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Sep 8, 2009 4:37 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Sag Harbor woman advocates suicide prevention awareness

Sep 8, 2009 4:37 PM

Two years ago in June, Ann Marie Schortemeyer, 25, was driving home from work when Karen Mayer, her aunt, phoned with news: After a suicide attempt, Edwin Schortemeyer, Ann Marie’s father, a veteran union plumber, was in critical condition at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson.

Confused and distraught, Ms. Schortemeyer, who was living in Wisconsin at the time, booked a plane ticket to New York and spent the next 10 days waiting for her 50-year-old father to wake from a coma.

Mr. Schortemeyer, who attempted suicide by hanging in a backyard garage at his home in Rocky Point, suffered lasting brain damage and severe memory loss. He is now under supervision at Hempstead Park Nursing Home and does not remember ever trying to commit suicide, his daughter said.

Now, Ms. Schortemeyer, who lives in Sag Harbor, is on a quiet mission to spread awareness about suicide prevention on Long Island. She and her fund-raising group, Eddie’s Angels, which has five members, collect donations for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or AFSP, a nationwide organization that advocates research into the causes of suicide. To date, they have collected $2,208 for the foundation.

Ms. Schortemeyer is also participating in a suicide awareness walk at the Old Westbury Gardens in Old Westbury on October 4, about a month after September 10, which is World Suicide Prevention Day.

“I don’t think people realize how big a problem depression and mental illness can be,” Ms. Schortemeyer said last week. “It can affect anyone. I thought my dad was a happy man, and it turns out he had his own battle with depression.”

The suicide or attempted suicide of a loved one touches the lives of thousands of Americans each year, AFSC Executive Director Bob Gebbia said. More than 33,000 people in the United States commit suicide each year, and close to a million attempt suicide, he said.

“If you take the suicides and the attempted suicides and put them together, you can see that this is a serious problem,” Mr. Gebbia added.

The Old Westbury Gardens walk is expected to raise $125,000 for the AFSP to help fund education and research grants for suicide prevention, Mr. Gebbia said. The money goes toward research grants for institutions such as Columbia University, and will help fund investigations into brain chemistry, psychosocial behavior and other symptoms that can lead to suicide.

In Ms. Schortemeyer’s experience, her father attempted suicide without giving any clear forewarning to his family and friends. Neither Ms. Schortemeyer or her sister, Sharon, 23, of Lindenhurst, saw any warning signs leading up to the tragedy. But in retrospect, Ms. Schortemeyer said, there were “a thousand warning signs” that her father was battling depression, yet “me and my sister didn’t even notice it. It just seemed like a funny phase.”

According to Ms. Schortemeyer, her father, a former Manorville volunteer firefighter and classic car aficionado, was good humored and a hard worker. He loved his children, and would bring his two daughters boxes with gifts from home on monthly visits when they were in college, Ms. Schortemeyer said.

However, Mr. Schortemeyer suffered from loneliness and was on medication for depression, Ms. Schortemeyer said.

His second marriage—he married about two weeks before he attempted suicide—was tumultuous, by Ms. Schortemeyer’s account. “He married a woman he didn’t know too well,” she said.

In conversations, Mr. Schortemeyer often complained of money problems and of his daughters being so far away from home. In 2007, Sharon was attending college in Florida, and Ann Marie was working as an administrative assistant for a construction company in Wisconsin.

“He just seemed to be complaining a lot about credit card bills and the cost of maintaining a home,” Ms. Schortemeyer said. “I thought it wasn’t anything that big.”

The night before Mr. Schortemeyer hanged himself, he called Ms. Schortemeyer in Wisconsin and left a voice message to thank her for a Father’s Day card. “He said he misses me and to please call him soon,” said Ms. Schortemeyer, who found the message the following day.

The walk in Old Westbury Gardens is one of 190 walks that will occur throughout the country this fall to raise awareness about suicide prevention. Mr. Gebbia said more than 50,000 people are expected to participate overall.

One of the foundation’s goals is to break the social stigma that keeps people from discussing suicide and mental illness with others.

“Suicide is something that is not talked about, it is kept in the shadows,” said Mr. Gebbia, noting that symptoms relating to suicide can be treated with medication and therapy. “Suicide is the result of illness, not the result of character flaws or a personal weakness.”

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