Grieving family used woman’s obituary to educate others about mental illness

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Kathleen “Katie” Marie Shoener was only 29 when she died by suicide, according to an obituary published earlier this month in The Times-Tribune. The Pennsylvania-born woman was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2005, but her family doesn’t want her to be remembered for her illness or her death; they want her to be remembered for who she was as a person.

“So often people who have a mental illness are known as their illness,” the family wrote. “People say that ‘she is bipolar’ or ‘he is schizophrenic.’ Over the coming days as you talk to people about this, please do not use that phrase.”

The reason: People with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are not their disease, much like people who die from cancer or diabetes are not their diseases.

Shoener was an accomplished woman — a graduate of Penn State University and the Ohio State University — and she didn’t let her illness define her, they wrote. “The way we talk about people and their illnesses affects the people themselves and how we treat the illness. In the case of mental illness there is so much fear, ignorance and hurtful attitudes that the people who suffer from mental illness needlessly suffer further.”

They added that even though she had the best medical care, “always took the cocktail of medicines that she was prescribed” and did her best to be healthy, it “was not enough.”

“Someday a cure will be found, but until then, we need to support and be compassionate to those with mental illness, every bit as much as we support those who suffer from cancer, heart disease or any other illness. Please know that Katie was a sweet, wonderful person that loved life, the people around her — and Jesus Christ.”