'You truly don't know how many people love you': Brandon Colligan's family hopes others suffering speak up

·6 min read
Brandon Colligan, 26, who died by suicide June 17, 2022, poses on the day of his graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Brandon Colligan, 26, who died by suicide June 17, 2022, poses on the day of his graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

On the evening of June 10, Tyler Colligan received a call from his grandmother about a note his brother Brandon left before he went missing.

A week of searching later, Tyler's worst fears were confirmed: Brandon Colligan, 26, had died by suicide.

"I knew by the way it was worded that it sounded like a suicide note to me," Tyler, 29, told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin via text on Wednesday.

Tyler is no stranger to crisis. He works in the Weyauwega area as a firefighter and an emergency medical technician when he isn't working his full-time job at an insurance company. Tyler called the Waupaca County Sheriff's Office while en route to his grandmother's home in the town of Royalton the night Brandon disappeared. Brandon lived with their grandmother.

But the letter and the eventual news of his death came as a shock to his family and friends. Tyler told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Brandon had "no prior issues as far as any of our family or his close friends knew."

Brandon was last seen getting coffee with a friend on the morning of June 10 in the Stevens Point area. His friend said Brandon left to get an item but never returned, according to a statewide missing persons report.

An intense search by the Waupaca County Sheriff's Office dive team in the Little Wolf River produced no answers, but his car was found in Royalton where authorities discovered his wallet and phone.

As a student at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Brandon was involved in UW Oshkosh College Democrats and, on his Facebook page, wrote he was "cultivating collaboration between Midwest communities to solve global challenges."

The sudden loss of his younger brother has left a gaping hole, Tyler said, but he emphasized it doesn't have to come to that for other families.

Brandon Colligan, 26, was found dead on June 17, 2022. The Waupaca County Sheriff’s Office reported him missing June 10.
Brandon Colligan, 26, was found dead on June 17, 2022. The Waupaca County Sheriff’s Office reported him missing June 10.

"Reach out to somebody you trust, or if you’re not comfortable with that, reach out to a stranger," Tyler said. "You truly don’t know how many people love you or something about you; they may not tell (that to) you every day, but it leaves a hole in everybody that knows you."

Grayson Bourke, Brandon's stepbrother, said the two of them had always been close. A rough-and-tumble boyhood in Waupaca turned to a mentor-mentee relationship. It was Bourke who introduced Brandon to politics and the political science faculty at UWO, where Bourke also attended as an undergraduate and was active in the college Democrat group.

The news of Brandon's death has sent ripples through Bourke and Tyler's family. He described the phone call where he learned of Brandon's disappearance "like being in a documentary."

"It really is just a shock to all of us,"  Bourke, 29, told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin in a phone call Thursday evening, after Brandon's wake. "He really had no signs of depression that were notable. He might have been hiding them. He hid them extremely well."

Living with a secret is all too common for those who end their own lives, said Cindy Reffke, executive director of Prevent Suicide Fox Cities. Some suicide victims may have behaved in ways that sounded the alarms, but, as Reffke put it, "you don't know what you don't know."

As a white man of working age, Brandon is in the highest risk group for suicide, Reffke said. That assertion is backed by the latest suicide data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which notes that more white men die by suicide than any other group per year — and that rate is only increasing.

"Young men can very easily hide the things that they're going through," Reffke said. "It's possible he had mental health issues, but had to 'behave' a certain way and was too frightened to say 'I'm not feeling so well.'"

Bourke said he started going to therapy this year for the first time in his life. For a long time, he was skeptical, he said, but it quickly became a lifesaver.

"Men aren't encouraged to talk about their problems and it's really important that we do to develop healthy habits and to really just talk to people if you're struggling," Bourke, who works for the Denver nonprofit Lifespan Local, said.

Tyler said anyone wishing to donate to a charity in Brandon's memory may give to any animal rescue. Tyler also wanted to bring attention to the Waupaca County Sheriff's Office dive team.

"They're just starting up but were heavily involved in searching the Little Wolf River where (Brandon's) car was found," Tyler said. "They had huge turnouts with guys taking off of their full-time jobs and volunteering time to look."

Bourke suggested donating to the American Civil Liberties Union because Brandon was committed to LGBTQ rights, people's access to ballots and fighting racism.

'You don't have to leave this world': Signs to look for in friends and loved ones

Brandon Colligan, 26, died by suicide June 17, 2022, after the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Office reported him missing June 10.
Brandon Colligan, 26, died by suicide June 17, 2022, after the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Office reported him missing June 10.

To the trained eye, patterns of someone's distress can signal danger and can come in the form of an increase in alcohol and drug consumption, insomnia or even having a suddenly upbeat disposition. But it might not be obvious to someone without knowing what to look for.

Prevent Suicide Fox Cities offers a 90-minute training session called QPR, which stands for question, persuade and refer. Often, Reffke recommends survivors of suicide victims take this free course because guilt over what they missed can become all-consuming. It adds layers to an already complicated grief.

"People don't realize suicide grief is like no other grief," Reffke said. "It takes you to your knees."

Some signs Reffke said friends and loved ones can look out for are changes in someone's personality, whether that means an outgoing person suddenly becoming introverted or the opposite, when a more wallflower-type person starts unleashing at parties as the center of attention.

A depressed person who suddenly becomes very happy is a big warning sign, Reffke said, because it might mean they have solidified a suicide plan and won't be around for much longer.

Sleep deprivation, Reffke said, is also a sign to watch. When you aren't sleeping, she said, you might start imagining things and lose resilience and rational thinking.

Then, there's what Reffke calls "cleaning house," when a person gives away possessions, big and small. They might volunteer for the first time to throw a big party during this period.

Anybody going through that, Reffke said, has access to copious crisis resources in Wisconsin, including Prevent Suicide Fox Cities.

"We need to keep putting the message across that it is OK to ask for help when you need it," Reffke said. "You don't have to leave this world. You can get the help that you need."

Crisis resources

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

  • The Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line: connects veterans and service members in crisis and their families and friends with qualified U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs responders, available via a toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. 1-800-273-8255 Press 1.

  • Crisis Text Line: a national and confidential text messaging service that connects individuals in crisis with trained listeners. Text "Hopeline" to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Central Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at neilbert@gannett.com or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert.

This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Brandon Colligan family urges those with suicidal thoughts to get help