The late J.T. Norton often was a main caregiver for his brother Mike, whose muscular dystrophy makes him unable to do many tasks on his own. Mike came up with the idea to make a movie to capture the life of J.T. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

For several years while they were growing up in South Portland and then Standish, Mike Norton would accompany his brother, J.T., to the skate park, even though he couldn’t skate himself.

Diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy at age 4, Mike has spent much of his awake life in a wheelchair.

But he went anyway to watch J.T., a gifted and daring skateboarder, and his friends attempt tricks and stunts. Often, Mike would shoot video on a camcorder and, later, edit clips to post on YouTube.

Last December, J.T. took his own life, the final act of a long battle with schizophrenia. Mike knew his brother was struggling but he took his death hard.

It took several months, but Mike’s grief has turned to resolve. And he’s found a use for all that video footage of his brother from simpler times.

Mike, along with his parents, Suzan and Terrence Norton, have partnered with a Portland-based filmmaker to create a documentary film about J.T.’s life, his struggle with mental illness and his relationships with his older brother, his parents and his friends.

On Tuesday, the filmmaker, Reggie Groff, is releasing a 4½-minute trailer, titled “Brothers, that was produced from some early footage. It includes a young J.T. Norton doing kick-flips and grinding curbs and railings, as well as recent interviews with former friends still grappling with his suicide.

Groff and the family also have launched a page on the crowdfunding website IndieGoGo to attract investors who might want to help finance the project.

Mike Norton spent 66 straight days reviewing video of his brother skateboarding for the film on the life of J.T. Photo courtesy of the Norton family

“I’m determined to make this film no matter what because I think it’s a story that should be told,” said Groff, who stumbled into it almost by accident. “As soon as I met with the family, I could sense that there was something there.”

For Mike, working on the documentary has been cathartic.

“It’s helped me deal with (J.T.’s) death for sure,” he said. “I can talk about it a little easier.”

For Suzan, she sees the film as a way to honor her son and, possibly, to help break the stigma of mental illness.

“I think we decided pretty soon after that we weren’t going to be silent about it,” she said. “There are a lot of people suffering and a lot of families afraid to speak. But J.T. was all about helping people. That’s who he was.”

AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, A CHANGE

Before she went to work the morning of Dec. 17, 2016, Suzan Norton checked in with her youngest son, John Terrence, who often went by J.T.

She asked how he slept and whether he had taken his medication. He said fine and yes. She sensed he was off but not in crisis.

Later that day, she came home and found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 27.

“I think he made the decision as fast as someone thinks to swat a fly,” Suzan said. “I don’t think he was afraid when he did it. I think he wanted it to stop.”

J.T. had been struggling with his own mind for several years. A standout athlete and loyal friend in high school, his real passion was skateboarding.

“He had this certain aura about him,” one of his friends says in the film’s trailer. “Everyone would get out of the way and watch him skate.”

But after high school, his mood started to change and he became more withdrawn. He once disappeared for months.

Mike Norton, who was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy when he was 4, says his brother’s illness “was much worse than mine. … Mine is manageable.” Photo courtesy of the Norton family

After a series of hospitalizations, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and though he tried to manage his illness with treatment and medication, the struggle persisted.

Schizophrenia, a serious brain disorder, manifests in abnormal social behavior and an inability to determine what is real. An estimated 2.2 million people in the United States live with the disease.

Men are 40 percent more likely than women to develop schizophrenia and onset comes much earlier, usually in the late teens or early 20s, which was the case for J.T. Norton. Suicide is a common risk factor for those with schizophrenia. About one-third of people diagnosed attempt suicide at some point.

J.T.’s disease altered the family dynamic. He often was a main caregiver for Mike, whose Duchenne muscular dystrophy rendered him unable to do many tasks on his own. But that stopped.

Mike said he didn’t really know what was going on with his brother, only that he had changed. He’s learned more about schizophrenia since his death

“His illness was much worse than mine,” Mike said. “Mine is manageable.”

Suzan said she and her husband never talked about their son’s mental illness while he was alive. Like many families, they kept it internal for fear of judgment.

Now, she has a hard time not talking about it. It’s how she keeps him close.

“For months, all I thought about was his death,” Suzan said. “Now, I can think about his life a little bit.”

Suzan and Michael Norton pose for a portrait at Suzan’s parents’ house in South Portland. She said she and her husband never talked about their son J.T.’s mental illness while he was alive. Now, she has a hard time not talking about it. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

HONORING J.T., HEALING MIKE

Mike had an idea to make a movie that might capture his brother’s life, but he wasn’t sure what form it would take.

His mother said he spent 66 days straight going through all his old videos. Something like 1,300 clips.

It took Mike longer than most. His disorder limits his motor skills.

Around the time he was immersed in old footage of his brother skateboarding, Groff, the filmmaker, was at his local hardware store talking to a clerk he knew well.

The clerk happened to be Suzan’s sister and she was talking about Mike’s idea for a movie. She helped arrange a meeting.

Groff, who recently produced a movie about the eccentric Portland artist Zoo Cain, said meeting Mike was inspiring. He offered to help the family out, but quickly realized there might be a bigger story there.

“So I said, ‘Let’s just start filming and see,’ ” he said.

Groff has been making commercials and other TV projects for three decades, but has started to wade deeper into longer, more emotional work.

He’s been surprised at the response from many of J.T.’s friends and fellow skateboarders.

“A lot of these guys were sort of lost boys,” Groff said. “And J.T. and the Norton family really sort of held them together.”

Groff also sees Mike as a big part of the story, too. In addition to compiling the old video clips, the older brother has done many of the interviews as well.

“He really wanted to honor his brother, but this has been therapy for him too,” Groff said. “I think because of own illness, he understands his own mortality and you can see how important this is to him.”

The film is unfinished and its focus could change, but J.T.’s mental illness will be prominently featured.

Suzan said her son tried hard to manage his mental illness. They got him counseling and medication, and even that wasn’t enough.

“I hope it can at least teach people how to look out for other people,” she said.

NOTE: If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide or in crisis, please call the statewide crisis hotline at (888) 568-1112.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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Twitter: PPHEricRussell