Finding a Way to Help and Heal

Posted: August 15, 2014
Finding a Way to Help and Heal

An Annual Event Honors a Beloved Son and Supports the Foundation’s Research

Toward the end of his freshman year at the University of Minnesota, where he had hoped to lay the foundation for a career in architecture, Jonathon Robbins began to experience symptoms of schizophrenia. He didn’t make it through his sophomore year.

“He had everything going for him until his illness took hold,” says Kathy Robbins of her son. “He went from being an outgoing, honor-roll student to a young man who didn’t want to leave the house.”

Jonathon began his struggle with delusions and depression. Heartsick at the worry he was causing his parents, Kathy and Curt, his younger sister, Arianna and younger brother, Jordan, Jonathon cut himself off from the people he loved most for a time. Until one night, after driving to Texas, presumably on the instruction of his voices, he came back home––a 48-hour round trip––and asked for help.

“When we took him to the hospital,” Kathy says, “they told us he had caffeine-induced psychosis. I remember thinking, ‘Well, I suppose there is such a thing.’ But of course it was ridiculous.”

The hallucinations worsened. “One time when we were in church he became convinced the priest was telling him that he was bad,” Kathy says. “He’d think the neighbor was talking about him, saying he was bad.”

Such thoughts hounded Jonathon, despite his family’s ceaseless efforts to dispel them. The family doctor put him on aripiprazole* (Abilify®), which helped reduce the symptoms but made him feel “weird,” and he stopped taking it. Hospitalized once more, he finally received a definitive diagnosis. When the doctors thought Jonathon was stabilized, they released him. That day he went home and took his life. Jonathon was 22 years old.

“I kept wondering what would have helped Jonathon,” Kathy says. “I thought maybe better medicine would have.” She searched the Internet to learn more, and discovered the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. “I knew we had to raise money for their research,” Kathy says.

The Robbins are not wealthy people. Curt is a hospital maintenance worker and Kathy runs a day care center in her home. But they are rich in relatives and friends, whom they counted on to pitch in when they came up with the idea of holding a walk/ run event. (Jonathon and Kathy had run marathons together.)

“My family’s huge,” says Kathy, the youngest of 12 children. “We were hoping 200 people would participate, maybe 100 of my family and 50 or so of our friends. We went from house to house asking them. We ended up with over 600 people taking part the first year.”

The race, now an annual event, covers a 2.2 mile course, the distance selected to honor Jonathon’s age when he died. The Robbins named it “Let the Sun Shine,” because, says Kathy, “Jonathon was the sunshine in our lives.”

The first event, held April 28, 2011, the anniversary of Jonathon’s death, brought in more than $14,000, and it has grown each year. This past April, more than a thousand people converged on the Robbins’ little home town of Cold Spring, Minnesota, where the race is held, raising $27,000. The money is donated to the Foundation’s Research Partners program, which matches donors to scientists working in areas of the donors’ particular interest.

Kathy Robbins adds a distinctive touch to “Let the Sun Shine.” She makes signs for participants that honor the loved ones they are racing for, many of whom, like Jonathon, died as a result of mental illness. These “memory signs,” as Kathy calls them, show the loved one’s name, photo and perhaps some words of tribute: “Perfect granddaughter,” “Your smile brought so much joy.” The signs line the entire route of the race.

“I have to make sure I work on the signs on a day I feel strong,” Kathy says. “I look at these people and I wonder why this had to happen.” Her own consolation, she says, is the certainty that “Jonathon died knowing how much we loved him.”