A Standish man known for his inquisitive spirit, wide-ranging interests and devotion to his family and faith died Dec. 17 after a years-long struggle with schizophrenia.

John Terrence “JT” Norton committed suicide, his family said. He was 27 years old.

“It was a lot for us to bear,” said his mother, Suzan Roberts Norton. “I think he was exhausted (and) had stopped taking his medications.”

John "JT" Norton probably was "exhausted" from dealing with his illness and stopped taking his medications, said his mother, Suzan Roberts Norton.

John “JT” Norton probably was “exhausted” from dealing with his illness and stopped taking his medications, said his mother, Suzan Roberts Norton. Photo courtesy Norton family

Sharing John Norton’s story, she said, may help another family going through the confusion and pain of schizophrenia.

“You kind of suffer in silence,” Roberts Norton said. She and her husband, Terrence, “didn’t talk to a lot of people about what was going on with him, but we want families to know.”

She said her son at one time was a happy, bright child with a big circle of friends in their South Portland neighborhood, and later in Standish. He was particularly close to his brother Michael, 29, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a degenerative muscle disease, and is in a wheelchair.

Over the years, John Norton was both a brother and caretaker to Michael, even saving his life twice by rushing him to the hospital in medical emergencies, his mother said.

“He always tried to include me,” Michael wrote in an essay, recalling how John got his driver’s license and would take him to skate parks around the state. They would shoot videos of John doing tricks, and Michael would edit the videos and post them on YouTube.

“I felt like a normal person who was able to do a lot of things with friends,” Michael wrote.

“Both of my sons, I think they are perfect the way they are, even in their struggle,” Roberts Norton said. Michael, she said, wasn’t expected to live past his teens and today can move only a single finger.

“I think they both sort of saved each other,” she said.

John Norton graduated in 2007 from Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, where he played hockey and was selected for the Maine All-Star team in his senior year, his mother said. In online tributes, friends recalled his skateboarding skills and friendly nature.

The first signs of mental illness emerged after he graduated, when he started behaving in “really bizarre and erratic” ways, his mother said. Once a gifted writer, he no longer got any enjoyment from it.

“It was like he was a different person. It’s like dementia that way,” she said.

He became isolated in his illness, distancing himself from his family and friends during that period. He even disappeared for months one time, only to turn up in Florida, unable to even ask for help.

“We had no idea where he was,” she recalled. “He called me once from the road and said to come get him, but he didn’t know where he was.”

He was hospitalized for the first time in 2012, and was eventually hospitalized three times within two years. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“I was just in total shock. Just that word – schizophrenia – is terrifying,” his mother said.

He had a team of doctors, took medication and had regular treatment, she said, declining to provide details. But it was a roller coaster between managing the illness and still being in the grip of it.

Living with his parents in Standish, Norton made a point of playing cribbage with his grandfather once a week. He enjoyed being alone in the woods, foraging and being “at peace,” his mother said. But he would still sometimes get up in the middle of the night and walk 16 or 18 miles before calling her to come pick him up.

An annual family camping trip, a tradition of 15 years, was derailed this summer, she said.

“This year was really hard. He was afraid of all the other people in the campground,” she said. “We went to the hospital … (and) my husband stayed home with him.”

Roberts Norton wants to remember her son’s joy and caring nature. In an online tribute, one neighbor recalls “JT” going door-to-door asking if people wanted to line the street with Christmas Eve luminaries – small paper bags lit to remember loved ones.

“We did over 100 bags, and he did a lot of his own,” Sabrina Thorne Libby wrote. “It was beautiful and so thoughtful of him. We wrote notes to our loved ones on those bags. JT, you will be missed and we are so, so sorry for your family’s loss.”

About 3 million Americans have schizophrenia, about 1 percent of the population, according to the National Institutes of Health. People begin to experience symptoms between age 16 and 30. Hearing voices, having unexplained and unreasonable fears, and withdrawing from society are common.

Now that Norton is gone, his mother said she knows she will first grieve, then take action – telling their story and educating people about schizophrenia.

In recent years, Roberts Norton, an amateur historian, has participated in a “Voices of Recovery” project, telling her story – as a parent to a child with mental illness – to employees at hospitals or universities.

“I’ll be doing some talking eventually,” she said. “There are so many people who have this. It’s important.”

There is a high risk of suicide among people who experience psychosis, said Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Early detection is key to successful treatment, but it can be hard because symptoms before an episode of psychosis aren’t dramatically different from typical adolescent behavior, she said.

About a third of the people with schizophrenia attempt suicide, and one in 10 will die, she said.

“Recovery is possible for people living with schizophrenia, but it is a complicated journey due to limited resources for identification and treatment,” Mehnert said. “My heart breaks every time a family loses a son or daughter to suicide – often their loved one has simply grown exhausted from their illness.

“My great hope is that we raise awareness and increase access to effective treatment so no more parents have to bury their child as the result of a mental illness.”