Saving Lives by Walking and Talking

Welcome to a special edition of the podcast. My name’s Stewart Foley, and I’m your host. And I’m joined by a good friend, a personal friend named Amy Kartheiser. Amy. Thanks for being on.

Amy: Oh, I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for doing a special podcast with us, Stewart.

Stewart: It’s really important because May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And one of our corporate commitments is that we are going to dedicate some of our podcasts to mental health awareness. And you and I are friends because of my wife. That’s how we met, you were friends with my wife and then we became friends. And we didn’t know we have that commonality, but we didn’t know until much later that we have another commonality. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Amy: Yeah. So, I believe it to be true that our commonality… I went to your wedding. We’ve been friends for quite a while. Our commonality, at least from my standpoint, it didn’t come out until last Fall while I had an event. I started a charity and we launched it during COVID. So, I’d call it a soft launch, a very, very soft launch. It happened online and it was just me talking about it. But we were able to pull off a soirée last Fall. And, of course, I invited you and your lovely wife to come. And, our charity is called Under The Same Sky. And the mission is about normalizing the conversation around mental illness, and it’s also to raise funds for those who are survivors of suicide. So you and your wife were wonderful to join us at our last-minute soirée that we put together during the Delta variant, we were “Was it on? Was it off? Was it on?” It was off. And then we were like, it’s on.

Stewart: Amy, nobody soirée’s like you, let’s just be honest. This is not your average soirée, this was a very good soirée.

Amy: I appreciate that, and I’m going to take that compliment. Not only because it was planned in like five or six weeks, but also I thought it was a really great event. We had an amazing turnout for the short time that we planned it, on a Friday in September. We had 165 people come and we raised just under $100,000, which is incredible.

Stewart: See, that’s the thing. Right? So here’s our commonality.

Amy: Yeah. Here we go. I haven’t even gotten there yet.

Stewart: Our commonality is that someone in our family died by suicide. For you, it was your brother. For me, it was my stepdad and my grandfather, both. And my great aunt. Which is interesting, when your doctor says “Any medical history in your family,” they typically mean heart disease, but it is a real thing. And here’s what sets you apart from me. I haven’t done anything close to what you’ve done. You have done such a great job in putting together a charity, largely alone, and having a $100,000 fundraise in your first event is remarkable. You’ve put together a board of directors of people who are really terrific. And, you now have this charity called Under The Same Sky that I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about.

Amy: Sure. What I was alluding to earlier, but I rambled on too much to get to the point, was that you didn’t tell me until the night of the event when you were a guest, you told me your story about your father and your grandfather and your aunt. And I did not know that about you. I thought that was a wow moment for me, to have known you all these years and not have known that part about you. So I appreciate you coming and having the courage to talk to me about it too. I always love when people can open up and they feel comfortable opening up to me, but I started this charity. Really, it was slow coming. My brother died by suicide, and it was really a moment in my life. I was kind of always a stand-back-and-watch kind of person. I’d call myself a periphery person. But somewhere I found my voice after my brother died.

Stewart: How long ago was it, Amy?

Amy: 2014. So are we at seven or eight years now? It feels like yesterday. I can relive that moment and all that first year afterwards, over and over and over. But, that was a really defining moment in my life and kind of changed my trajectory, I’d say, a lot. And my goal became that I never want anyone to experience the pain and grief that my family went through after my brother had died. It was the most shattering, tragic death I could ever imagine experiencing. And, if I could save one family and one life, I would do anything to do that. So it took a few years to get my charity off the ground. It started with different pop-up shops. I’m an interior designer, so I would sell things from my travels to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

And then those became so successful. I thought, well, why don’t I start my own charity and start raising money for a specific area of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that I thought could really help survivors of suicide? Because, they did have a program for it, but I didn’t even know about it. And I did all their walks. I went to their ball in New York. I really am a huge, and still am, one of their biggest fans and a huge supporter. But suicide, as you know, is a very different kind of death. And it leaves survivors riddled with guilt. That’s number one. The ‘woulda, coulda, shouldas’, pieces to a puzzle you’ll never put together. The other two, the second point is it’s extremely isolating for those who have lost someone to suicide. People don’t know what to say. They don’t know what to do. So instead of approaching you and talking to you about it, they back away.

Stewart: Right? Yeah. I mean, it’s understandable. Because it’s so uncomfortable. I’m sure people listen to this podcast go, what in the hell is he talking about? But it’s important. And, here’s something I learned from you. I’m not even sure you knew that you taught me this, but I always said, committed suicide. And that term indicates that there’s some sort of a crime involved. And the thing that you taught me was that the phrase is death by suicide, there is no law-breaking that goes on there. Right?

Amy: Right, right, right.

Stewart: I learned about that. I commend you. You’ve done so much more. You mentioned the walks, you mentioned going to the ball in New York. Can you talk a little bit about how big of a hill was initiating or founding a charity, how big of a hill is that to climb?

Amy: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I am an interior designer, so I own my own business. And, I will tell you, starting a charity is owning your own business. I, pretty much, I own two businesses right now, and it’s a lot of work and it takes a big commitment. And so, you’ve got to have a passion for the course. And I clearly have a passion for it. And it means the world to me. If I’m ever going to retire from my day job, this will be my day job. I’m just so committed to it. There’s a lot of paperwork. You’re getting attorneys involved. People made it sound like, well, oh, you just go get a 501C3, and then you’re done. And it’s not that simple. I mean, there’s a lot of work.

And then what we wanted to do was be a supporting organization of AFSP. It’s very important for us. We think they’re doing a fabulous job, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but we wanted to support their endeavors. And, specifically, their area is healing conversations. And, this provides people who are survivors of suicide with that first conversation. So, you actually have someone who was also a survivor of suicide, who understands what you’re going through, who understands how tragic this death is and all of the emotion and the guilt that you’re feeling. And, our goal is to enhance this program. Like I said, I didn’t even realize that they had this program, as much of a supporter I was and am of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I want to grow that. I want to grow it in the sense that we’ve got more people so that more people who are survivors always have someone to call into.

That it’s not just a one-time phone call, that it could be a middle-of-the-night phone call. It could be seven years… I mean I’m seven, eight years down the road. And I could still use a phone call. That you’ve got someone to always connect with to help see you through. I always said if Mark had died by any other cause, if he had died by cancer, if he had died by heart disease, people would’ve asked me, oh my gosh, what kind of cancer did he have? How long did he suffer? Was he in pain? No one asked that of a mental illness. He was clearly in pain, but that’s not a question I get. He was clearly suffering, but no one asks about that.

So again, you’re internalizing all of this and you’re internalizing that your loved one was in so much pain, and maybe you didn’t know about it. That was our case. We had no idea. He hid it from everybody and he pretended it was okay. Everything was okay. And what we’re preaching is it’s okay not to be okay. And let people know that. So survivors again were raising money so that they have someone to talk to because they don’t always have that channel.

Stewart: Yeah. And I mean, I’ll throw a couple of things out here. The name of your business is Amy Kartheiser Design. Right?

Amy: Correct.

Stewart: Now I know you’re busier than you could possibly get. But just hypothetically speaking, do you have a website?

Amy: For the design business?

Stewart: Yeah.

Amy: Yes. It’s

Stewart: How do you spell Kartheiser?

Amy: It’s K-A-R-T-H-E-I-S-E-R. And then it’s design. No S at the end.

Stewart: And you got good taste. I’ll say you have good taste. It’s good.

Amy: You know, my mom was a designer, so I actually worked with her. She was kind of my school, actually. So my brothers are both artists. I think we just kind of have a creativity chip in our family.

Stewart: That’s fantastic.

Amy: It’s a great outlet for me. And I’m blessed with great clients.

Stewart: So a couple of things, I think you know this, but I put out a video about living with mental illness and it got, I don’t know, something on the order of 7,500 views. So, it’s very public information. The morning that I hit the post button on that, and that afternoon, went out and got a tattoo. Actually, I got two. And the second one I got, I got a huge semicolon on my forearm. And you have that tattoo.

Amy: I don’t have the semicolon.

Stewart: Oh, you don’t. You have the heart. You have a heart.

Amy: I do have a tattoo. I got it the year after my brother, Mark, had died, with my siblings. I’ve never had a tattoo and people can’t believe I have one, but it was important to us.

Stewart: Yeah. And I mean, the semicolon, if you know what it is, the semicolon tattoo symbolizes suicide prevention. And then I just had tattooed on my arm 988, in giant letters that look like somebody spray-painted on me. 988 is the national suicide hotline number that goes into effect in July. And then, you hear things like May being a Mental Health Awareness Month. I do think that, while people are uncomfortable with the conversation, it’s less so, by these efforts. And, I said to you that night, I think one of the ways that we can be helpful to you and what you’re trying to do is raise awareness through this podcast. So you are also interested in taking on corporate partnerships for Under The Same Sky, the charity that you founded, right? Most of our listeners work for major corporations. Can you say anything about that or is that still in the planning stages?

Amy: Well, we’re almost done with the planning, but it is a very important part of our mission, getting off the ground this year. We need corporate sponsors for many reasons. Funding, I’m not going to lie, love to say it wasn’t important, but it’s one of the most important things. We can’t build out this infrastructure for these survivors of suicide without getting special funding. I think particularly now, like you said, we are definitely better than we were 8 years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, as far as talking out about mental illness and suicide. I mean, we read about it in the news daily, the newscasters, the newspapers aren’t hiding it anymore. They’re actually printing it. And mental health, due to the pandemic, we don’t even know the numbers that are going to come out of this pandemic.

I feel like daily, and I’m not making this up for the podcast. No exaggeration. I got two texts this morning of people who said, can I have my friend call you? They lost their son. My other friend just texted me. Can I have so and so from high school, I don’t want to give out names, call you. He just lost his 19-year-old son last night. This is an occurrence that is happening. None of us are going to go untouched from it. So from a corporate standpoint, I think it would speak volumes to these corporations to align themselves with philanthropy and an organization that is really taking this initiative head-on. It would speak volumes to the people who work for their corporation and letting them know that this cause is important to them. And therefore, it’s important to them to take care of their people, and that their people feel like they’re in a safe atmosphere, that they can say to their next in line, their boss, their boss’s boss, like, “Hey, I’m feeling a little off. I’m not myself. You know, I feel like I need some time away.” Or, “Does our insurance offer any type of therapy?” Or “Would you mind if I left an hour once a week to go into a therapy session? My mental health is at stake.” So I think it would speak volumes to corporations that want to get involved, that they care about this issue, which again, I think we are just at the beginning of what this pandemic has been causing people, the isolation, the people get stories in their heads when they’re at home alone. And so that’s how I feel about corporate sponsorship.

Stewart: The thing that amazes me is your strength. I can hear it when you talk. You have such a tremendous amount of energy and strength in your voice when you talk about this issue. I mean, you have put yourself out there. Not only are you publicly talking about your brother’s death, but people are texting you about other suicides that are… I mean, that is heavy, heavy stuff. And, you have tremendous strength and you’re doing a lot of good for a lot of people. I know that nobody wants to talk about it and whatever else, but you do. And, you do so eloquently and passionately. I know this isn’t your job to say, necessarily, you’re not a professional psychologist or whatever. But one of the things that I found that I simply would not allow myself to do is to sit around and wonder why. I felt like it was maddening. Have you ever felt that way? And have you dealt with it?

Amy: The why is as to my brother, Mark, dying?

Stewart: Why Mark died? Why Mark took his own life? I mean, I wondered that about… I mean, my grandfather was sick, physically sick. I don’t know my stepdad, no idea. I just wondered, did that ever occur to you. I mean, I’m sure it occurs to you.

Amy: Daily. I mean, it still does. I mean, I had someone ask me, at what point do you come to peace with it? And I said, I don’t know, because I haven’t experienced it yet. I’m eight years in and I’m not at… I’m at peace that he’s at peace. That made me sad to think every night he went to bed depressed, anxious. I can only imagine what was going on in his head when he tried to go to bed at night because he hid it from everyone all day long. But I don’t know that I’ll ever come to terms that maybe I could have helped him or someone else could have helped him.

The way that I have to deal with it, because you have to deal with it. If you don’t deal with it’s going to stay inside of you. If you don’t find an outlet, it will just bounce around inside your body. And it’s going to come out in different ways and maybe very negative ways for you. So my way of dealing with it was actually to get out of my head and to put in my AirPods and go for a long walk.

Stewart: That’s your Walk and Talk Challenge.

Amy: That’s my Walk and Talk.

Stewart: I almost forgot this.

Amy: That’s my Walk and Talk Challenge.

Stewart: All right. You people, you podcast listeners. It’s on. It’s on for new people. Listen carefully to this challenge, because I’m personally challenging all of you. So Amy, what’s the challenge?

Amy: So our Walk and Talk Challenge, it’s part of our charity. And like I said, the way that I got through Mark and still get through it, I do it every day. I am religious about getting out there and walking. I believe in motion. I believe in fresh air. I believe in whether you are releasing stuff from the inside by just being outside, you’ve got your AirPods on. Maybe you’re thinking through things yourself, you’re grabbing a friend who maybe you need to talk to, or maybe you have a friend who has been experiencing some type of mental illness who needs you, or maybe you’ve got a friend across country, and go for a walk and jump on the phone with them and check in with them. But our Walk and Talk Challenge is about all of those things. And that it really developed out of how I got through Mark’s death.

And I walked every single day. I put my AirPods in and I would head down to Lake Michigan, and I would talk out loud. And I did a shoulder check to make sure who was on my left shoulder, who was on my right. It was really nice during COVID when I had a mask on, and I’m moving my lips and no one can see me, but I didn’t care. And I talked to him and I asked him questions. I asked him to clarify. I told him, I love him. I still walk down to Lake Michigan every single day. I mean, it takes a tundra, a rainstorm, a monsoon to keep me out of that. Because that is how I clear my head for the day. And that is how I get my conversation in with Mark. And I do challenge all of you.

I nominate people on our Instagram account every week when I go out on these walks. But I challenge you to nominate yourself and nominate others. Just hashtag #WalkandTalkChallenge, tag UTSS Charity, tag Amy Kartheiser Design. We’d love to share your videos with everyone out there, knowing that we’ve got all these people behind us supporting this challenge. I think it’s honestly one of the best things you can do for your own mental health. And like I said, grab a friend who’s maybe suffering as well and get them out of their element. And, you’d be amazed. I mean, there are studies on what 5, 10, 15 minutes outside and fresh air can literally do to you.

Stewart: And it’s free and it’s stigma-free.

Amy: And it’s stigma-free. That’s right. You don’t have to talk out loud like me. So people don’t think you’ve got other issues.

Stewart: I’m telling you, I get it. I think that it is different to verbalize things, than it is to say it in your head.

Amy: Yeah. People journal, right? So, that’s their way of verbalizing on paper. I’m not a journaler. I want to be, it’s just never been my thing. And, I think you need to find your thing. And, this is my thing. This works for me. I’m not afraid to talk out loud. I still do a shoulder check here and there, but I have my AirPods on. Maybe people would think I’m singing a song, and I don’t really care anymore.

Stewart: No. I don’t care either.

Amy: It brings me peace. And if that’s how I start my day every day and I can go in. Because, you got to keep moving, right? One step in front of the other every day. If that’s what it takes for me to keep moving, I’ll do it.

Stewart: Yeah. I think it’s the impact of the family. I heard this a long time ago and it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you deal with it.

Amy: So true.

Stewart: I have not dealt with that particularly well for a long time, which is why I admire you, because you have done a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of leading, a lot of planning, and working to raise awareness about mental health issues, and suicide prevention in particular. And you know, I mean, my hat’s off to you. It really is.

Amy: Thank you.

Stewart: I’m tickled to death to have you on.

Amy: Well, I’m so appreciative that you did this. I appreciate you inviting me on. It’s my pleasure to talk about it. There’s a saying at American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that talk saves lives. And I believe in that, and I believed it from the first day that Mark died and I never shied away from telling people how my brother died. And that means that some people were uncomfortable and didn’t talk to me any longer. But I believe it, that talk saves lives of people who have mental illness. They need to talk about it. And I believe it also saves those who are survivors by talking about it as well.

Stewart: You know, it’s funny, I’m that 57-year-old knucklehead that got his first tattoos. And, I’m like, I can’t wait to tell people. Just can’t wait. I’m obnoxious.

Amy: I love it.

Stewart: And having this big semicolon on my forearm has created more conversations around mental illness-

Amy: Yes, I think that’s magical.

Stewart: … than I’ve ever had in my life. And I’ve had so many people, it’s created so many conversations. And my wife was not in love with this idea, and you know her well. And, I said, look, this is the point. And after I posted this video, I got hundreds of supportive comments. And I’ll be real honest with you. I thought there’s a fighting chance here that I blow my business up to smithereens by doing this. Once I got in my head to say it publicly, what was going on, I felt like I couldn’t not do it. Kerri was concerned, and I feel the same way about this. And, whatever you think about getting the tattoos, it has done a lot of good. A lot of good conversations have come up as a result.

Amy: Takes a lot of courage for you to get them, believe them, and then share it with the world. But I’ve got one too. I told you that the year after my brother died, my youngest sister designed it. And no one would’ve ever believed that I would get a tattoo. I mean, anyone who knows me and it is a conversation starter. And I put it on the inside of my left wrist so that I could see it every day and I could be reminded of it. And I also put it there so other people would see it.

Stewart: I was going to say that because it sticks out the bottom of your sleeve.

Amy: Yeah. It’s not on my back. It’s in a location that people are going to see it. And, it has started many conversations. Some people laughed at me, but then as soon as they hear the story behind it, they stopped laughing. But it is one of my favorite things. And again, would’ve never occurred to me or crossed my mind to get a tattoo before this happened. And, I am so happy that I have it for so many reasons now.

Stewart: Yeah. It’s good. I really appreciate you being on. It’s a pleasure, too. It really is. You are a rockstar, you’re a rockstar. You’re doing good work, meaningful work. And you know, you also, your day job, you do interior design at the highest levels. Amy Kartheiser Design. So Amy, thanks for being on.

Amy: Oh, thank you, Stewart. I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate this. Especially with it being Mental Health Awareness Month. And I appreciate you and say hi to Kerri.

Stewart: I’ll do it. Thanks everybody for listening. This is Stewart Foley, and this is the podcast.

While this episode was filmed during Mental Health Awareness Month, which is now over, work continues all year long.

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