SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — When Kristi TeRonde-Heimerl’s brother Rodney killed himself in 1979 she was just 11 years old.
What followed in the wake of Rodney — who she called Roddy — death was a heavy dose of confusion, sadness and pain.
But eventually hope.
“The things that happened immediately after that, I can’t even recall because it’s all a blur,” TeRonde-Heimerl told the Sheboygan Press. “You go into shock.”
She described how her family and friends coped with the death of her brother: Her father became depressed, her mother threw herself into work and her friends pretended it never happened.
Going back to school was particularly difficult, she said, because everyone looked at her like something was wrong with her.
“The kids didn’t know how to handle it,” TeRonde-Heimerl said.
TeRonde-Heimerl also described how she felt like she couldn’t talk about Rodney.
“Not only did I physically lose him, but I lost my ability to have a brother. Either people just didn’t know how to handle it so they’d get strange if you talked about it or if I was at home and my parents were having a good day, I didn’t want to talk about what was going on and bring them down and if they were having a bad day I didn’t want to add to what they were going through.”
In her adult life, TeRonde-Heimerl, who is now 50, said sometimes it was easier to say she didn’t have any siblings than to explain she had a brother who died by suicide.
“I’ve gotten better at making sure I do say it because I think people need to know,” TeRonde-Heimerl said, “I think it’s super important to be able to talk about mental health and know that it happens to normal, everyday people, but it was a long, tough road.”
TeRonde-Heimerl’s mother, Lolly Wade, started a support group in Sheboygan County through Mental Health America for parents who lost children to suicide. She found that parents at other support groups she attended for people who lost children, not necessarily to suicide, were going through different things. She ran the group for 25 years.
For about ten years, Wade volunteered at schools in the area. TeRonde-Heimerl went with her for several years, mainly in Chilton and Plymouth, and Wade also went to Cedar Grove and Oostburg.
They told their story through suicide prevention awareness presentations in the schools.
“We would always tell them suicide doesn’t diminish the pain in the world. It just puts it on somebody else,” TeRonde-Heimerl said.
With all the pain that came with her brother’s death, TeRonde-Heimerl’s perspective on mental health is now one of hope.
“Mental health is like any other illness,” she said, “You don’t need to be embarrassed about it.”
“There are medications, there’s counseling, there’s all kinds of things out there, and if you are concerned about anybody, tell somebody. Get somebody involved. And if the first person doesn’t listen go to somebody else.”
TeRonde-Heimerl said things seem different now for her own two daughters, who have more support at school. The stigma for mental illness, she added, isn’t as bad now as it was when Rodney died.
Mental Health America in Sheboygan County provides resources and referrals for people who need help, with a mission of promoting mental wellness through education, empowerment and support. The organization receives about 1,500 calls a year from people seeking assistance.
MHA in Sheboygan County also has a drop in center for people who have experienced mental health problems like anxiety, depression and substance abuse. People can stop by for activities and to socialize. The two support specialists who staff the center have both had their own struggles with mental health.
There is training in local schools to help students deal with stress and develop coping mechanisms — 134 classrooms and 2,100 students throughout the county have completed it so far. Trisha Erpelding is one of the trainers who go into schools for MHA in Sheboygan County.
“The foundation of everything we do really is suicide prevention,” Erpelding said.
The help MHA provides is evident from the thank you cards and phone calls it receives from people who used its resources and improved their situation. Some even donate to MHA after they’re in a better place.
“We have just tons of people who will reach back out,” Erpelding said. “We’re trying to help people become more aware of the resources available to them and more aware of what help is out there for mental health concerns.”