Remembering Nic: Ettrick family raises awareness about mental health after suicide of UW-La Crosse student

Family who took in G.E.T student for four years wants to keep mental health conversation alive, hopes others seek help

Anyone in need of help can call Great Rivers 211

ETTRICK, Wis. (WKBT) — The La Crosse County medical examiner says the county is on pace to set a record for the number of deaths by suicide. So far this year there have been 20 suicides. One family wants to continue the conversation about mental health in the community.

“I first met Nic when he was a freshman in high school,” said Brenda Gauchel-Sill, former band director at Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau High School.

Every once in a while, a teacher finds a student whose passion matches their own.

“Anybody who’s a band director knows when you find out you’re getting a new student, and then you find out it’s a tuba player, you’re like, ‘Yes! I hope he’s good,’” Gauchel-Sill said.

Even an untrained ear could recognize Nic Petersen’s talent. However, backstage, Brenda Gauchel-Sill saw a child who was trapped inside a painful childhood.

“His father had passed away when he was only six years old,” Gauchel-Sill said. “His mother had mental health issues and addiction issues.”

Petersen’s living situation fell apart his junior year. His sister ran away. Petersen’s grandfather said something Gauchel-Sill felt called to do.

“By that afternoon his grandfather said, ‘Why don’t you just take him for good,’” Gauchel-Sill said.

Gauchel-Sill’s family accepted Petersen as one of their own.

“It was never a question,” said Alex Sill, Gauchel-Sill’s son. “It was always just, ‘This is my brother Nic.’”

Petersen thrived in school and received a full scholarship to UW-La Crosse.

“He was one of the La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort award winners,” Gauchel-Sill said.

Petersen got a fresh start. But eventually, his past crept back in, and Gauchel-Sill said he fell into depression.

“Finally, one day I said, ‘We need to get you to a doctor,’” she said.

“He was admitted to the hospital on (a) Wednesday.”

The hospital released Petersen on a Friday morning. He took his own life that night. He was 21.

“He had that support system,” Gauchel-Sill said. “But mental health illness, I hate to say, it won here. And we lost him.”

Gauchel-Sill said even when an illness takes a life away, the conversation can’t stop.

“We say someone suffered death by suicide or someone died by suicide,” she said. “Because I can tell you the person who died by suicide … was not Nic. It was not the Nic that we all knew.”

Alex and Gauchel-Sill’s daughter Meg Sill hope this conversation saves someone else’s life.

“As soon as people can recognize that that’s what the standard should be, I think it will become easier for more people to ask for help,” Meg said.

Petersen’s true character speaks through Meg and Alex.

“People have continued to tell us; ‘He was so lucky to have you guys,'” Meg Sill said. ‘He was so lucky that you came into his life,’ but we were way more lucky for him to be in ours.”

Losing Petersen is difficult, they did everything they could to help. They’re sharing his story to keep the conversation alive.

“To not be afraid to seek out that help ourselves if we need it,” Gauchel-Sill said.

They want people to remember Petersen for the life he lived.

“He changed our world for sure,” Meg Sill said.

Gauchel-Sill said it’s important for anyone who has lost someone to suicide to never blame themselves. She encouraged people who’ve experienced a loss to ask for help themselves.

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