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Interrupting the stigma: Family of former MARTA head lost to suicide shares their story

MARTA CEO Jeff Parker's death by suicide shocked and devastated his family. Now, his wife shares their story in hopes of changing the narrative around mental health

ATLANTA — September is Suicide Awareness Month, and after experiencing such a loss in a very public way, the Parker family is sharing their story in hopes of changing the stigma around suicide and mental health. 

Jeff Parker was a husband and father, a devoted Patriots fan and a man who loved music. He was also beloved by many who knew him as the CEO of MARTA, Atlanta's transit system. 

"We met when we were 19. Second semester, sophomore in college," his wife, Erin Harlow-Parker, shared. "So a lifetime, essentially, and I would say the things that I love to talk about Jeff is his sense of adventure. We traveled a ton as a couple and as a family. He was always up for the next thing."

Harlow-Parker said she also remembered the level of excitement and joy her husband had once he received the job as CEO of MARTA, adding, "My younger daughter calls him 'the man of the people.' Like if you rode MARTA with him, you had to budget extra time to get to your destination because he stopped and talked to everyone."

Through their life together, there was laughter, peppered by Parker's 'dad jokes.' 

"The girls like to say that we would give anything to hear his silly, dumb dad jokes again," Harlow-Parker added. 

Jeff died by suicide on January 14, 2022. 

"That shock that people who maybe didn't know him well was the same obvious shock that we had," Harlow-Parker said. "This was not something that my daughters and I in any way saw coming. Jeff did not have a diagnosable mental illness. It wasn't something that he struggled with. So when this occurred, we were devastated and shocked."

Amidst the unthinkable, Harlow-Parker collaborated with MARTA to release the news, intentionally naming the cause of her husband's death as a suicide. 

"When someone dies of cancer or a heart attack, we don't hesitate to say that that is how someone died," she said. "But when someone dies related to a mental health concern or suicide, we don't talk about it, and it's because of shame. It is that same shame that prevents people from accessing help."

Nearly 20 months later, Harlow-Parker, an advanced practice registered nurse specializing in pediatric mental health at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life, is sharing the family's experience. In a video released by Children's, she and her daughters sit down together to share in their own words how suicide can happen to any family, yet prevention is possible by reducing the stigma and empowering everyone to talk about mental health.

It's important, Harlow-Parker emphasized, to not only recognize red flags and offer support to those in crisis but also to proactively equip individuals with coping skills. 

"The way that we do that is to get to a place where we normalize conversations around feelings and emotions, that we move away from seeing feelings in this very black and white way, positive or negative," Harlow-Parker said. "And we see them as all as okay and normal."

It's a foundation that starts a childhood, she shared, as families foster opportunities to practice coping skills and build resilience. 

"Those are what we call the protective factors against suicide. We can shore up people,' she continued. "It isn't necessarily going to prevent them from having thoughts per se, if they're struggling because we're all going to struggle. But it will give them those skills to be able to activate and seek out for help."

And to those struggling, a reminder. 

"You are loved. You are not alone,' Harlow-Parker said. "There is hope. There is help, and suicide is not the answer."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

More from Strong4Life includes resources on suicide prevention, grief, feelings, and coping skills.

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