Deena Baxter talks about the stigma on suicide during the Kappa Psi Pharmaceutical Fraternity biennial convention at the Naples Grande Beach Resort on Aug. 4. Ashley Collins/Staff


Deena Baxter is making peace with her new normal after losing her stepson to suicide. 

"I chose to turn my pain into a new opportunity," she said.

Now in her 60's, Baxter is speaking out about suicide and surviving loss in hopes of dispelling the stigma surrounding mental health. 

The North Naples resident has traveled across the country, speaking at more than 30 events following her stepson's death in 2012.

Most recently, on Aug. 4, Baxter spoke to more than 600 members of the Kappa Psi Pharmaceutical Fraternity, Inc. during the group's biennial convention at the Naples Grande Beach Resort on Seagate Drive.

"Stigma is a form of discrimination and feeds on silence," Baxter told the crowd of medical professionals and students. 

That silence affects people suffering from mental illness and their loved ones the most, she said. 

"I'm not a trained mental health professional. What I am is a survivor, a perfectly imperfect human being just like everybody else. We're all in this together so if you feel like you're alone, you're not."

Baxter is a published author, wellness advocate and strategic management consultant with more than 30 years of experience in finance, program management and communications.

Rather than keep her story to herself, Baxter said she saw her family's loss as an opportunity to raise her voice about the issue in hopes of helping others.

She published a book called, "Surviving Suicide: Searching for "normal" with heartache and humor." 

She also created a website, Write On My Mind, encouraging people to submit art and stories to raise mental health awareness.

Both projects are a partnership between Baxter and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Collier County.

"It's all about changing the stigma and getting each person to look at (mental illness) in a new way," said Darla Pasteur, chief development officer for NAMI of Collier County.

The local affiliate provide services, support groups and advocacy programs to more than 16,000 people annually.

According to NAMI's website, approximately one in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year.  

Baxter said she wants people who've dealt with a similar loss to know there's a way forward. 

"Losing our son to suicide is part of my life but it isn't all of me. I can still grow and learn. There is always hope and a way forward. We can allow diversity to define us or we can choose our own course. But it's not easy," she said.

She described her stepson, who was 35, as a strong-willed person with a good heart who suffered from mental illness.

Baxter found solace through writing, surrounding herself with family and friends and meditating. 

"Meditation and presence allow me the quiet time to discover what works best for me and honors our son," she said. 

The first thing she does every morning, she said, is make her bed no matter if it's a good or bad day.

"I know I've succeeded in at least one thing that day," she added.

The fraternity decided to host Baxter after losing several members to suicide, according to Robert Mancini, the fraternity's grand vice regent.

"I wanted to focus on a topic that's not well-recognized. Having the personal experience within our fraternity and the national spotlight on this particular subject, it was important to hear more and be more aware about it so we could help anyone suffering," Mancini said. 

Baxter never thought she'd become such a public advocate for mental health. 

"I hope this is helping people," she said. 

Baxter's guide for losing a loved one to suicide

  • Stay tethered and anchored to reality with meditation, prayer, yoga and walking.
  • Have a plan and do what feels right.
  • Build a strong support system, take time for solitude and grieving but don't isolate yourself. Seek professional help if needed.
  • Discover hope. Be more comfortable with the ambiguity. You don't need to know all the answers.
  • Pick and choose your battles.
  • Don't let guilt run your life.


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