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To honor his father’s legacy, an unlikely advocate focuses on suicide prevention

Courtesy of PT Hohag
Mike Hohag, their father, Thomas, and PT at Mike's wedding.

Paul “PT” Hohag thinks his dad would be proud. He’s made a name for himself as a DJ on local country station BUZ’N 102.9 FM and as an emcee, but Hohag hopes that one day he’ll be best known as the founder of the LIVIN Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing awareness about mental illness and helping families whose lives have been affected by suicide.

Hohag founded LIVIN in the wake of his own father’s death by suicide in January 2013. At first, Hohag, who now prefers to be known as PT in honor of his father, Thomas Hohag, was too blindsided by his loss to do much of anything. But with time, he realized that he wanted to make something positive out of his grief.

“I went through my own battles and struggles before starting LIVIN,” he explained. “It was a good 18 months after the loss of my father before I felt that I’d dealt with my own issues. Then I was ready to help other people.”

Finding a way to help others seemed appropriate, Hohag said, because his dad was all about improving the lives of those around him. And that’s exactly the way he’d like him to be remembered.

“When people die by suicide, their life becomes defined by how they died rather than how they lived,” Hohag said. “I’d like to change that. My father was an extremely selfless man, the type of person who made you feel better being around him. He brought a lot of joy to others.”

Hohag tries to take that perspective to his work with LIVIN. The organization works to reduce shame and isolation surrounding mental illness by supporting like-minded organizations  and raising funds to assist struggling families who have lost a loved one to suicide.

LIVIN will host its latest fundraiser, the Get Busy LIVIN Music Festival, from 12 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sept. 22 at ERX Motor Park in Elk River. The festival’s headliner is country artist Craig Morgan. Other performers will include local groups The Plott Hounds, Ben Johnson and the Jason Paulson Band. Hohag expects as many as 1,200 fans to attend.

A portion of the event’s proceeds will go to support a weekend retreat sponsored by LIVIN for families affected by suicide. “The retreat allows them the opportunity to heal and put the pieces back together,” Hohag said. The rest of the event’s proceeds will be donated to Canvas Health’s suicide-prevention work.

An important platform

Though Hohag thinks of himself as “a regular guy who lost his father to suicide,” he also realized early on that as a local media personality he had a unique opportunity to speak to a larger audience about important issues. When he began talking openly on air about his father’s death and his own struggles to come to terms with his loss, listeners responded positively.

“Once, early on, a listener came up to me at an event and told me about how every time I talk about my own struggles and the loss of my father he thanks me,” Hohag said. “He told me he lost a niece to suicide, and every time I talk about my own story it gives him hope and strength and a little bit of comfort knowing that he isn’t alone in his struggles.”

That was just the kind of feedback he needed. Soon Hohag began weaving mental health messages into a lot of his work. He figured that if his listeners heard him talk openly about his loss and his struggles with his mental health, they might begin to feel comfortable doing the same thing themselves. And that could help save lives.

“Instead of being mad or getting frustrated or allowing the depression to get to me, I decided I wanted to become a mental health advocate,” Hohag said. “I wanted to give people like me permission to open up about this.”

PT's parents, Beverly and Thomas Hohag.
Courtesy of PT Hohag
PT's parents, Beverly and Thomas Hohag.
Hohag said people in his audience don’t always like to talk about their mental health. He tries to put himself forward as a person they can relate to who isn’t afraid to speak up.

“I emcee a lot of public events,” he said. “Once, one of my friends said, ‘You’re a blue-collar Ryan Seacrest.’ This is country music: I exist in spaces around people who are generally less inclined to be open about their own mental state. A lot of times my audience is military people or just regular blue-collar folks. We’re more small-townish middle America. We don’t always talk about our feelings.”

As a self-described “regular guy,” Hohag thinks his message carries special significance. “To be able to bring this topic to an audience that is going to be less naturally inclined to talk about it is my gift. I think people see me as extremely authentic and genuine. I am a run-of-the-mill, everyday person with a story to tell. They see me as their equal.”

That level playing field is a gift, Hohag said. He’s able to get his message across more effectively because he’s not talking down to anyone. “As someone who’s in this demographic and would seem on the surface to be a little larger than life to be able to say, ‘Hey man: It’s OK to be open about this. It’s OK to have struggled or to have struggles or be vulnerable and ask for help,’ that’s important,” he said.  

Beyond tears

There’s no getting around the fact that suicide and mental illness are tough topics, but Hohag said that part of the goal of the LIVIN Foundation is to make those conversations feel easier, almost ordinary. He knows that they will never be joyful topics, but he does think that it’s possible to insert a sense of hope and optimism and that advocacy could help turn the tide and reduce suicide deaths nationwide.

“These days, when I’m speaking to people about LIVIN, I try to explain that we are something like the pink in breast cancer awareness,” he said. “This is not a knock on breast cancer activism or anything: If you go to a breast cancer event, everybody is covered in pink. There are some tears, but their events are also uplifting and positive.”

Breast cancer is, he said, like mental illness and suicide, “a crappy topic,” but advocates have been able to change the mindset to one of hope.

“I want to do that with depression and suicide,” Hohag said.

At events like Get Busy LIVIN, Hohag wants the mood to be hopeful and positive. While he doesn’t want attendees to lose sight of the serious reason they’ve gathered together, he also doesn’t want the event to feel so maudlin that they won’t show up.

PT Hohag at an event wearing a LIVIN t-shirt.
Courtesy of PT Hohag
PT Hohag at an event wearing a LIVIN t-shirt.
Because he believes his father focused his life on bringing joy to others, Hohag is trying to walk a delicate line with LIVIN, bringing joy while also doing good.

“I try to lead my life in a lot of ways exactly the way my dad would’ve lived his life,” Hohag said. “He brightened people’s days and inspired them to be the best versions of themselves.”

This “best version” of Hohag emerged after his father’s death, a reality that Hohag readily acknowledges. “My father was an important person in my life,” he said. “I didn’t realize how influential he was until he was no longer here.”

Hohag is hoping that through LIVIN, he’ll be able to help others realize their best selves before a significant loss.

“My dad was always the kind of guy who wanted to make sure that everybody else had a smile on their face,” Hohag said. If he had lived to see what his son is doing today, Hohag thinks he’d approve: “The actual words that he would say are, ‘I’m proud of you, son.’ And that’s all I’d like to hear.”

Other September events also focus on suicide prevention

September is national Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and groups around Minnesota have scheduled a number of other events designed to bring attention to the issue.

On Sept. 15 from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Shout Out Loud!, a family-friendly suicide prevention and resource awareness event, will be held at Copperwing Distillery, 6409 Cambridge St., St. Louis Park.

The event, which will raise funds to support local mental health nonprofits NAMI Minnesota and Canvas Health, is the brainchild of two Minnesota women, psychologist Lisa Herman and photographer Laura Dizon.

Herman, who founded Dr. Lisa etherapy, and later opened the online provider Synergy etherapy, met Dizon when she hired her to take a picture for her website. While she was getting her picture taken, Herman learned that four years ago, Dizon had lost her brother Aaron to suicide.

Shout Out Loud! organizers Lisa Herman, left, and Laura Dizon
Photo by Lisa Herman
Shout Out Loud! organizers Lisa Herman, left, and Laura Dizon
The two talked about Dizon’s loss, and the shame and silence that often shadows a family that loses a loved one to a suicide. Dizon and Herman decided to team up to create a  fundraising event that would get people talking about mental illness and suicide prevention.

“We wanted to do something from the philanthropic place in our hearts,” Herman explained. They named the event “Shout Out Loud!” because they wanted to encourage people to feel more comfortable talking openly about suicide, depression and other forms of mental illness. With suicide rates on the rise nationwide, silence and shame isn’t working, so they figured that making noise couldn’t hurt — and could maybe even help.

“Too often people avoid talking to their loved ones when they seem depressed or even suicidal,” Herman said. “They’re afraid to bring it up, afraid that they will make the problem worse.”

The truth is that in her practice Herman has seen that people with suicidal thoughts appreciate it when loved ones want to talk about their concerns.

“More often than not if you bring your worries to someone’s attention, it is a relief,” she said. “People realize that they don’t have to be so embarrassed and ashamed, and sometimes they actually are ready to talk about it.”

First and foremost, Shout Out Loud! will have a casual, lighthearted feel, “like a backyard barbecue,” Herman said. There will be wellness talks and demonstrations, activities for children and, as the evening wears on, drinks and music for adults.

All event participants, save the food trucks and the distillery, have donated their time to the event. “Aaron worked in the music industry, and so everybody was happy to donate their time,” Herman said.

A range of musicians will appear throughout the day, with a performance by Adam Levy bringing the event to a close.

Herman and Dizon hope that the event will draw some 800 to 1,000 guests. Nearly everyone has a personal connection to the issue, and they are counting on that fact to draw a crowd. 

“Everybody has a reason to shout out loud,” Herman said. “We all know somebody who’s been affected by suicide. There’s been enough silence, so we are trying to find a reason for everybody to shout out loud, to talk about this issue and help save a life.”

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