From left to right, Kelly, Max, David and Callie Cochran smile for a family photo.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
May represents Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to enlighten eyes to those living with mental illnesses, educate the public on the importance of mental health and shine as a beacon of encouragement for all.
Through their organization – MAXimizing Mental Health, Inc. – one local family adopts the mantra of mental health awareness year-round. Together, Kelly and David Cochran shower their community with compassion, shattering stigmas and spreading hope through a movement rooted in one beloved soul’s desire to help others – their son, Max.
Gadsden natives Kelly and David met in the Emma Sansom High School lunchroom, where David experienced love at first sight, a moment he joked took Kelly a few more years to discover herself. The pair furthered their education at Gadsden State Community College before David transferred to the University of Alabama in Birmingham on a baseball scholarship and Kelly traveled to Jacksonville State University to pursue nursing. After marriage and a brief bout in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the high school sweethearts returned to Etowah County to start a family of their own. Kelly and David have two children: the eldest, Callie, a law student at The University of Alabama, and her younger brother Max.
Curiosity caught Max from childhood, with his inquisitive mind leaning toward a love of learning and exploration. An enthusiastic class clown, Max’s inclination to entertain resulted in frequent laughter from his peers and family, from doodling a saga entitled “Stick Man Sam” in his textbooks to mimicking accents and characters.
As Max grew older, his interests drifted outdoors into the serenity and excitement of nature. His daring and fearless persona coincided with activities like rock climbing and whitewater rafting, while he found solace at Noccalula Falls. The falls emerged as a refuge for Max, a sanctuary where he often escaped for hours at a time.
While Max’s interests altered as he grew up, one aspect of his character remained resolute: his tender heart. Empathetic and caring, Max felt a sense of responsibility to ensure others were happy through humor, kindness and encouragement.
“He was very sensitive and you wouldn’t know that,” said Kelly. “If somebody was being picked on at school, it bothered him. I feel like people gravitated toward him because I think he saw they were hurting, and he made other people feel good. He loved animals and older people, and babies gravitated toward him. He was very kind to people – he felt like it was his job to make other people feel good and entertain. Just to see him encourage people…I loved that about him. He had a way of making people feel better.”
Kelly recalled a moment when Max’s tender heart rushed to the aid of a classmate in elementary school. When asked to co-host Mitchell Elementary’s Talent Show in fourth grade with Jason Bozeman, Max and Bozeman forged a jovial duo, enriched with endless jokes and amusement. During the talent show, a student forgot her piano piece. Rather than let her sit there in silence or embarrassment, Max called for a round of applause and encouraged his peer, who soon remembered her piece and began playing.
“He was very humble,” said Kelly. “I remember one time he was in the eighth-grade and David and Max were coming home. Max looked over at our next door neighbor’s house (they were renting to a young lady) and Max said, ‘Dad, I see smoke, something’s on fire!’ They went over to the door and Max was banging on the door. The lady had taken some medication and was sleeping, but Max kept knocking on the door until she came out and the fire department came. I said, ‘Max, talk about the Lord placing you in the right place at the right time,’ but he didn’t want attention for himself in that way. He just didn’t want you to brag on him that much.”
Though Max himself confessed he was uncertain of the career he wanted to pursue following high school, helping others proved a lifelong purpose he wanted to fulfill.
“It told his true character,” said David, on Max’s desire to help. “If you talk to Max’s friends, Max was the person that would listen a lot. One of his friends told me that when he was struggling, having a lot of bad thoughts at school, Max pulled him aside and told him he was going to be okay. I think he could relate to a lot of things. When Max was saying, ‘I just want to help people,’ he would’ve enjoyed ways of making people feel better about issues and problems they were having. It was always something Max felt drawn to…like he needed to help people with the problems he was having.”
While Max extended efforts to uplift others, he faced an internal battle that seemed to worsen as time passed. Middle school and adolescence proved challenging for Max, who often struggled to complete schoolwork, remain on task or focus, resulting in his own frustration. The presence and absence of relationships, including the devastating loss of Kelly’s father, impacted Max deeply, who began experiencing overwhelming emotions.
Max himself recognized a difference, telling his mother that he did not think like her, David or Callie. While his parents and sister were happy and Max knew he possessed no reason for his unhappiness, sometimes, he said he just felt sad.
“Although he was the one talking, the one that was entertaining, the one that was making everybody feel comfortable, he was the one that was hurting,” said Kelly. “If you were close to him, you just knew he was struggling.”
Max’s teachers reiterated Max’s difficulties, who noted Max’s intelligence, but also noticed his mind seemed to race without slowing down. As proactive parents searching for a solution, David and Kelly reached out to other parents and counselors, who reassured them Max’s struggles probably stemmed from puberty and would pass in time. Still, when Max did not improve, the Cochrans felt a sense of urgency.
Visits to several doctors culminated in a frequent diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with depression for Max, who was prescribed medication to treat his symptoms. Though the medication might help Max focus temporarily, it often affected him negatively, resulting in days without eating and sleepless nights. Max described the medication as making him feel “antisocial, disassociated and on the outside looking in.”
As Max fought his personal battles, his parents wrestled with obstacle after obstacle to help their son. David shared that doctors discussed depression’s link to the brain and mental health’s correlation with chemical imbalances with him, describing the brain as the last frontier, an area of the body doctors constantly strive to understand. A lack of structure in local resources left David and Kelly with few options, little clarity and muddled answers.
“We learned there’s not a very good organized mental health structure for treatment of young adults and adolescents,” said David. “There’s not many ways of getting help, not enough research or resources. We would call and try to get Max in to see somebody, and they would say we can see him in two to three weeks and if that’s not good enough, call 911. If you’re struggling with issues that were as severe as Max would struggle with sometimes, you shouldn’t have to wait [until there is a crisis].”
The stigma surrounding mental health issues proved another challenge for the Cochrans, who witnessed firsthand the embarrassment individuals often feel who experience mental illness. Despite the fact that mental health conditions affect people physically, mental illness is frequently treated as a separate entity than other ailments, resulting in shame and judgement that causes outside perceptions to view people experiencing mental illness in a negative light.
Stigma reinforces silence, entrapping individuals in humiliation and preventing them from seeking help due to fear of discrimination. External prejudices can lead to internal blame for people with mental illnesses, who might feel isolated or separated from what society deems as ‘normal.’
Yet, communication proved a source of hope for Max. When paired with an understanding and supportive counselor who meshed well with Max’s personality, Kelly and David noted improvement. The couple could look at him and recognize good days, when Max found an outlet for his own thoughts and someone trustworthy he could speak with.
As Mother’s Day in 2018 approached, Kelly remembered encouraging moments she considers gifts from God – moments of reassurance and unforgettable love. Max bought his mother flowers to accompany a card, writing a sweet note to Kelly inside. On Tuesday, May 8, 2018, Max told both David and Kelly how much he loved them, expressing his gratitude for all their efforts to help him and stating that he could have not asked for better parents. That same day, vibrant and loving 19-year-old Max took his own life.
While Max’s tragic death proved a heartbreaking loss for his family and all who knew him, Max’s memory lives in a powerful way though he no longer walks the earth. Throughout the years, the Cochrans garnered a magnitude of knowledge surrounding the mental health care system for youth, possessing a unique perspective concerning the realities of mental illness and treatment. With their eyes open to the multitude of youth who struggle with mental health issues like Max, the Cochrans could not sit back and do nothing – they had to advocate for change.
“That’s where the actual idea for MAXimizing Mental Health, Inc. began,” said David. “When you go through something like this, you always learn from it. But what you find out is when something works, you want to go with it…you go with what you know. We know that there was no doubt if Max found the right person to talk to that he liked, that counseling helped. That’s why we’re so passionate about helping others get counseling, because we know it helped Max. When it helped Max, it helped the whole family.”
“All things are not good, but God can turn something terrible into something very good,” said Kelly. “I’m not comparing myself to Job at all, but in Job when he said, ‘I’ve heard Lord, but now I see,’ [I understand that]. I always knew God was faithful and I’ve always believed it, but faith is not about having all the answers, it’s about trusting. I’ll never know why this side of eternity, but I know God loves me and He loved Max more than I loved Max. I don’t have to understand. I can’t, but I can trust Him because He’s faithful and He’s a good God. When we first went for grief counseling as a family, the counselor said that grief can actually be a gift…I know what she meant. It opens your eyes to see things. It’s perspective.”
The perspective the Cochrans gained forged with God’s divine comfort that embraced them each day to create an organization that fosters hope. As the Cochrans surrendered their heartache to the Lord, the consolation their faith produced inspired them to generate the same message for others, manifesting in their own ministry – MAXimizing Mental Health, Inc.
MAXimizing Mental Health, Inc. partners with professionals (carefully screened and intentionally selected) to provide mental health counseling for those who seek assistance. MAXimizing Mental Health, Inc. bridges the monetary gap for those who need help, paying for counseling sessions to ensure that no one goes without assistance due to financial strain. The organization pairs individuals with counselors best suited to their own unique situations, to offer constructive and positive sessions that truly benefit participants.
Through education, communication and valuable resources, MAXimizing Mental Health, Inc. strives to shatter the stigma surrounding mental illness. David shared that a potential way to reduce stigma is through education, with peer-led mentor groups showing support for their classmates.
“I think there needs to be more emphasis put on peer-to-peer support,” said David. “These kids can take care of each other if you let them. They can solve problems together. There doesn’t need to be shame or embarrassment, or feeling less than others. Communication is the biggest thing. What I’ve seen a lot of times is if children were allowed [to discuss problems] in a constructive and positive way, things were better. A child will listen to another child they think a lot of than their own parents sometimes.”
“We’re just trying to make a difference,” said Kelly. “We’re trying to bring hope and help people. Our mission is to bring awareness and to educate that people who have mental illnesses are not weird. They’re different, but that’s okay, and there shouldn’t be shame in that. Our passion really is to make people aware that there’s help, we’re learning and there’s support. I think Max thought things were never going to get better…our mission is to bring hope into that situation.”
Since its inception in 2019, MAXimizing Mental Health, Inc. is now providing over 200 free counseling sessions to individuals in its community. Testimonies of the organization’s impact flood in to Kelly and David, who find joy in the progress individuals make, from a young man who began speaking about his problems to a young woman who was once homebound due to anxiety, who now is hoping to apply for a job.
MAXimizing Mental Health, Inc. hosted Run to the “MAX” for Mental Health at Noccalula Falls Black Creek Trails on Saturday, May 8, 2021. The 5K run and one-mile walk generated an overwhelming surge of support from the community, with runners and supporters uniting with David, Kelly and Callie to pay homage to Max’s legacy and foster a worthy cause.
“It was a beautiful day,” said Kelly. “Every person had a smile on their face. There’s been an outpouring of support and people have thanked us for doing this. Even people maybe not affected by mental illness see this as a needed resource. I can’t express my gratitude or how thankful we are for people’s encouragement and support.
“Ecclesiastes 4 says pity the person who falls and has no one to pick him up. I feel like we have so many people picking us up, they didn’t let us fall. We felt like we were on the ground, but they picked us up and carried us when we couldn’t walk. I’m thankful for relationships, new and old friends who are walking the same path. I’m thankful God sent people in our lives at this time, because we need people and we need relationships.”
Through MAXimizing Mental Health, Inc., the Cochrans nurture the belief that better and brighter days rest on the horizon. Established upon a solid foundation that emphasizes the importance of mental health care in all individuals, Kelly and David extend generous and benevolent hands, ever-willing to help. Together with God’s guidance, the couple promote an abounding and resonating sense of hope, uplifting others and abounding with love – creating an organization that represents the young man who inspired it all, personifying Max’s compassionate and encouraging nature that will remain forever alive.
“I would like for people to remember his smile, his laughter and the way he made everybody around him feel so alive and encouraged,” said Kelly. “I don’t want people to be afraid to talk about Max to me, because it never makes me sad to talk about him…it brings me joy. Max was very passionate about helping people he didn’t even know. I think this would really make him so happy that we’re doing something. It just keeps his memory alive.”
“All things work for the good of those who love the Lord and I realize God has given us a purpose now that we didn’t have before,” said David. “I’m trying to set myself up for eternity, and a big part of that eternity is going to be Max. Max is whole – he’s not hurting anymore, he’s not suffering anymore. Anything that’s good that comes from this is for the glory, honor and praise of God. We’re not looking for any recognition.
“We could look at Max and say, ‘This is a good day.’ I want people to remember him when he was like that. When you lose somebody, what I have found is you don’t think about the bad. When Max was good, there was nobody like him…and he’s worth remembering.”