Life skills author Ester Leutenberg, 75, is a woman with guts and gusto. The snowy-haired matron of four grown children is unflinchingly forthright with friends and strangers alike about her adult son Mitchell’s suicide in 1986. To that effect, she perfunctorily introduces herself as the mother of “three daughters and a son who died by suicide.”
“It’s the only way to stop the stigma,” she said. She pointed out that 33 years ago the stigma applied to mental illness was “ferocious.”
It’s her goal to dispel the shame attached to mental illness by being willing to talk with anyone at any time about suicide, even if that means revealing painful details of her own son’s struggle with depression.
“My life is out there,” she said point blankly.
Mitchell (1956-1986) wrestled with untreated depression during the 1970s and 1980s. Although his family supported him in seeking professional counseling, he had determined to forego psychiatric care, according to Leutenberg, since he could never find a therapist with whom he felt at ease.
“Mitchell could not talk about his feelings. I’m not sure that he knew what he was feeling. He swore me to secrecy not to say that he had a mental illness because people would think less of him. Mitchell finally gave up,” she said.
Leutenberg said she and her husband Jay used the alphabet to play games and as a way of expressing themselves to their children. She commented that “Mitch” used this to write the positives and negatives in his life as a suicide note.
“As a suicide note, he did an ABC list. Our family was on the positive side. The negative side represented the crumby things, so much suffering,” she explained.
Mitchell could not effectively be treated with medication because medicines used today to treat conditions common to his were not available when he was alive. To complicate matters, he was treated as bi-polar, even though he wasn't bi-polar.
Leutenberg called Mitchell’s depression “a disease and an eight-year nightmare.” She said in all other respects health-wise, Mitchell was fully functioning.
“I don’t call it committing suicide. I don’t think he committed anything,” she said. “I think he did what he needed to do. Mitchell died by suicide. I understand because for eight years before he died, he tried to die by suicide three times. His first attempt was in 1978. He was successful the fourth time, Nov. 22, 1986, the day my life changed and his, too,” she said.
“For eight years I learned whatever I could to help Mitchell stay alive. I believe that for those eight years I did help. Yet I did not help him to feel better. But I’m not sure that I did him a favor because he suffered and struggled, and there seemed to be no help for him. I felt a huge relief for him, when he died because he was no longer in pain,” she said.
Since Mitchell’s death, Leutenberg has co-authored a plethora of wellness workbooks for health-care professionals and those they serve. Writing in collaboration with mental-health facilitators, her guidebooks span the spectrum of life-management skills. She has written guides on grief work for adults and teens, intimate relationship skills, discovering one’s spiritual path, team building and being resilient, to name a few.
“I co-write eight to ten books a year, mostly for mental health facilitators. I give them a tool to use with their clients. By writing these books and helping others, it helps me make sense of his death. I never needed to make sense of his life,” she said.
Her daughter Kathy Khalsa, OTR/L, a rehabilitation and psychiatric occupational therapist, is a contributor to Leutenberg’s and co-author Carroll Morris’ newest workbook The Complete Caregiver Support Guide. Ester’s youngest daughter Amy L. Brodsky, LISW-S, has done the illustrations for all her 49 books, 47 of which are for facilitators to use with their clients. Two are self-help.
Leutenberg facilitates a Drop in Center in the Adult Family Room at The University Medical Center – University Campus, where volunteers make themselves available to talk with family and friends of patients receiving care there.
Her workbooks benefit members of Leutenberg’s numerous support groups, such as the Survivors of Suicide gatherings that Leutenberg has started in Sun City–Oro Valley.
Leutenberg will soon be co-authoring a guide for veterans returning home to be called Veterans Surviving and Thriving.