Eric Harkness was more than the leader of the Kansas Mental Health Coalition or the NAMI Kansas board president. He was more than simply a devoted advocate for the entire state’s mental health community.

He was, to put it simply, someone who knew what the challenges of mental illness meant and was unafraid to share those challenges.

“He was very open. He was very honest,” Amy Campbell, lobbyist and coordinator for the coalition, told The Topeka Capital-Journal’s India Yarborough. “He would talk about things that many other people would shy away from, but he did that, not because he liked talking about himself, but because he felt that it was important.”

As we work to understand as a nation, state and community how best to serve and help those with mental illness, honesty is a potent tonic. It was a true legacy that Harkness left, and not just in his life but also his death.

The longtime advocate died of suicide, a fact that NAMI acknowledged in its announcement of his passing. And the fellow advocates quoted in Yarborough’s story said it was par for the course in Harkness’ life — he wanted everyone to know the challenges faced by those living with mental illness every day.

Mental health advocacy, unlike that in almost any other community, relies on openness. There is no color or gender associated with mental illness, no background or physical challenge. Anyone, from any level of life, from any family background, may end up grappling with these challenges.

That leads to a tremendous amount of secrecy and shame. Even as record numbers of people seek treatment for depression, anxiety, addiction or other mental health challenges, they are often reluctant to disclose it publicly.

We can all do better than that. Mental illness, like any other illness, can be treated. People can get better with care and attention. Public and private resources can transform lives.

Harkness threw open the doors. He told, he influenced, he stood up for himself and everyone else who has struggled. It’s a mighty legacy, and one that all of Kansas should be grateful for.

Anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide may call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or 785-841-2345.