Honoring a friend’s memory

St. Charles West High School senior launches a nonprofit that seeks advance the field of suicide awareness/prevention

By Brett Auten

Drew Ryherd was distraught, saddened.

It was Feb. 13, 2015, and his best friend, Liam Michael Parker, a gifted composer and pianist, took his own life after struggling for several years with mental illness. Ryherd and Parker had grown up together and both were students at St. Charles West High School. Ryherd saw firsthand all of the warning signs of depression and mental illness. With Liam’s passing, Ryherd made a pledge to raise awareness on these issues so people like him and Liam’s family and friends would not have to go through the same struggle.

Ryherd, now a senior at St. Charles West, is a determined and focused young man and he channeled his grief into something positive. Ryherd along with Picker’s parents launched the Liam Michael Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to honor the memory of Picker and to advance the field of suicide awareness/prevention. 

“The goal is to make a difference in the community concerning suicide and depression, mostly at a youth level, but for anyone who’s struggling,” Ryherd said. “I think initially we were all looking for a way to cope. We were wanting to help other people and share our knowledge and experiences and that in of itself was therapeutic.”

It’s because of these efforts within the community that Ryherd was chosen as one of three recipients in the St. Louis Metro area for the Megan Meier Memorial Scholarship, a $1,000 scholarship presented by SSM Health and the Megan Meier Foundation to high school seniors. The Megan Meier Foundation is an organization that aims to prevent bullying and raise suicide prevention awareness. The Megan Meier Foundation was founded by Tina Meier in 2007 after her daughter Megan took her own life following a cruel cyberbullying incident.

The suicide rates for young people should alarm everyone. 

According to the Parent Resource Program, suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24 and the second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease, combined.

Each day in our nation, there is an average of over 3,041 attempts by young people grades 9-12.  If these percentages are additionally applied to grades seven and eight, the numbers would be higher and the PRP says that four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs. 

According to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, a 2017 Youth Risk Behaviors Survey cited that 7.4-percent of youth in grades 9-12 reported that they had made at least one suicide attempt in the past 12 months. Female students attempted almost twice as often as male students.

“We live in unprecedented times,” Ryherd said. “We continually hear how we’re the first generation to deal with cyberbullying. We’re the first generation to grow up with cellphones. There are so many new ways to find a way to be hurt.”

Ryherd will be putting the scholarship towards his tuition at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he plans to continue his education in business. Currently, he is studying business at the St. Charles County Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS), a program that offers students an educational opportunity to immerse themselves in a professional environment for high demand, high-quality jobs. 

Ryherd’s goal is to take the educational experiences he receives at college and the St. Charles CAPS program to create his own nonprofit to help those who struggle with mental illness or who have felt the loss from suicide. Though it’s just in his notebook, the project is titled “Team Yellow” the cause color for suicide awareness and there is already a small unofficial committee offering advice on how to start a 503c non-profit organization.

Through the Liam Michael Foundation and in the coming years with Team Yellow, Ryherd will have touched many lives. But he’d prefer that none of this would have had to happen.

“We’ve done so much, but the loss of Liam still hurts,” Ryherd said. “Every day, I wish he was still here.”

CUTLINE: Photo by Kate Edmonson Drew Ryherd, a senior at St. Charles West High School and founder of the Liam Michael Foundation, sits on a bench outside of the school.