Even as a kindergarten student, Charles Francis “Chuck” Mahoney IV, was a champion for the underdog.
“This little kid was being bullied by second-graders in the school bathroom,” recalled his mother, Debi Mahoney. “Chuck stood up for him and said, ‘Leave him alone. He’s little. If you want to pick on someone, pick on me.’ That’s just the kind of kid he always was.”
As he grew and matured, Chuck maintained a passion for justice. A popular student, he was kind to his peers and didn’t fall into typical adolescent behavior of belittling others.
“He wasn’t judgmental,” said Debi. “He liked you no matter who you were or where you came from.”
In high school, Chuck was elected prom king and vice president of his Burgettstown class. He was a natural athlete who became captain of his football and basketball teams. He was a National Honor Society member who sang classic rock anthems before the start of advanced English class.
“He set a lot of high goals for himself. Sometimes a parent looks at themselves and (asks), ‘Did I push him into these areas?’ And looking back, I can honestly say that my husband and I … we pushed our kids to do their best, but no more than that,” said Debi.
After graduation in 1999, Chuck worked for two summers in the office of Washington County Family Court Judge Thomas Gladden. The experience cemented his ultimate goal to become a child advocacy attorney.
But the dream was never realized.
On Feb. 11, 2002, in the bedroom of his fraternity house at Allegheny College, Meadville, Chuck took his own life by hanging himself with his dog’s leash.
“He was very self-goal oriented. He was also sensitive. And at almost 6-feet-5 and almost 200 pounds, you looked at him and thought, ‘This kid should have everything,’” said Debi. “You never judge a book by its cover, because, on the inside, he was a sponge, and he absorbed everything.”
A retired school counselor, Debi and her husband, Chal, a school administrator who is executive director of Intermediate Unit I, with the help of their son, Joe, a licensed social worker, run the Chuckie F. Mahoney Memorial Foundation, a scholarship fund with the goal of educating in suicide prevention.
Soon after the death of their middle child, the Mahoneys came to believe college officials could have prevented the tragedy.
In 2003, they sued Allegheny College for wrongful death. Administrators and mental health professionals should have alerted them to their son’s “continued spiral downhill,” said Debi.
During the 2006 trial, the college maintained that Chuck was not an imminent risk for suicide and, therefore, couldn’t break his confidentiality. Jurors sided with the college, and the Mahoneys lost the suit.
As both a trained mental health professional and the mother of a child who killed himself, Debi wants Chuck’s story to be told to benefit others.
“Allegheny is a school of 1,800 kids. Chuck was well-known on campus. Think what happens at these larger universities where these kids fall through the cracks. That is the issue,” she said. “When should parents be called, should they be called and don’t parents have rights?”
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a mental health advocate who has spoken with the Mahoneys about their plight, said the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, has too many “gray areas” that he believes can hurt rather than help.
“We have to refer to a time when people used reason,” he said.
Murphy, a child psychologist, said when confronted with a potential breach of confidentiality, he’d rather face a family in the courtroom than in a funeral home.
It’s a sentiment that Debi expressed days later.
“As a professional myself, I can tell you there are times you have to think, ‘OK, this kid is really going to be mad if I call the home.’ But I’d rather have him alive and mad than dead, because there’s nothing I can do after that,” she said.
Though he was sensitive, Chuck didn’t regularly display his feelings.
“That is not necessarily abnormal for an adolescent boy,” said Debi. “Boys feel a certain stigma, even more so, that you have to handle things on your own.”
He was about 18 years old when he began to show signs of anxiety and depression.
“A lot of the very serious mental health issues do not manifest themselves until late adolescence,” Debi said. “That’s why college kids are so susceptible. They’re in the middle of a life-changing transition. It’s hard for people – particularly parents – to know, is this normal?”
Just before the start of his freshman year, Chuck, a member of the college football team, left for school two weeks early to take part in training camp. But he was despondent, said Debi, and had a breakdown.
Chuck was hospitalized for five days. He was diagnosed with severe depression and started on medication.
The Mahoneys notified the school about Chuck’s diagnosis and treatment.
That fall, he decided not to play football.
“He didn’t want to quit the team. He just thought, as a freshman, it would make an easier transition into school,” Debi said. “He did well after that.”
Chuck made friends, joined a fraternity and had a girlfriend. He participated in spring football, and his first year of college passed.
In August 2000, Chuck once again returned to school early for football camp. Again, he went into the hospital.
His doctor in Erie changed his medication, and after four or five days, he was discharged.
In his sophomore year, Chuck continued to have appointments with his therapist. He played football. He became vice president of his fraternity and continued to see his girlfriend. He had a campus job.
That summer, Chuck returned to Burgettstown and his job at the courthouse. During workouts, though, he told Debi his legs were bothering him. His doctor ran some tests that didn’t reveal anything serious, and, once again, Chuck returned to Meadville.
The fall of his junior year, Chuck called his parents after two days of football camp. He told them he had passed out during training.
The next morning, he called again and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I have to quit.”
Debi took him back to the doctor, who this time determined that Chuck had a heart murmur and had developed sports asthma. The doctor told Chuck that during spring break, in March, he would run more tests. That appointment never happened.
Chuck returned to school and then came home for Christmas break. Debi said he appeared to have a great time, hanging out with friends.
What the Mahoneys didn’t know at the time was that, even before Christmas break, Chuck’s friends at school were worried about him.
“I had no idea that someone was reporting his behavior at that time,” she said.
Some of Chuck’s fraternity brothers later told the Mahoneys they had gone to Chuck’s counselor to express their concern. After break, the friends later said Chuck’s behaviors had escalated. They said he was missing class, drinking in the morning, becoming extremely angry.
Chuck asked a few of his friends if they would take care of his adopted dog, Gracie, if anything happened to him.
This time, when some friends and his ex-girlfriend went to college administrators, said Debi, they were assured the college would take care of the issue.
“Eight different people (associated with the college) had knowledge that my son was sinking and not one bothered to pick up the phone,” she said.
Two email messages seeking comment for this story sent to Allegheny College’s media relations department weren’t answered.
The Mahoneys believe Chuck’s death could have been prevented if they had been notified. When he started therapy, Chuck signed a form that stated he understood his confidentiality would be breached if he posed a threat to himself or someone else.
“We had that paper,” she said. “It was signed. They didn’t follow procedures.”
While mental health professionals are now trained in suicide prevention, more education is needed so that even lay people recognize the warning signs, said Debi.
“The moral of the story is that, parents, don’t trust the system to protect your child,” said Debi. “You have to be very active and you have to be actively involved.”