Linda Holtzman sat under a spotlight in the Gorlok TV studio, and read a letter to her daughter, Dora Magrath.
“I miss you,” Holtzman said, speaking slowly to hold back emotion. “I want to hear you say mom again. I am angry at the evil vicious illness that took you away from us. I will not use the past tense when I talk about you, or to you. I miss you.”
This is the same letter Holtzman read at Dora’s funeral on Feb. 27, 2008. Dora, who Holtzman described as a cheerleader, party girl, musician, songwriter and poet, took her own life after a seven-year struggle with mental illness and depression. Years later, Holtzman is involved with the national Dora Project that helps raise awareness about suicide in young adults.
She read for the camera as part of Webster University’s Suicide Awareness Week (SAW) program, “Love Letters to the Depressed” on Tuesday, Nov. 8. For Webster students planning the first SAW at the home campus, Holtzman’s experience and willingness to advocate these tough issues was a blessing.
“I’m pretty sure Patrick Stack was the connection,” Holtzman, communications professor, said. “Dan (Bauman) and Donna Jaeger came to see me, and I was really deeply moved by what they’re doing. It brings up some raw feelings.”
Holtzman said SAW is a very important program to have, especially on a college campus. She said several stigmas around suicide keep people quiet about depression, mental health and suicide.
“There’s this idea that people who think about suicide are sort of creepy, abnormal, easy to detect and way off the charts strange,” Holtzman said. “When you look at Dora, you wouldn’t see a very depressed girl. There’s a huge stigma. It takes courage to say, ‘I have a mental illness.’”
Though Dora died more than three years ago, Holtzman said programs like SAW are still relevant to her life.
“I wish they’d done this at Dora’s college,” Holtzman said. “They’re doing it now, and they do some amazing work. I keep telling (the students involved with SAW at Webster) what good they are doing. It’s so hard and so much work, and they’re probably not going to get the thank yous they deserve. But who knows? Someone who is doing fine now may not be doing fine in a month. They may look at these videos.”
Ron Gaddis, associate professor of biological sciences at Webster, also has a strong tie to suicide and SAW. Gaddis’ son, Mason Gaddis, was a freshman at Webster last year before committing Suicide on Sept. 28, 2010.
Mason Gaddis’ death had an impact on many of the students involved with planning Webster’s SAW, and the group called Ron Gaddis asking if they could use SAW as a chance to raise money for Webster’s Mason Gaddis Scholarship. Though Ron Gaddis said it is hard to be involved with SAW since it is so close to the anniversary of Mason Gaddis’ death, he was honored students were bringing the issue to light.
“I think (SAW) is a wonderful testament to the character of these young people,” Ron Gaddis said. “Many of them knew Mason for a short time, but they’re using (his death) as a way to address the issue so other students don’t feel there’s no way out. I’m impressed with these students and in awe with their drive to do what’s right. It’s a testament to the students Webster has. I’m blessed.”
Both Ron Gaddis and Holtzman encourage anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression to talk about their problems. They said their offices are always open to students seeking support and encourage students to take advantage of counseling service on campus.
“Most people don’t like to talk about it,” Ron Gaddis said. “It’s something they can’t relate to. They’re not involved. But it needs to be addressed. We don’t need to lose more youth. They need to know there are people out there going through the same things.”
Through the entire planning process for SAW, Holtzman has been a source of encouragement and support for the students seeking to educate Webster on issues of mental health. She said she is convinced that, in some way now or in the future, the work of these students during this week will save a life.
“I keep telling them, ‘Somebody’s going to pay attention,’” Holtzman said. “I have no doubt. When Dora died, I said I wasn’t going to die with her — I was going to do everything I could do to have a full life. I say to everyone in this whole university, ‘Pay attention to the information coming out this week. If you suspect someone you know of (having depression or suicidal thoughts), now you know the first step to take. You need to take that first step.’”