As Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month begins, one Drake student hands out donuts in memory of his brother.
“During my sophomore year of high school my brother lost his battle with depression. He battled with depression for pretty much all of middle school and high school,” first-year Ben Kujawa said.
Kujawa’s brother, Jack Kujawa, would have been a junior in college and 21 years old this year.
“He killed himself when he was 18, I was 15 at the time and it was something else really difficult for me. He killed himself a month after his birthday,” Kujawa said.
When Jack Kujawa’s first birthday after his passing approached on Sept. 4, his family decided to honor him by remembering his kind acts.
“He was someone that inspired so much joy in so many other people,” Kujawa said.
Kujawa and his family started buying milkshakes for people because that was something his brother used to do.
“If he heard that one of his friends was having a bad day he would show up unannounced to their house with a milkshake and just give it to them,” Kujawa said. “He took so many people to go get milkshakes at Denny’s. Like, people at Denny’s knew who he was.”
As the second anniversary of Jack Kujawa’s birthday approached, Ben Kujawa said the acts of kindness got bigger and they had “a lot more traction.”
“Me and my friend stood up at [a] street intersection for 5 hours one day on his birthday with signs that just said, like, ‘mental health awareness,’ ‘you are loved’ and stuff like that,” Kujawa said. “It’s such a cool thing because we put out our flyers to say that nothing is too small.”
Before long, more people got involved and passed the kind acts on to others.
“People are, like, literally, like, getting groceries for a friend or people are, like, they are covering someone’s whole entire bill,” Kujawa said.
This is the first year that Kujawa is doing this tradition away from home.
“It was definitely a little scary because I didn’t know a ton of people here,” Kujawa said.
But that didn’t stop Kujawa from devoting his time to kind acts in memory of his brother.
“So I did some venmoing where I sent people $5 to go buy a shake. I did that for about 10 or 12 people,” Kujawa said.
Kujawa and two of his friends then started handing out donuts to anyone walking around on campus.
“Then this morning I bought $50 worth of donuts from Krispy Kreme and walked around with two of my friends and just, we’re handing them out to people at the spikeball tournament,” Kujawa said. “It’s just whatever you can do, you know.”
Sophomore Javy Rodriguez was one of the students that received a donut that morning from Kujawa.
“I thought it was really sweet of Ben Kujawa to pass out donuts to students. He and a couple other students approached my friends and I outside of Olmsted asking if we wanted some donuts,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said the kind act brought a smile to his face.
“I know even I sometimes struggle dealing with things mentally and emotionally, especially with a sudden change of environment this past week, and being thrown into somewhere that can prove to be stressful at times,” Rodriguez said. “But his random act of kindness honestly made me feel less alone and really brought a smile to my face, as I’m sure it did many other students that morning.”
Because of his brother’s battle with depression, Ben Kujawa is a big advocate for mental health, especially in sports.
“I feel like inside of the male sports world there is a pressure that we need to “man up” and a lot of the time people view athletes as just people who play a sport,” Kujawa said. “We aren’t viewed as individuals with other interests, dreams, and our own problems.”
Kujawa has personal experience with being told to “man up”
“I know personally, I’ve had coaches in the past, teammates and even non athletes just tell me that I need to just ‘man up’ and play,” Kujawa said.
Men died by suicide 3.63 times more than women in 2019 according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In a report by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, they found that male athletes are more at risk for suicide than female athletes, with football players appearing to be of the greatest risk. Jack Kujawa was a football player.
“Lots of people believe that when it comes to athletes, that the only types of ‘injuries’ we can have are physical ones, but so many athletes struggle with mental health,” Kujawa said. “It’s a silent battle that so many of us go through as it’s kind of an unwritten rule to not talk about our feelings because it’s not the ‘manly’ thing to do.”
As for Drake football, Kujawa said they had a bonding moment where they shared some of their problems with their teammates — and many opened up about mental health.
“At football camp, we do the thing where all the players would share hardships that they went through in life,” Kujawa said. “I think that was super cool just because so many of them did open up about mental health.”
Kujawa wants more athletes to recognize that talking about mental health is okay.
“I just hope athletes start to realize that they probably have teammates who are dealing with the same problems as they are, and it’s alright to talk about how you feel, it’s alright to show emotion, it’s alright to cry. All those things are good,” Kujawa said.
Kujawa said that while he acknowledges that he is not perfect, he says that the best thing he does for his mental health is to “just be able to talk to someone.”
“When you love, love with your whole heart. It does no service to you to love half-heartedly. Everyone can accept your love, and everyone wants your love, and you are deserving of other people’s love. Just love on and live on,” Kujawa said.