One thing comes up over and again when it comes to Walter Crooks—he was gentle. Or rather, he is gentle. To Walt’s friends and family, the language matters; it illustrates the unending impact of Walt’s influence. It’s not that Walt was intelligent and compassionate—Walt is intelligent and compassionate. Last August, when Walt lost his life to a long fight with anxiety and depression, those values he embodied didn’t just disappear. Walt’s mother, Susan Crooks, is making sure that his passion for increasing knowledge and decreasing suffering lives on through the nonprofit foundation, Walt’s Waltz, which seeks to end the stigma and encourage conversations around mental illness.
Susan’s big green eyes brighten when she talks about her sons. “They’ve always brought me along on adventures,” she recounts. Whether they were rock climbing, hiking, or biking, Walt and his brother, Will, insisted that their mom join them. “Walt would say, ‘Mom, you gotta live.’” Walt and Susan worked together, too, both as teachers at an online charter school and as collaborators on thought projects. They got involved with The Foundation for Critical Thinking, attending annual conferences and developing their own theory to present that paired mindfulness with critical thinking. “Walt was a deep thinker and a lifelong learner,” Susan beams. “He’s always been my teacher.” Together, Walt and Susan sought to impact minds and lives. Now, after his passing, Susan has found a way to continue their work.
Anyone who’s experienced grief will know the ache of desperation in Susan’s pleas following Walt’s death—What are we gonna do? How will we live? Her son, Will, knew she needed a mission. “He said, ‘Mom, we can save some lives. We are going to start something.’ Walt died on a Thursday; by Saturday, Will and I knew we were going to start a foundation.” The name was easy, inspired by a poem Susan wrote after Walt’s passing—“Walt’s Starlight Waltz”—and the way society dances around issues of mental illness. Walt’s own experiences informed the vision of Walt’s Waltz, and Susan and Will wanted to light a path of hope forward for others who fight through the dark, tangled web of anxiety and depression. They wanted to honor the battle that Walt fought valiantly every day of his 35 years.
The illness of anxiety and depression arrived at Walt’s door when it most often does—in his teen years. “He felt lonely a lot, even though he had many friends,” Susan recalls. He was handsome, smart, athletic, and kind. “You would never guess . . . he had a hard time finding his voice, he [struggled with] confidence.”
In high school, Walt started therapy and went on a mild SSRI medication. These were the first swings at a beast that would haunt him for years. Susan recounts his efforts: how he tried countless medications, went to cognitive therapy, took up meditation, kept a gratitude journal, practiced yoga to the point of becoming an instructor himself. Yet anxiety and depression work against logic and reality, and, in isolation, the darkness can grow rapidly. Walt worked remotely, alone at home. The isolation exacerbated the already overwhelming feeling of disconnection that afflicted him. “We need to be mindful of these tenderhearted people who work out of their houses,” Susan insists. “If they’re not getting out, they can spiral down. I think we need to evaluate that as a society.” It’s that growing population of isolated individuals—and more—that Susan hopes to reach with Walt’s Waltz.
Walt’s story is representative of an increasing group. For the last two decades, South Carolina has seen a more than 38 percent increase in suicide rates. Fifty percent of those who die by suicide have never sought treatment, yet 90 percent suffer from mental illness. Susan and Will’s mission is to champion hope for those 90 percent. They’re aiming first at higher education, partnering with schools in the Carolinas—Clemson University, the University of South Carolina, and Furman University—to develop conversations and resources for dealing with anxiety and depression. Walt’s Waltz focuses on three points—creating safe spaces to talk about mental health, assigning measurable stages of severity to better understand an individual’s at-risk status, and ending the negative stigma that surrounds mental illness. Walt’s Waltz exists to, above all, give hope to those who feel hopeless.
To say that Susan Crooks is strong is an understatement. From her joyful force of will, it’s easy to see how Walt became an optimistic fighter. It’s hard to imagine springing into action after a loss, as Susan has, but she admits that the work of building Walt’s Waltz is part of her own healing. She believes in the power of education—that the more we are informed, the deeper our understanding will be, and the better off we’ll become. She lives it, because Walt lived it. “All he wanted was to do good. He always knew that doing good was the best thing, the only reason we’re here—to move humanity forward, to reduce suffering.”
More information on Walt’s Waltz can be found at waltswaltz.com. If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
Photograph by Will Crooks