‘No more reason to hide:’ Ex-Shawnee Mission principal says depression led to his DUI

Cory Strathman used to tell himself he was sick — certainly not depressed — when he’d spend two or three lethargic, isolated days in his room in between studying at Kansas State University to be a teacher.

When he became a principal in the Shawnee Mission school district, he felt anxious, fatigued and filled with unshakable self-doubt — symptoms he chalked up to the work, even as he found himself withdrawing from people.

Even when he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder three years ago, Strathman told only a handful of family members and colleagues.

And when he started drinking more at home after work in an effort to feel “normal,” he still felt embarrassed to ask for the help he needed.

“I could always put on that front,” Strathman said. “I could just jump back into things.”

And then he couldn’t.

It’s been nearly four months since Strathman, the former principal of Rosehill Elementary School in Lenexa, was arrested for driving under the influence, striking a car and leaving the scene on a Friday afternoon in January.

He quickly resigned, a decision Strathman says now was his choice as he realized he had a problem he could no longer pretend to manage.

This month, Strathman started sharing his story on a blog called “Grace in Your Corner” and in social media posts. He says he’s open to exploring public speaking opportunities and wants to host conversations on his website, graceinyourcorner.com, and elsewhere about mental health and other life topics. He’s contacted media outlets across the country in the hopes of sharing his story.

He told The Star this week that his goal is to break down the stigma of mental illness, a stigma that kept him from seeking more help.

He wants to share more context with those who might judge him, including future employers. Strathman says he hasn’t found another job so far, and for now, returning to education is a “closed door.”

But he said he and his wife, Lauren, have also fixated on how some of his troubles were avoidable, how his ego and pride kept him from making a stronger commitment to addressing his issues.

From his perspective, sharing his story could only help — himself, his family and anyone who might be struggling with mental illness.

“My story is an open book,” Strathman said. “I’m an open book now.”

Strathman’s diagnosis of major depressive disorder came shortly after his younger brother learned he had testicular cancer. It was his wife who had finally convinced him to see a doctor. He spent the next few years experiencing highs and lows.

He started taking medication, but he was inconsistent and sometimes saw therapy as a weakness. He said he chose a therapist he could video-chat with because at one point he couldn’t imagine going in person.

His wife said she recognized that her husband wasn’t well. But she thinks she was too close to the situation to recognize that his symptoms had been building over many years.

She also knew that she could not make her husband seek help if he didn’t want to.

“When you are depressed, you just can’t follow up on stuff like that,” she said. “You brain is pulling you in another direction.”

Strathman says his job leading a school with some of the district’s most economically disadvantaged students was a constant source of stress.

Then, last spring, came a “big strike.” His school made the news when a teacher was accused of making a racist comment to a fourth-grade boy.

For weeks Strathman was plagued by voicemails and emails from enraged people across the county. After the summer break, the fervor died down and school was a little easier. But Strathman said he was struggling and pulled away from his wife and two sons.

“I would isolate at home,” Strathman said. “I would overeat. I would start to have drinks to escape reality.”

His family suspected he was approaching a breaking point.

“We knew he needed more help than he was seeking,” said his mother, Julie, who lives north of Topeka in Nemaha County, where Strathman grew up.

But he couldn’t see the value of seeking help for himself. He offered to go to rehab, she said, if his parents “wanted him to.”

On the day of his arrest, Strathman says he attended a conference in Excelsior Springs that ended at noon. Then he attended a mid-afternoon therapy session. By that evening, his parents were picking him up from the Shawnee police station.

“I thought my world was coming to an end,” Strathman said.

Instead, he said, the arrest forced him to get help.

“It opened my closet and let the skeletons out,” Strathman said. “There is no more reason to hide behind depression or alcohol abuse.”

He says that by the time news broke of his arrest and resignation, his family had already helped him check into a Kansas inpatient facility to address both his depression and drinking.

“It was very hard to make that decision,” Strathman said. “The (school community) didn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud.”

In the weeks after returning from rehab, Strathman says he kept a blog for close family to update them on his progress. It helped bring together the family, including his parents, siblings and in-laws, said his wife.

“We started talking about things that we never talked about before,” she said. “It was really cool to grow in a relationship with people you had known for years.”

Cory Strathman, center, says Chris Lash, right, and Kevin Frick, both Shawnee Mission principals, are two friends he confided in about his depression. They are pictured at Arrowhead Stadium. Courtesy of Cory Strathman

They eventually began to look at his arrest as a catalyst for frank conversations about depression with friends and relatives, his mother said.

Before their younger son went into remission, they didn’t hesitate to share news of his testicular cancer and ask for help. When Strathman filled headlines for his DUI, they found themselves talking about his depression with those they had never spoken to about it.

“It’s not the elephant in the room anymore,” his mother said. “We talk about it with everyone.”

To the family’s surprise, support rolled in. Friends and family offered assistance or an opportunity to talk through their own experiences. Strathman said a few strangers reached out with a kind word. In turn, he began writing to people he read about in the news going through a difficult and controversial time.

Strathman said he’s in a much better place now. But he knows managing his mental health will be a lifelong journey. One thing that troubles him and his wife is that he was receiving some help before his arrest, even if it wasn’t enough.

“The system is really hard to navigate,” she said, pointing out that the family had the wherewithal to address the problem. “Others don’t have that. We may not have had such a good outcome if we didn’t have those resources and knowledge.”

Strathman says he hopes to share options for care and support on his website. He wants to host private Facebook conversations where people can share strategies.

“I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “I hope that through combating this I spark conversation.”

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Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.