The family of a Palo Alto man who died by suicide in October 2021 has made a $1 million donation to create a scholarship fund at Santa Clara University with a special purpose: to advance community mental health care for young adults by bolstering the number of trained psychologists and mental health educators and by funding mental health research in perpetuity.
Tone Lee, 22, was the kind of young man who was always interested in helping others, his father said. He sought to help his fellow students at Gunn High School after the deaths of three of his friends by suicide, and he spoke openly about his own struggles to encourage others to come forward when they weren't OK. He earned a certificate as a registered behavior technician and worked with families of people with autism and with developmental disabilities. He raised money to buy sleeping bags for homeless people in San Jose, and he adopted a three-legged dog that no one else seemed to want, his father recalled.
As Lee's family grappled with their profound loss over the past six months, they discussed how to continue Lee's legacy. They decided to move forward by bringing something positive to the community that would capture his dedication to helping others, his father said.
"There are two paths. One path is you're helpless; you deny the facts. The other path is you want to learn something so another family in the same situation will suffer less. I chose the latter," he said.
"We could've chosen a different path — to isolate from the community — but even when he suffered, as he did with his mental health issue, he still helped people. There's no reason why I can't do more than I used to do. We should not lose the spirit of what he wanted to do while we live on," his father said.
The Lee family's donation, which was announced on April 22, has created three scholarships at Santa Clara University's School of Education and Counseling Psychology: The Tone Yao Lee Education Scholarship Fund, Tone Yao Lee Counseling Psychology Fund and Tone Yao Lee Mental Health Research Fund.
Lee graduated from the university with a major in finance from the Leavey School of Business. He was accepted into Leavey's "4+1" masters program for graduate studies and was offered consecutive internships in high-tech companies. But his personal struggles and work with his therapist inspired him to want to be an educator or a psychologist and work with children, his father told this news organization.
When Lee was diagnosed with depression, his family sought counseling for their son, but they found a dearth of available psychologists for young adults. It took more than a month to find someone in the Palo Alto area, and the waiting lists were long.
"There are more people in need than there are available resources," Lee's father said.
The mental health issues of young adults are different from those of adults because their brains are still developing, his father said. Therapists who can treat young adults are particularly important for that reason, as is research into youth mental health, he added.
The Tone Yao Lee scholarships could address some of these needs by producing more psychologists and counselors.
While most of the donation will remain as seed money to enable the funds to grow, some scholarships will be available to students as soon as the 2022-2023 school year. Lee's father said that the funds are open to other contributions, and he hopes the community will see the value of the scholarships and donate to the funds.
"I'm looking for long-term solutions that generate more resources for the community and make the community better. Mental health is a real issue. It happens to young people regardless of their background," he said.
"If we try to understand it, to produce more education, collectively we will have more benefits to the community. If we keep a deaf ear, ignore it and have stigma, it will never make the issue better. We will only see the suffering," he said.