By: Clayton Over
Kathleen “Katie” Shoener wasn’t defined by bipolar disorder.
The 29-year-old was a musician who played the cello, organ and piano. She was a midfielder on the Scranton High School soccer team. She was a scholar, earning a bachelor’s degree from Penn State and a master’s from Ohio State.
“She was just a wonderful girl,” said her father, Ed Shoener of Scranton.
After Ms. Shoener lost a battle with bipolar disorder on Aug. 3, her obituary, which first ran in The Times-Tribune Aug. 6, has been shared thousands of times on social media and is sparking conversation about how to talk about mental illness. While she struggled with bipolar disorder for more than a decade, her father explained, Katie was not bipolar.
“So often people who have a mental illness are known as their illness. 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. People who have cancer are not cancer, those with diabetes are not diabetes,” a portion of the obituary reads.
Mr. Shoener penned the obituary in the hours after the family learned that she took her own life in Ohio, where she lived. They heard the news at midnight. About three hours later, despite grief and pain, he sat down to write and the words flowed out of him.
Mr. Shoener, a deacon at St. Peter’s Cathedral
in downtown Scranton, said
the Holy Spirit guided him to author the piece. His intent was to tell people how much the family loved Katie and what had happened, but also to send a message that there needs to be a change in the way people suffering from mental disorders are treated. There’s no shame in being open about them, he said.
Owen Dougherty, president of the Scranton and Northeast Region chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, read the obituary last weekend and was “blown away” by the candor with which the family talked of Katie’s struggle with bipolar disorder. A stigma still surrounds mental illness, something that can only be ended by speaking about it openly, Mr. Dougherty said.
“It’s usually something that people whisper. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. By talking about it, we get a better understanding,” Mr. Dougherty said.
In the days after it was published, it became apparent the obituary struck a chord.
The family has heard from people from all across the nation and from as far away as Europe and South Africa, Mr. Shoener said. Many people extend condolences. Others have said the obituary has inspired them to seek help for their own mental illness or inspired them to look at mental illness differently and take a different approach when talking about it.
That’s something that brings great comfort to his family, Mr. Shoener said.
“God turns all things into the good,” Mr. Shoener said. “Mental illness and suicide is as evil as it gets and He turned this into something good.”
Katie would approve, too.
Mr. Shoener recalled that he and his daughter used to have conversations about mental illness and the stigma attached to it.
“She would be absolutely thrilled,” Mr. Shoener said. “She loved people and she had a big, broad smile and on her good days, she wanted people to know they could be made whole again. The fact that people are talking about mental illness, she’d be thrilled.”
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