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In memory of community activist Kurt Cunningham (1969-2015)

SAN DIEGO, Ca. - San Diegans and social media are grieving the loss of Kurt Cunningham, one of the community’s biggest and most well-loved activists today. He died by suicide in San Gabriel California, he was 46.

Understanding all of the nuances that accompany mental health issues is something that nobody has been able to explain. A person may appear happy and well-centered on the outside, but on the inside there are many complex feelings, thoughts and chemical reactions that are beyond the control of the sufferer.

One might wonder about the irony of a mental health care educator such as Cunningham, so dedicated to helping others trying to get through life, yet falling victim to his own inner struggles both personally and biologically. It just goes to show that the complications of living are much more intricate both above and below the surface to some people.

Cunningham was a person who understood this. He made it his life’s work to educate people by speaking openly about suicide prevention and clinical depression every chance he saw available.

However there was another side to Cunningham, the one that put friends first. His impeccable smile, his willingness to lend a hand when people needed it, and his sense of humor were all embraced by the San Diego LGBT community.

His surviving brother Robert Halseth, 59, was too grief stricken to talk to SDGLN. He has given his partner Manuela De Oliveira permission to speak on his behalf. De Oliveira says that Cunningham exhibited altruistic tendencies when it came to anyone in dire need of a friend or simply a smile.

“He was loving, vulnerable at times, caring, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing he wanted more than to help somebody, save an animal, help his niece or nephew when they were in a bad spot, he was there when his mother was dying,” De Oliveira said.

Cunningham was born on January 12, 1969 in Huntington Beach California. He and his older brother Robert had a great childhood. Halseth was the protective older brother who stood up for Cunningham when the going got tough.

“He had a great mom and great dad,” De Oliveira said, “Bob was his oldest brother who took care of him. He enjoyed that part of his life, we laughed about it a lot. He truly had a great upbringing. His dad passed away sooner than his mom passed away about three years ago. They were very close, it was a very close family. Nothing but good memories.”

Through the 1990’s Cunningham’s professional career included being a make-up artist, an AIDS Walk volunteer. He opened his business Skin Deep in 2000, an endeavor that eventually folded in 2009. Its closure was something he called “life changing.”

Eventually Cunningham became part of the Mental Health America San Diego organization. As the LGBTQ Outreach Coordinator, he helped many people in the community try to understand how to cope not only with their own feelings, but the feelings of others.

As word filtered in over social media about his death this weekend, many took to Facebook to pay tribute to him.

“My heart has shattered again... I don't even know what to say anymore... Although you were only part of my life for a short time, you made a deep impact, and I thank you for your love, support, and advice. I hope you were surrounded by angels and light.”--Katrina Duall

“I don't even know what to say right now but I do know this, I'll miss you more than you ever would have known. You were a Diva and an Empress but more importantly, you were a friend and a beautiful human being. Rest in peace Kurt.” --Kevin Gabriel Malloy

These sentiments are also mirrored by his surviving family. The one thing that his brother and De Oliveira want to emphasize is that although he may have had his own struggles, Cunningham always put himself second.

“He was a very kind, loving and giving person,” she said, “and I think his downfall was he just cared too much and wanted to reach out to people, and he just felt like maybe he couldn’t save everybody. Including himself. It was always about his cat, it was always about his mom, it was always about his brother and his friends.”

People may wonder, perhaps even feel guilty about his passing. Several Facebook comments were worried people wishing they could have done more to thwart his plans, or at least lend an ear to sustain some of his emotional burdens.

But Cunningham in his blog Citizen Kurt, makes it clear that although it appears close friends and family are too late,they actually played a much bigger role. He wrote, “They say it’s selfish to leave friends and family and loved ones behind. What they don’t know is that those loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day.”

Cunningham will be remembered for his signature smile which forged a beacon of hope to those that saw it. He developed a true love for people in his community and secured his reputation as a person of which everyone could depend.

"At the end of the day, if I had to count on somebody, I would count on Kurt," De Oliveira said.

Even in his passing, Cunningham still wants to give back to the community. He has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations to The San Diego LGBT Community Center’s Behavioral Health Services be made in his honor.

There are also plans for a “Celebration of Life Ceremony” to be held at the San Diego LGBT Community Center this month. Details of this event will be updated on Cunningham’s Facebook memorial page as they become more available.

UPDATE: A special "Celebration of Life" will be held in honor of Cunningham on Sunday, November 1, at the San Diego LGBT Community Center located at 3909 Centre St, San Diego, California. (619) 692-2077

Here are some resources to help if you or anyone you know may be considering taking their life by suicide:

-- The Trevor Lifeline: (866) 488-7386

-- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255

-- Suicide Awareness Voices of Education: save.org

-- Suicide Prevention Resource Center: www.sprc.org

-- Every county operates immediate mental health crisis response services. For information, contact your local county human services agency.

Timothy Rawles is Community Editor of SDGLN. He can be reached at editor@sdgln.com, @reporter66 on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.