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Tragedy fuels Lexington family's fight to prevent suicides in Richland County

Danielle (Dani) Marie Leedy

MANSFIELD – From the outside, Danielle (Dani) Leedy looked happy. She was 33 and successful, beautiful, with a great job, loving family, two dogs and a nice apartment in Washington D.C.

But like many others across the country, she was wearing a mask. 

Since her teenage years at Lexington High School, Leedy struggled with her mental health -- depression, anxiety, PTSD and body image disorder. Some of her closest friends had no idea she first attempted suicide at age 15 -- and again a few times after that. 

“A lot of people are like a duck on a pond. You look beautiful going across the top of the flat pond, but underneath your feet are going like mad, trying to keep up,” said Dani’s stepfather, Jeff Heck. 

In early 2019, that was Dani's scenario. She was working as the chief operating officer of Dream Bigger Media Group in Washington, D.C. Her earlier successes with a startup company in the behavioral health field had led to this opportunity. 

Jeff Heck recalls Dani was the sixth employee, but when she left there were approximately 350. He estimates she was supervising 250 of them.

“She was a big boss, lady manager -- in charge Marge, I used to call her,” he said. “She was very strong, a very bright, very, very capable person and a good leader.” 

She was taking care of her mental health, too. Leedy took medication and spoke regularly with her psychiatrist.

Everything indicated that her life was on the upswing. 

“She’d conquered it, then would have a little fall. It would be up and down, just like (in) a lot of people's lives. We thought it had been pretty stable for her,” Dani’s mother, Donna Heck said. “But she had times of darkness and sadness, and one of those times just kind of overwhelmed her.”

On Saturday, Feb. 11, 2019, Leedy took her own life. Everything changed.

“If we were interviewed in day three after this, we couldn't even speak about the loss that we felt,” Donna Heck said. “You can't breathe. You can't put one foot in front of the other.” 

Nearly nine months after the passing of Danielle Leedy, life hasn’t returned to normal for the Heck family. It never will.

Leedy’s parents have unwillingly adjusted to their new lives – one where they no longer get to see their daughter’s beaming smile walking into a room, where they occasionally meet their daughter’s friends to reminisce, and where they work daily to keep her memory alive through a newly formed nonprofit, called 33 Forever.

Suicide: a crisis across the United States

Last year, the number of suicides in Richland County hit a record high. According to Richland Public Health’s vital statistics, the county saw 22 suicides, topping the reported in 21 in 2003 and 2015 and blowing past an average of 15 annually for the past 16 years.

Considering Mental Health America estimates 25 suicide attempts for every one completion, this suggests 575 people made suicide attempts in Richland County in 2018. And using the average of 15 suicides per year, that amounts to 6,000 attempts since 2003.  

Joe Trolian, Executive Director at Richland County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, calls this a crisis. 

An analysis by the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health from May 2019 shows Richland County’s suicide rate is just above the state’s average. It reports an annual suicide rate of 13.58 suicides per 100,000 population in Richland County between 2008 and 2017, while the state had an average of 13.2 in the same time. 

When listed among Ohio’s 88 counties, Richland County ranked 38th in a chart listing suicide rates from high to low. Meigs and Jackson Counties reported the highest rate at 21.46 and 19.86 suicides per 100,000 people respectively. Holmes and Delaware Counties reported the lowest at 6.85 and 9.87 respectively. 

Nationally, there’s been a clear upward trend in suicides. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported the total suicide rate increased 31 percent in the 16 years from 2001 through 2017.

It was the 10th leading cause of death -- taking more than 47,000 lives --  in the United States in 2017. It was the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 to 34 and the fourth leading cause of death among those age 35 to 54.

In Richland County, suicide is most common in the 35 to 54 age bracket, according to Trolian.

He listed three common factors in local deaths: past suicide attempts, history of substance abuse disorder, and history of depression or other mental illness. He reported 91 percent of suicides featured at least one of those factors, 60 percent had two and 24 percent had all three.  

The risk for Richland County to experience high suicide rates was noted in the 2016 Richland County Community Health Assessment, which reported 3 percent of Richland County adults had “considered” and 14 percent of the county’s youth (age 12-18) had “seriously considered” attempting suicide earlier that year. It showed that 7 percent of Richland County’s youth had attempted suicide.

This scenario spurred local organizations like  the Community Action for Capable Youth (CACY) to launch a three-day suicide prevention program in Richland County middle school and high schools.

“Linking Education and Awareness of Depression and Suicide” (LEADS) launched 18 months ago and has since been presented to 1,552 Richland County students -- and 23 have been connected with resources as a result.

CACY connects students with resources following suicide prevention programming

Meanwhile, the Richland County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness sought to acquire resources for another free program, also primarily geared towards teens. Ending the Silence, which will be introduced in area schools this fall, will cover warning signs, facts and statistics and explain how to get help for a friend in need. Presenters encourage early intervention. 

“Early engagement and support are crucial to improving outcomes and increasing the promise of recovery,” said NAMI Richland County’s executive director Mary Kay Pierce.

She referenced the National Institute of Mental Health, reporting half of mental health conditions begin by age 14 and 75 percent have developed by age 24.

“So if young people understand the signs, are OK to talk about it, and can know and connect with the resources they need, there’s no reason why they can’t stay in school or go to college with these illnesses --  bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, those types of illnesses," Pierce said. "They can get married, they can have jobs.

“Our goal is to get people help early on and keep them ... having the best life that they can have.” 

What can be done to enhance mental health care options in Richland County?

When Leedy first attempted suicide in the early 2000s, her parents had a “nightmare” experience locating resources. 

“There was no guidance,” Donna Heck said. “We put her in the hospital for a week, and then they said, ‘OK, now she needs counseling.’”

Where should they go? What should they do? They didn’t know. No one gave them a direct answer or a clear next step. They weren’t offered guidance on what to say or do when taking their daughter home either.

The Hecks did their own research and found a lack of local psychiatrists, especially pediatric psychiatrists. 

“Dani had never had a good one in Ohio. It was very difficult for her to find one here,” Donna said. 

It seemed that the lack of supply and growing demand, even in the early 2000s, was problematic, the Hecks recalled. 

“They were dealing with the most severe. They were dealing with the people that are having hallucinations, extreme psychiatric disorders … Then, when you have a young person who's fighting anxiety, fighting depression, one of the more common mental-health disorders, they don't have time to see those people,” Donna Heck said. 

While she believes Richland County has enough counselors, she sees the lack of psychiatrists as a dangerous environment for those struggling with mental health issues.

“They (psychiatrists) are the ones that are the best to decide what this patient needs and to monitor their medicine,” Donna said.

The Hecks believe there’s a potential solution: Telepsychiatry, or video-based, online psychiatry option for patients, which could break down mental health barriers in places like Richland County and in more rural communities, too.

“The one thing we think would be really helpful is giving doctors the ability to practice across state lines by teleconferencing,” Jeff Heck said. “It's sort of the way of the future anyway.” 

However, for this to be a viable option for many, legislation must be passed on a state level to ensure private insurances cover telemedicine, according to the American Telemedicine Association.  This isn’t something Ohio has approved yet. 

In the meantime, many Richland County residents with mental illness must rely on their primary care doctors to recognize and treat their depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder.

The Akron Children’s Hospital location in Mansfield, for instance, looks to fill a void and reach local youth by regularly screening its patients for mental and behavioral health problems.  

33 Forever: Bringing Dani’s vision to life

Before her passing, Leedy expressed a desire to share her struggles publicly. She was hesitant to discuss her story with friends who didn’t know of her attempts, but she envisioned speaking up to help others to overcome similar mental health issues. 

“This is what she had always wanted to do, it was to talk about depression and suicide prevention to the world -- maybe not her friends, but to the world,” Jeff said. “She had done some training with public speaking and it was goal of hers.” 

Danielle Leedy

Danielle Leedy 

“So when this happened, all of us got together and said we cannot have her death be in vain,” he continued. “We had to do something positive out of something so tragic. And so her passion became our passion.” 

Within a week, Donna, Jeff and some of Leedy’s other family and friends started 33 Forever, a non-profit organization created to honor her life and raise awareness for mental illness. The organization looks to empower and comfort those struggling with depression, anxiety and finding self-worth.

“We’ve thought she might have been mad that we're telling some of her personal story probably,” Jeff said. “But, you know, she had this heart for wanting to make sure that people had better lives and that knew they weren't alone and knew that they had futures and things going for them.” 

Donna says she knows it’s OK with her daughter because whenever the nonprofit takes a step forward, she feels the hairs on her arms stand up.

She remembers the day the nonprofit was named. Initially, she had suggested Forever 33. 

“No, we'd likely get a cease and desist letter from Forever 21,” Jeff said jokingly.  

“What about 33 Forever?” Donna asked. 

Everybody in the room liked it.

“At that moment -- this is probably going to be really weird just even saying it -- but I got covered in Dani bumps,” Donna said.

She pointed to her arms, signifying that they were speckled with goosebumps. 

“Since that day, anytime we make a decision, anytime we do something positive that's impacting the mental health world, it happens without knowing it.”

Ending the stigma: the benefits of talking about mental illness

The stigma associated with mental illness and suicide only enhances the problem. It encourages silence, causing those who struggle to purposefully hide their pain instead of finding help. 

"I believe it's not quite as bad as it was (in the early 2000s), and that's due to education," NAMI's Pierce said. "I think the more we learn about the brain, the more people are willing to say, you know what, things can happen with this organ just like any other organ.

"It's OK to go get evaluated and get help. And there's no shame in that. It's not your fault."

Jeff Heck is hopeful that mental health conditions could be discussed the same way as other medical concerns. 

“If you had diabetes, or you had heart disease, or you had low kidney function, you wouldn't have any trouble telling your friends you had that. You wouldn't have any trouble telling your friends that you needed to go to the doctor about that,” Jeff Heck said. “If someone has a mental illness, they hide because they're afraid of the judgment."  

Donna continued, “It's just a chemical imbalance in so many people. It's something that they need medicine for and to be able to talk about."

The Hecks have been supportive of NAMI's Ending the Silence, a program expected to be introduced this fall in Richland County schools.

"There's two presenters -- a lead presenter, plus a young adult presenter ... They're under the age of 30 and that person has actually gone through some mental health issues," Pierce said about the program. "They can share (by explaining) this happened to me and this is how I coped with it and, you know, I'm doing well now.

"It presents a personal story, which students, they can really relate to that." 

In other locations, the program already seems to have shifted perceptions on mental health. In surveying more than 1,000 middle and high school students, NAMI determined knowledge and attitudes toward mental health conditions and toward seeking help were immediately improved following the program -- and stayed elevated for at least the following month.

The research questionnaire was given to 932 high school students -- 530 who heard the NAMI presentation and 402 who did not -- and 252 middle school students -- 119 hearing the NAMI presentation and 133 who did not.

Versions of NAMI's Ending the Silence will be offered for school staff and parents, too. These will highlight warning signs, facts and statistics, and how to start conversations about mental health. 

"This is an issue that affects well-to-do people, middle-class people, poor people, black people, white people, Hispanic people, Asian people. This doesn't care about your socioeconomic status," Jeff Heck said. "It doesn't care about your finances. It doesn't care about your color ... And so what we need to do is ... to be able to talk about it.

"Depression and anxiety and these mental illnesses don't care where you stand in life that they could get you anywhere. We're all in this together, so one of our big things is we need to do is break some stigmas. We've got to talk about things that are uncomfortable."

To learn more about NAMI Richland County's Ending the Silence Program, call 419-522-6264.

How to take the next step? 

Would you like to seek mental health treatment?

Start with the helpline anytime at 419-522-HELP or 419-522-4357. Someone will be able to walk you through what to do and where to go. 

Or call the "warm line" at 419-522-5300. There someone is always available to talk. 

Rather text? Send 4hope to #741741 for free, confidential, 24/7 support.

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