnson began traveling four hours one-way home every weekend because he was "miserable" in college, Johnson-Presto said. At home, he often would sleep for hours in the afternoon.

Johnson later left St. Francis to study online at home before transferring last year to West Chester University. It was there, as a sophomore, that he took his own life.

"This is a 19-year-old, young man that had his whole life in front of him, a sophomore in college and a bright future," Presto said. "He could not work out his problem with depression and it is my opinion he saw no other way out."

Johnson-Presto described suicide as a "silent killer" because so many people are reluctant to talk about it.

The couple formed the Josh Johnson Sunshine Foundation to strengthen the message that suicide prevention cannot be ignored. They are working to secure nonprofit status and, through fundraising, help teenagers who are suffering.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, more than 38,000 Americans took their lives in 2010, the most recent data available.

"It's not something we ever thought we'd have to deal with in our lives," Johnson-Presto said. "It's a reality. For us to hide and pretend like it never happened, it doesn't do anything for us.

"There are many, many parents who just pretend. They don't tell you their child committed suicide. They don't say it because it's a dirty word. We can't change what happened to us, but there can be 50 other parents in the same predicament. Maybe they will look a little closer and be empowered to get help."

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1pRt9dU

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Information from: The (Easton, Pa.) Express-Times, http://www.lehighvalleylive.com

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