When Ed Shoener’s only daughter, Katie, died by suicide in the summer of 2016, the grief-stricken father had one overwhelming thought: He would not allow Katie’s death to be chalked up to a personal failing on her part.
Instead, he wanted — in a very public way — to place the blame squarely where it belonged: on the stigma that attaches to mental illness and on our society’s insistence on separating mental-health treatment from all other healthcare issues.
Just days after Katie’s death, Ed wrote a heart-wrenching obituary that read in part, “People who have cancer are not cancer, those with diabetes are not diabetes. Katie was not bipolar — she had an illness called bipolar disorder — Katie herself was a beautiful child of God.”
Ed’s words struck a chord. The obituary went viral, shared countless times by people moved by his message. The Washington Post interviewed Ed. He even saw an Italian-language version of Katie’s story. “I heard from people from across the country and around the world,” Ed said. “I think that speaks to a broad need to talk about mental illness. The response to the obit is what motivated me to join the cause to remove the stigma and get care for people who have been longing for this kind of understanding.”
Ed’s desire to “shine a light on mental illness,” coupled with the determination of Katie’s friends to honor her memory, gave birth to The Katie Foundation. “Katie’s friends laid the groundwork for the foundation in 2016 with a 5K run they planned to host around Katie’s birthday — Oct. 31,” said Sarah Shoener, Katie’s sister-in-law and treasurer of The Katie Foundation. “We agreed to help them. Then the obit went viral and we realized that this is so needed. There is so much good we can do.”
In addition to the 5K race, the foundation raises awareness in the community through innovative social media campaigns and high-profile events like appearances at RailRiders baseball games. The foundation also supports the efforts of the Behavioral Health Initiative (BHI) at Geisinger Commonwealth to bring mental health treatment out of the shadows and into primary care clinics where it belongs.
“This is why I like the affiliation with the medical school,” Ed said. “Mental illness is like any other illness, and Geisinger Commonwealth deals with it that way — it doesn’t place it apart from other healthcare. Plus, the school emphasizes interprofessional education. In Katie’s case, I don’t think the hospitals, therapists, psychiatrists and general practitioners communicated amongst themselves as well as they could.”
Sarah said she believes working with medical students will further Katie’s message in ways other foundation work can’t. “The students are young and know what it’s like to live in a world where people feel they have to be perfect. If this generation will be open about mental illness and share, we can do great things together. We can change the world.”