Written by: Alan Johnson
It was after 3 a.m. when Donna Heck got the call she had been dreading for years, but somehow expecting.
Good news rarely comes in the middle of the night.
“This is it,” she said solemnly to her husband, Jeff.
Something bad had happened to Dani Leedy, the caller said. The Hecks soon found out their beautiful, caring 33-year-old daughter had taken her own life. It was Feb. 11, 2019.
For many people, what happened in the wake of such unbearable news would be round after round of sadness and grieving for a lost loved one. And the Hecks grieved, along with their five other children, grandchildren, family and friends.
But they did something else: they acted.
Drawing upon strength, devotion and resiliency unimaginable to most parents in such a devastating time, the Hecks, within four days of Dani’s death, had created a non-profit organization, 33 Forever, complete with a domain name (33Forever.life) and tax identification number, set up to help people like Dani and parents like Jeff and Donna to avoid a similar tragedy in their lives. The organization’s goal is “helping people be their best despite fighting the diseases of depression, anxiety and self-worth, including suicidal thoughts.”
Jeff and Donna, who live in the Mansfield area, are a big part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio. Donna is a member of the NAMI Ohio Board of Directors and Jeff is newly elected to the board of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, which operates under the auspices of NAMI Ohio. Both, as well as 33 Forever,are active supporters and financial sponsors of NAMI Richland County as well.
Jeff and Donna are anxious to share their daughter’s story as part of their goal to recast their grief into helping others, something the couple feel Dani, who was a caregiver for others all of her too-short 33 years of life, would appreciate.
Donna vividly remembers telling Sara, another one of her daughters, the news about Dani.
“What do we tell people?” Sara asked. “We have to protect you.”
Donna took her daughter’s hands. “We tell them the truth. If we don’t, we will let suicide win and we can’t do that. We are stronger than that.”
Dani was born May 1, 1985, and even as a child would command attention and light up a room, Donna said. Jeff came into her life later when Donna was divorced and they married. Dani was particularly close to Sara Heck, one of Jeff’s daughters who was about a year younger, but the blended family of six children, five girls and a boy, all got along well.
Dani was caring and empathic, even as a child, her mother said. “She wanted to ‘fix’ people. She was always looking for misfits. She spent her life trying to help people.”
While things looked fine on the surface, when Dani was 13, about the time her parents got divorced, she began showing flashes of anger, Donna said. She also began obsessing about her body image, something that would stick with her the rest of her life. About two years later, they got the first of what would be three devastating phone calls: Dani, then 15, had taken an overdose of pills and been rushed to the emergency room.
Like most parents confronted with such a crisis for the first time, Jeff and Donna didn’t know what to do or who to turn to. They credit folks at NAMI Richland County with helping them find resources for their daughter, who they realized at that point was struggling with depression.
After a brief stay in Akron Children’s Hospital, Dani came home to recuperate and eventually returned to high school. Jeff said she “tested the edges” for the next few years, but with counseling and medication, Dani seemed to be getting her life together as she prepared to head to college at Kent State University, where she planned to major in criminal justice.
There was another suicide attempt when she was a junior at Kent State, although her parents didn’t learn about it until later. But after Dani’s third attempt when she was 22, Jeff and Donna stepped in and got their daughter into treatment for 45 days at a facility in Tennessee.
Once again, Dani began piecing her life back together. She got a rewarding but high-pressure job in Florida, began dating someone new, and had plans for the future. But fate had another bad hand to deal to Dani when her boyfriend died suddenly, throwing her back into darkness and depression.
Dani had learned over the years to pull herself back from “dark moments” she experienced from time to time, dipping into her bucket of resiliency, Jeff said. But somehow on Feb. 11, 2019, “This time she couldn’t find her way out of it.”
Kieyra Thrush, Dani’s best friend in high school and for years after, saw her at Christmas time in 2018, about six weeks before Dani’s death.
“I told her, ‘You just seem like you’re in such a good place right now.’ I had no clue.”
Kieyra, who is a pediatric nurse practitioner and mother of five children, said her friend had “a great personality and a huge heart. She struggled with self-esteem and put other before herself.”
Dani’s death affected how she works with her patients, Kieyra said. “I always asked my patients how they were doing with their mental health because it was my job. Now I ask people because I’m concerned.”
“People that are close to you could be covering up so well,” she said. “Check closer on your family and friends.”
Tony Coder, head of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, said the Hecks are an inspiration.
“They took the pain and overwhelming sadness that accompanied this tragedy and used that as motivation to help others. They don’t want another family to go through this.”
“Too many times because of stigma people think this is what happens to other families,” Tony said. “But these are the voices that will help others.”
As for Jeff and Donna, they know they sometimes make people very uncomfortable when they talk about Dani’s suicide. But they don’t care.
“This is not a journey we would wish on anybody else,” Donna said.
33 Forever (https://33forever.life/) is growing by leaps and bounds, having raised about $325,000 thus far. The organization is looking into programs to help provide urgent care for people in mental health crisis and after-care for those leaving psychiatric hospitals. Help on a number of mental health topics is available on the website.
Those in need of immediate help dealing with suicidal thoughts can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
A wide variety of resources are available through NAMI Ohio (https://namiohio.org/).
Thank you to Jeff and Donna Heck and their family for sharing their experience.
Submitted by: Danielle Smart
“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls” Pablo Picasso
Art can take many forms: paint on canvas, woodworking, needlepoint, sculpture, or drawing, just to name a few. Humans have been creating artwork for thousands of years as a way to express joy or sorrow, document their experiences, and make the world around them more aesthetically pleasing. Additionally, making art, in any form, can be one of the best things to do for self-care. Creative activities, such as art, increases our sense of hope, self-worth, and well-being, improves our sense of connectedness, and reduces stress as well as improves cell function, boosts brain function, and increases memory1. And do not worry about perfection; art is about making something that brings you joy, not being perfect.
Below are some helpful links for coming up with your own art project:
15+ YouTube Channels to Teach You How to Paint for Free
12 Knitting Tutorials for Beginners
Coloring Pages (can color online or print)
Photo by Marko Blazevic from Pexels
Submitted by: Danielle Smart
For many people, the most wonderful time of the year is also the most stressful time of year, and in 2020, with COVID-19 restrictions still impacting all of us in so many ways, the holidays are going to be more stressful than ever. In the United States, the holiday season typically begins before Thanksgiving and lasts until the first weeks of January, leaving many us feeling as if we are running a figurative marathon with the finish line barely appearing on the finish line. So, why are we all stressed? U.S. News and World Report found the top holiday stressors include lack of time, money worries, overcommercialization, gift-giving pressure, family get-togethers, the hassles of travel, and worries about taking time off from work1. This year, with nearly all of us, impacted in one way or another due to the pandemic, additional stressors may include loneliness from not being able to see family, ongoing financial hardships from long-term unemployment/underemployment, lack of access to shopping (for food and/or gifts) opportunities due to store closures, and concerns about being exposed to COVID-19. Another source of holiday stress for many of us stems from the pressure to be happy; specifically, expectations run high for joy, for bringing the family together, for giving gifts that show how much you love those around you, and for a beautiful meal1. Any time we set ourselves up with high expectations, it’s not going to work out that way, and we find ourselves in the “happiness trap” (the more we try too hard to be happy, the more we make ourselves miserable)1.
Is there a way to make the holidays stress-free? The short answer is no, the holidays will never be without stress, but there are some things that you can do to help lessen your stress and, hopefully, increase your holiday happiness. Firstly, acknowledge your feelings, especially if you are experiencing feelings of sadness or grief, as you can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season2. The holidays can increase the feelings of loneliness and isolation, so make sure you reach out to others and seek out community, including religious or other social events or communities; now more than ever, this can be done virtually, through online meeting platforms (like Zoom) or the streaming of virtual events2. Additionally, make sure to reach out to friends and family, through a text, a call, or a video chat, especially if you are not able to visit with them during the holiday season2. Make sure you create a budget before you do your gift and food shopping: decide how much money you can afford to spend and then stick to your budget2. Plan ahead as many things as you can, such as setting aside specific days for shopping or baking, to help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten items or add an extra dish to your menu2. Also, remember that it is okay to say no to events, activities, or projects that you do not want to or do not have the time to participate in; saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed2. Don’t abandon healthy habits just because it is the holidays; remember to eat healthy meals, get plenty of sleep, include regular physical activity in your daily routine, make time for self-care, and avoid excessive tobacco, alcohol, and drug use2. Finally, be realistic! The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like last year; even though your holiday plans may look different than what you originally expected, you can find ways to meaningful ways to celebrate2. No matter how you celebrate, hopefully, you have a happy and less-stressed holiday season.
*Photo by Atul Choudhary from Pexels
Written by: Alan Johnson
Housing is a key component to treating mental illness, along with counseling and medication, but it is often overlooked, resulting in the failure of the goal of treatment.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio has long been a leading advocate for housing as a critical element of treatment.
Housing is a priority in Columbiana County, 27th largest among Ohio’s 88 counties with a population of about 102,000, but a longtime leader in the state in providing housing for the mentally ill.
Sally Luken, a housing specialist who works with NAMI Ohio, says safe, affordable housing is a critical factor in successful treatment. “The number of rental units they have in a voucher system in Columbiana County is remarkable. Lots of rural counties didn’t aggressively go after the federal money. But they did.”
The latest addition to the program is Hornsby House, which opened in 2016, with eight units serving people with a history of chronic, persistent mental illness who might otherwise be homeless.
“Hornsby House is a testament to their teamwork,” Luken said. “It’s not just one agency that gets things done…They have compassion for people with a mental health disorder. For a small population county, they got it done.”
Luken said you need one other thing: a champion. The late Don Roberts was the champion in Columbiana County.
Roberts, a social worker but not mental health professional, founded the Columbiana County Mental Health Clinic in 1965, and greatly expanded the system to one of the best in the state by the time in retired in 2005. Michael Hogan, former director of what was then the Ohio Department of Mental Health, described Roberts at his retirement as “part of the greatest generation in mental health across the country.”
Roberts’ dedication was legendary. He often slept at the center instead of going home and was thrown out of a city council meeting for vocally advocating for the mentally ill.
Terrie Kyser, Housing Director for the non-profit Columbiana County Mental Health Clinic, said Hornsby House is the result of years of dealing with mental health clients who went through the revolving door, often ending up evicted from their housing, hospitalized, in jail, or on the street. Working with federal and state agencies, the organization was able to begin renting subsidized units in Hornsby House in 2016. Tenants pay 30 percent of the rent.
Hornsby House received capital money from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati. Operating costs are partially paid by the Columbiana County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board.
Through a combination of programs, the agency overall is serving more than 80 people with subsidized housing, including units in Salem and Lisbon and other areas of the county. There is also a youth mentor program with 16 units.
“There’s a huge need for more housing directed toward the youth population,” Terrie said. “I’m very proud of what our agency does for the folks who have severe and persistent mental illness.”
Maureen Waybright, co-chair of NAMI Columbiana County and recovery coordinator for Columbiana County Mental Health and Recovery Services, said the area has “done a good job in making housing available for the mentally ill. We have several mental health apartments available.”
Waybright said there is an urgent need for group homes for the severely mentally ill, primarily because several group homes closed their doors within the last year, forcing many residents to move out of the area.
Pictured: Tamisha McKenzie with her children.
Article written by: Alan Johnson, NAMI Ohio Contract Writer
Tamisha McKenzie faced one of the toughest choices a parent may ever have to make – giving up custody of her child so she should get the mental health help she needed.
McKenzie has no regrets about doing the right thing – then or now.
“I needed her to be well. There was nothing I could do to help her. I was so hopeless,” Tamisha said. “Anything anybody could offer I was willing to take. I wanted my daughter back, but I was willing to do whatever I had to do to make sure she was safe, and we were safe.”
Tamisha eventually regained custody of her daughter, who is now a freshman in college. Tamisha is using her experience and expertise as a parent peer support trainer and coordinator for NAMI Ohio.
NAMI Ohio supports the OhioRISE program (https://managedcare.medicaid.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/manc/managed-care/ohiorise/ohiorise) unveiled recently by Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration. Part of the specialized managed care program for children and youth with behavioral health issues would “utilize a new waiver to target the most in need and vulnerable families and children to prevent custody relinquishment.”
Unfortunately, Tamisha didn’t have OhioRISE when severe behavioral problems began developing with Raven, the youngest of her three children, after Teyah and Brendan.
A native of Steubenville, Tamisha moved to Columbus as a child. She spent 20 years as a licensed hairstylist before becoming involved with NAMI, first as the parent of a troubled teen involved in a family training class, and then as a staff member.
When Raven began lashing out, sometimes violently, Tamisha said she didn’t know how to help her daughter. She tried to work with school officials, police, and other agencies, but things just got worse with Raven showing explosive behavior, anxiety, and manic episodes. She hid in a crawl space under the house and wouldn’t come out, ran away from home, pounded holes in the walls with a hammer, and destroyed things in her brother’s room.
Things came to a head when Raven attacked Tamisha, and the police had to be summoned, not for the first time.
Something had to be done.
“I was afraid somebody was going to die,” Tamisha said.
With nowhere to turn and fearing for the lives of her children and her own life, Tamisha made the heart-wrenching decision to give up custody of Raven so she could be sent to treatment facilities and receive the care she so badly needed.
“When I think about it now, I felt relieved. That was my first reaction. I felt relieved because I couldn’t parent my child anymore. It was a hurtful situation.”
Raven received residential treatment at several facilities inside and outside Ohio. With help, she learned to recognize signs of her rising anxiety and anger and developed tools to deal with them without explosive behavior.
Raven graduated from Columbus South High School earlier this year and is now studying at Akron University.
“We’ve had some hiccups, but it was never like it was before,” Tamisha said.
“What drove me was the love I had I had for my daughter. I loved her, but I couldn’t stand what she’s doing. At the end of the day, I love her.”
“I would encourage parents to operate from a feeling of love,” Tamisha continued. “Do what your heart is telling you. Push down worrying about who might be judging you.”
Laurita Barber, a friend of Tamisha’s who is the office manager and accountant for NAMI Franklin County, called her a “very caring person. Because of her own struggles, her heart is definitely with parents who have children with mental health conditions.”
“I know her road was a very hard road. It’s not an easy walk at all. As the parent, you’re often misunderstood,” said Laurita, who faced a similar situation with her own child.
“Education is the most important thing you can do for yourself. I wasn’t educated at all. I was totally unprepared.”
Laurita echoed Tamisha’s advice not to worry about stigma and what other people think and say.
“The big thing is to realize when you come to the end of what you can do; sometimes, we have hard decisions to make.”
Mr. Rogers would have liked Jody Demo-Hodgins because she’s a helper.
Rogers, the long-time television host of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, frequently told kids, “Look for the helpers. You can always find people who are helping.”
That description perfectly fits Jody, Director of the Children’s Division for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Ohio. A social worker by profession, she previously was with the Crawford-Marion Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services, including 19 years as executive director.
“I believe empathy is one of the most important things that we need to have,” Jody said. “We still have so much stigma about mental illness. There is so much hurt in the world that we can do something about.”
“We need to better educate people and have discussions so we can make mental health care part of overall health care,” Jody said. “Our brain is part of our body.”
Bev Young, the now-retired former director of the Marion Area Counseling Center, worked with Jody for many years as a non-profit community mental health services agency. “What I admire the most about Jody is she is genuinely so compassionate about providing services and meeting the needs of people with severe and persistent mental illness,” Bev said. “She was so honest and helpful in brainstorming new approaches, and being creative and innovative in trying to provide services in our area.”
Jody was born in Malone in upstate New York just about 10 miles from Canada. Her mother, Hilda, was a nurse, and her father, Ed, was a trainer and driver of harness-race horses. Her father’s occupation resulted in many moves as he followed the racetrack circuit. As a result, Jody didn’t finish the year in the same school where she started until she was a freshman at Trinity College in Burlington, VT.
She met her future husband, Jim, when both were working at a horse track. They married moved to Marion, Ohio, in 1979, and have lived there ever since. They have two children, both of whom are in the mental health field.
Jody said she once aspired to be a special education teacher, but eventually decided that working with people who had mental health and substance abuse issues was her calling. Those touched her personal life since her mother struggled with alcoholism and her sister had mental health problems and took her own life.
After starting her career with what is now Job and Family Services, Jody worked in a program counseling young mothers before taking a job in 1989 as associate director of the Crawford-Marion Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services. She became executive director in 1997, a position she held until her retirement in 2016.
Since joining NAMI Ohio, Jody has directed a wide variety of programs focusing on providing mental health services for children and support for their parents.
She said mental health services in Ohio have improved but the state “never fulfilled its promise” about what it intended to do once state psychiatric hospital closed. The waves of substance abuse problems, including overdose deaths, required agencies to focus time and scarce resources there. “It took our eyes off mental health needs, Jody said, ‘but the good thing is we’ve had a lot more discussion about addiction and underlying mental health issues.”
Information about NAMI Ohio and programs for children are available online at https://namiohio.org/programs/