Ian Keith’s sense of humor was contagious, and his smile could light up a room.

He also had an innate need to care for people, his loved ones said, even though he sometimes struggled to care for himself.


Keith, a Portland native who was living in Yarmouth, died by suicide Jan. 26 after a long battle with mental illness. He was 31.

Friends and family members shared their memories of him last week, while also lamenting a broken mental health care system they say caused him to slip through the cracks.

“People took to him because he was that way – he always had a smile on his face,” his mother, Cynthia Russell, said. “Even if he was having a hard time or a bad day, if he saw somebody else around him that was unhappy, he would do whatever he could to try to make them smile, to cheer them up and make them happy. And that made him happy.”


Russell remembers her son as many do: silly, kind and magnetic to be around. Keith always left an impression on the people he crossed paths with – loved by his neighbors, schoolmates, teachers and family friends.

As Keith got older, he turned to sports, playing football and rugby. He met Pat Curran, one of his oldest and closest friends, on his middle school football team.

Curran’s earliest memories of Keith were as a shy kid with shaggy hair and buck teeth. But Keith quickly came out of his shell, Curran said. And as he did, Keith’s signature silliness and cackle began to take shape.

That time also brought out his fondness for pranks, including something he called the “gum game” – where he scattered wads of gum wrapped in paper across the school hallways, sat back and relished in the satisfaction of frustrated peers with gum stuck to their shoes.

Keith carried that kind and silly nature into adulthood.

“It always felt like we could act like we did when we were kids,” Curran said. “We always enjoyed not feeling like we had to act grown-up when we were together.”


And Keith always committed to the bit.

One of those bits drew in his fiancé, Nikki Blackstone. She was charmed by how Keith brought playfulness to everyone he crossed paths with. They got engaged in 2020, three weeks into dating, after Keith beat Blackstone three consecutive times at her favorite card game, war.

“We had so much fun all the time, laughing every single day. Even on his worst days,” Blackstone said through tears. “He brought that (joy) out in people. They didn’t have a choice.”

Nikki Blackstone and her fiance, Ian Keith. Keith died by suicide in January after struggling for years with his mental health. Photo courtesy of Nikki Blackstone

Blackstone also fell in love with Keith because of his kindness, compassion and generosity.

When Keith saw a stranger struggling, he’d approach them to offer words of support. He gave hugs to anyone who wanted one. He was proud of his friends and the joys in their lives. He always volunteered to help someone move, even while healing from a foot injury.

“What’s really stuck with me the most is just how warm and caring he was and how happy he was to see other people be happy,” Curran said.


Keith had recently started nursing school at Southern Maine Community College, something his friends and family encouraged because they believed nursing would be the perfect outlet for his compassion.

Since his death, Keith’s mother said she’s heard from old teachers and childhood friends. He is mourned by co-workers at Amigos Mexican Restaurant & Bar in the Old Port, where he worked for seven years.

Blackstone’s 13-year-old son, Tyler Todd, misses all the ways Keith tried to make him laugh – scaring him in the shower, playing hide and seek in exchange for tickling Blackstone, helping Todd with homework only so they could play video games after.

“His sense of humor has passed on to Tyler – that’s for sure,” Blackstone said.

But alongside the kindness and joy, Keith also faced long-standing challenges with his mental health.

Blackstone said mental illness was a factor in Keith’s life since he was young. As an adult, he spent years taking medication and going to therapy, but nothing stuck.


Waitlists for psychiatric care facilities were endless, and hospital visits never got to the root of the problem, Blackstone said. She also said Keith struggled in workplaces that didn’t provide support or accommodations for employees experiencing mental health crises.

“Everyone that we asked for help from just let him fall through the cracks,” Blackstone said.

But Keith also worried about burdening others, which made it harder.

“He didn’t want people to worry about him, to make people feel bad for him,” Curran said. “He just wanted to let other people shine.”

Curran wishes he had asked more direct questions, been more proactive. Blackstone, who insisted Curran did all he could, wishes the system was better designed to support people with mental health challenges.

“I understood why Ian felt so hopeless,” she said as she fiddled with the engagement ring on her finger and hugged her son. “We tried so many times, and there just wasn’t anything that was good enough to help him.”

Amid the mourning, Blackstone is angry – angry with a system that she believes failed Keith and a lack of state resources. She plans to put that anger to good use and call on lawmakers to introduce legislation that will help.

“I want to pick a fight, because we were failed,” she said. “I have no idea where to start, but it’s something I would like to make happen.”

For now though, Blackstone is focused on remembering Keith. His love of dinosaurs, cats and silly YouTube videos, his warmth and compassion, and his infectious laugh.

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