Suicide struggle: Speaker uses father’s death to help others

| April 10, 2014 | 2 Comments
John Crudele has spent years battling both mental illness and the after effects of his father’s suicide in 1974. During a difficult period five years ago, he was tempted to take his own life, but got the help he needed and is back working in his career as a public speaker. He works a lot with youth, and now wishes to bring his ministry to Catholics, men in particular.  Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

John Crudele has spent years battling both mental illness and the after effects of his father’s suicide in 1974. During a difficult period five years ago, he was tempted to take his own life, but got the help he needed and is back working in his career as a public speaker. He works a lot with youth, and now wishes to bring his ministry to Catholics, men in particular. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

John Crudele pulled out a letter he received in 1992 from a teenager in a small, Midwestern town.

The beginning of the letter was cheery, but the words turned dark when the young girl described her troubled junior high years.

In an attempt to be popular during the seventh grade, she started hanging out with the wrong crowd and succumbed to the pressure to drink alcohol. Her downward spiral reached the point of desperation.

“I was flunking school and was always sick to my stomach,” she wrote. “I hated every minute of it. I thought I was really popular, and all I was [was] more unpopular than I was before I started drinking.

“Finally, I got so sick of everything, I tried to take all my problems away by hanging myself. Luckily, the rope wasn’t tied right, so when I let the stool out, I fell on the ground.”

Crudele remembers this letter and uses it as inspiration for the talks he gives to youth in his career as a motivational speaker.

The two-page snippet from the girl’s troubled life, which he sometimes carries with him and quotes from during his speeches, contains truth that hits close to home. Every time Crudele reads it, he remembers one simple fact:

That could have been him standing on a stool with a rope tied around his neck.

Getting back on track

Just five years ago, he contemplated doing the same thing that this girl had attempted. Suicide is one of two demons Crudele has been fighting against ever since his father Joseph took his own life when John was just 15. The other demon he battles is mental illness, something he believes he might have inherited from his mother, Josephine, who died in 2005.

The two demons have taken turns ?—? and even worked together —? trying to squeeze the life out of him.

Crudele’s struggle reached a boiling point during the summer of 2009, when he spiraled into a deep depression that made him wonder if he would follow in his father’s footsteps. On a Friday night that July, he neared the brink of suicide.

“I put five of my friends on notice that I didn’t think that I was going to live through the weekend,” said Crudele, 55, who lives in Savage and belongs to Holy Family in St. Louis Park. “And, I ended up staying overnight with a [married] couple that Sunday night [to avoid committing suicide].”

In a matter of days, the two helped him check into Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis. A nine-day stay in August 2009 helped him get back on track. Then he followed up with doctors to get the right medications to stabilize his mental condition.

Today, he’s speaking in front of audiences, and he unveiled his new, healthy self to about 200 men at St. Paul’s Outreach Men on a Mission last month. There, he revealed a troubled adulthood that began when his mother received the devastating news of her husband’s death by suicide on Oct. 2, 1974. It was the feast of the Guardian Angels.

“My dad was staying with my sister in Massachusetts,” said Crudele, the oldest of four children. “My mom was still back home. He was trying to get new work and we hadn’t sold the house. There was just all this struggle and confusion. And, I’m watching this as I stand in the master bedroom doorway leaning against the door jam. And, my mom makes the phone call and she hangs up the phone and she turns to me and . . . says, ‘Son, your dad committed suicide.’ And I cried myself to sleep that night. He [hanged] himself. I cried for three days. And, then I didn’t cry again for 17 years. I just buried that pain inside and decided that I wasn’t going to let anything hurt me like that again.”

Little did he realize then that this experience would lead to forming connections with more than a million youth across the country, many of whom, he would discover, had lived through similar experiences and were fighting struggles in their own lives.

Helping youth

Crudele was living in Ames, Iowa, when his father died, and he eventually graduated from high school in 1977. He went on to Iowa State University, where he graduated in 1985 with a degree in business finance.

While in college, he ended up giving speeches, something he never imagined he would do. He was motivated by First Lady Nancy Reagan’s effort to combat drug abuse in America. Having managed to steer clear of this problem, he wanted to help youth do the same. So, he started volunteering for this effort on campus and found himself in front of hundreds of junior high and high school students.

It was a remarkable achievement for someone so averse to public speaking.

“I was terrified of speaking,” he said of his college years. “The only class I skipped in high school was a speech class. The last class I took at Iowa State University was a speech class because I wanted to be the oldest student in the class. I was terrified of taking the class, and I took a two-credit class instead of a three-credit class because I wanted to do one less speech.”

But a funny thing happened when he got the nerve to stand in front of an audience. They listened. In fact, they were riveted. Not long after graduating from college, he decided to make it a career.

And, he hasn’t looked back. He estimates he has given about 4,000 to 4,500 speeches to more than 1 million people since the late 1980s when he began. The job has taken him to every state in the continental U.S. and even to a foreign country. It can get rigorous — he once did 20 speeches in five days in Chicago. But, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When I’m speaking to kids, I just come alive,” said Crudele, who also co-authored a book in 1995 called “Making Sense of Adolescence” with Dr. Richard Erickson. “For me, speaking with young people — junior high, high school, elementary kids — it’s always felt like I was praying out loud.”

Often, he found that the most meaningful part came after he walked away from the microphone. When there was time following a speech, he would hang around and talk to the kids. Always, they would line up to greet him — and tell him about their own issues and struggles.

“They come up and tell you and reveal to you that they have attempted or thought about suicide,” he said. “Or, they come up and show you the drugs that they are taking. Or, they talk about their issues or addictions or what’s happening, or maybe being abused in the home.”

Sometimes, the youth would follow up later in the form of a letter or email, like the girl who wrote to him about her suicide attempt. What often comes with the story they share are words like these: “I’ve never told anyone else this story before.”

Crudele is amazed at the number of kids who choose him as the first person they tell of their struggles and problems. But, he doesn’t carry their secrets with him. He tries to get help for the individuals who reach out to him.

Over the years, he has done other types of outreach work with youth. Perhaps the most significant was founding a local outreach called Partnership For Youth (PFY). With the support and help of several key individuals, and the blessing of Archbishop Harry Flynn, he got PFY going in the late 1990s. That organization then became the host for the annual Steubenville North conferences, which began locally in 2001 and continue to be held here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

New audience

Crudele is proud of what this organization has accomplished and is glad to see it continue, even though he no longer runs it. During the time when he struggled with his mental health issues in 2009, he decided to take a sabbatical. Eventually, it became permanent.

But, that void does not mean his life is less busy. Crudele, a high-energy person who thrives on being with people, merely has redirected his seemingly boundless energy.

Today, he is adding a new target audience to his speaking career — Catholic men.

“I feel like that might be the next frontier for me,” said Crudele, who has given more than 90 percent of his speeches over the years in secular environments like public schools. “How can we be really Catholic men in this secular world? That is something that’s stirring in my spirit pretty deeply.”

For more information about Crudele and his speaking ministry, or to schedule a speaking appearance, visit, call (952) 835-0008, or email

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