In the midst of dark times, Kay Heckman wants everyone to keep an eye on family and friends.
Heckman lost her only daughter, Madison Taylor Scott, to depression when Maddie was just 19. Now, Heckman speaks to area groups about the importance of mental health awareness.
"She was a victim of suicide. That's how we reference it now," Heckman said. "The darkness of anxiety and depression overcomes a person to where they are not themselves."
Heckman spoke to the Fulton Rotary Club via virtual meeting service Zoom on Wednesday. (Though in-person Rotary meetings have been temporarily suspended, the club plans to continue to meet virtually on a weekly basis.)
At the time of her death, it seemed like Maddie had it all, Heckman said.
"She had the love of a large family, all her friends, her sorority sisters," she said. "She had a very good work ethic."
She rattled off Maddie's accomplishments: a member of National Honors Society in high school, a devout Catholic, recipient of multiple scholarship, participant in Rotary Youth Leadership Academy, Dean's List recipient at Lindenwood University.
"She'd light up a room," Heckman said. "If she didn't know you when you walked into the room, she'd know you before she left. She was just a light of many eyes."
Maddie was also an anti-abortion activist, speaking to women outside Planned Parenthood buildings.
"She was so excited to save babies' lives, but she could not save her own," Heckman said mournfully.
Even though Maddie's life seemed perfect on the surface, Heckman said there were signs something was wrong. Beginning during her junior year of high school, Maddie began telling Heckman she didn't have any friends and was feeling bad about herself.
"I said 'Maddie, you have all kinds of friends — what do you mean?'" Heckman recalled. "She said she felt like they were just putting up with her."
This escalated in the summer, when Maddie and Heckman were planning on joining a trip to Europe with Maddie's Helias Catholic High School classmates. Maddie was feeling bad enough she asked to see a doctor. The two went together to her primary care physician, and Maddie was put on a low-dose antidepressant.
Heckman kept a close eye on Maddie during the trip — antidepressants don't take effect immediately.
"There were some days on the trip where I could see an appearance change in Maddie," Heckman said. "She wasn't big on makeup — she didn't need it — but she'd just pull her hair back in a pony and put on frumpy clothes."
Heckman said she struggled with how much she should intervene, especially as her concerned queries were met with "I'm fine, Mom!"
"You want to let (teenagers) grow, and you want to try and let them figure things out," she said. "You're not doing any good for teenager to try to fix everything. They need to deal with adversity. But we as parents need to be there to support them, listen to them and encourage them."
Maddie finished high school and went off to college at Lindenwood in St. Charles. She began seeing a psychiatrist, with Heckman tagging along to visits. In retrospect, Heckman believes the psychiatrist wasn't as helpful as he could have been — once, memorably, Maddie went in for an appointment on Valentine's Day, and the psychiatrist spent part of the visit on the phone arranging a dinner date for himself and his wife.
Maddie left feeling like even her doctor didn't care about her, Heckman said. The psychiatrist also, to her knowledge, never treated Maddie's anxiety, which she believes factored in to her death.
During her freshman year, Maddie began to self-harm, and beginning her sophomore year, her grades began to slip. She stopped exercising — previously something she enjoyed — and started skipping social events.
She died seven weeks into her sophomore year, while her roommates were gone on fall break.
"She must've just gone into the darkness," Heckman said. "There are so many unanswered questions."
Signs and prevention
Since Maddie's death, Heckman has spent time learning about the warning signs of suicide in hopes of preventing other families from facing similar tragedies.
"Lots of times (depression and anxiety) go unnoticed," Heckman said. "People don't want to express it to others because they're going to feel weakness in front of friends and like a burden to their family members. I want to try and help others so no one else has tragic outcome I had."
She listed a number of signs: changes in sleep habits — either sleeping excessively or rarely, a change in appearance and hygiene standards, loss of appetite, avoiding social situations, quitting activities they previously enjoyed (such as Maddie's love of running), slipping grades, negative self-talk and other mood swings.
Most teens exhibit at least one of these behaviors occasionally, but when those signs reoccur frequently or persist for days on end, it's time to be concerned.
And, of course, expressing hopelessness or saying things like "I wish I were dead" or "I won't be in your way much longer" are massive red flags.
Heckman believes social media to be a contributing factor to youths' mental health struggles.
"Phones need to be put away, put down by 9 p.m.," she said. "They're very destructive for mental health."
Today's children agonize about not being included in an Instagram selfie and miss out on face-to-face conversations and in-person support, she said.
If you spot those signs in your child, a friend or a family member, don't just worry in private: ACT. The acronym stands for "acknowledge, care and treatment," Heckman explained.
First, acknowledge the signs and symptoms of struggle. Take them seriously, and listen attentively.
Second, care: Voice concern, stay calm and ask what's troubling your friend.
Third, treatment: Assist the person in seeking help, whether that's by finding a mental health professional to visit or by contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
"You need to find a doctor or therapist who fits well," Heckman noted.
Though many people are avoiding social gatherings at the moment due to the threat of COVID-19, video chat programs are a great way to stay in touch and check in on each others' mental health. To learn more about the ACT method, visit stopasuicide.org/learn-to-act.
"Suicide is preventable," Heckman said. "It's a permanent fix to a temporary feeling."
Coping with COVID-19
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we're living in a high-stress time. That's perhaps no surprise, with the novel coronavirus rapidly spreading through Missouri and many families choosing social distancing in order to avoid contacting the disease.
People who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, have pre-existing mental health issues, are directly involved in the response, and children may be especially stressed.
The CDC offers the following tips for coping with COVID-19-related anxiety in yourself and others:
Take breaks from watching, reading or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
Take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch or meditate. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
Make time to unwind. Create a menu of personal self-care activities you enjoy, such as spending time with friends and family, exercising or reading a book. Going outside to soak up some sunshine and stretch your legs carries little risk, as long as people avoid close contact with others.
Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
Share accurate information with others.
Reassure your child or teen they are safe. Let them know it is OK if they feel upset. Share with them how you deal with your own stress so they can learn how to cope from you.
Make sure your children are receiving accurate information, and be prepared to answer questions. (This informative comic from NPR may be useful.)
Try to keep up with regular routines — make a schedule including both productive activities (such as work or learning) and relaxing or fun activities.