Family tragedy spurs resources for therapists

Ester Lautenberg
Ester Lautenberg

Ester Leutenberg is proud that her 26-year-old granddaughter is earning a Ph.D. in psychology. “I have a Ph.D. in life experience,” says Leutenberg, whose son, Mitchell, succumbed to suicide in 1986. “Everything my husband, Jay, and I have done since,” she says, “has been in honor of Mitchell — his life, not death, his life.”

For the past 22 years, Leutenberg, 73, has been a mental health advocate, co-author and publisher of resources for therapists to use with their clients. Her most recent books are “Discovering Your Spiritual Path Workbook: Self-Assessments, Exercises & Educational Handouts,” “The Essential Work Skills Workbook,” and “The Personal and Intimate Relationship Workbook.” To date, Leutenberg has also created eight other workbooks with counseler John J. Liptak, Ed.D., illustrated by her daughter Amy L. Brodsky, an artist who holds a master’s degree in social work. She also co-wrote “Griefwork — Healing from Loss” with social worker Fran Zamore (AJP, Oct. 24, 2008, = 188045).

The new “Discovering Your Spiritual Path Workbook” includes the results of a survey on spirituality that Leutenberg administered to 120 people from various religious and economic backgrounds, plus myriad activities and
interactive handouts on topics such as forgiveness and acceptance, creativity, and gratitude. This workbook has held particular meaning for Leutenberg: “I think spirituality can be a pivotal component in treating and managing a mental illness and one avenue for healing,” she says. People with a mental illness may feel comforted by having a spiritual outlook, whether it’s related to nature, being in a place of worship, doing yoga, creating or listening to music, says Leutenberg. “I wish my son Mitchell had some more of those than he did.”

It hasn’t been an easy journey for Leutenberg. Mitchell first tried to take his life in 1978 when he was 22, and for the next eight years, Leutenberg read everything about depression she could get her hands on and spoke with psychiatrists everywhere about how to talk with her son.

At one point Mitchell was admitted to a military hospital in Riverside, Calif., where he was given lithium, which made him very sick and disoriented, she says. “Five years before he died, Mitchell came home and told me, ‘Mom, I never want to see another doctor. I’ll live as long as I can and then I’ll die.’”

“But he covered up,” says Leutenberg. “He succeeded at taking his own life after the fourth attempt. He was very functional but inside he was tormented. I knew that a black cloud hung over him.” During that time, she says, there was “a huge shanda [shame] over mental illness. When he died, I felt a huge relief — for him — because he was suffering so much.

“It was wonderful therapy” to begin writing books the year after Mitchell died, says Leutenberg, whose daughter Kathy Khalsa, a psychiatric occupational therapist, had approached her about a collaboration. Khalsa wanted to create a workbook with reproducible handouts that would be fun to use, and would help people open up in group therapy.

Leutenberg signed on to the project. She and her husband, Jay, who owned a graphic arts business in Cleveland, co-founded Wellness Reproductions & Publishing. They published 250 copies of “Life Management Skills” in 1987. After the book received mention in an occupational therapy magazine, “we began to get fan mail,” says Leutenberg. Within a few months after the article appeared, their fledgling publishing company had 5,000 copies printed.

The couple sold their graphic arts/publishing business on April 9, 2001. Leutenberg, her daughter Amy, and Liptak have continued to create workbooks for Whole Person Associates ( “I remember the date [of the sale],” she says, “because it would have been Mitchell’s 45th birthday.”

The Leutenbergs’ lives have changed since Mitchell’s death. “I went through my own [spiritual] transitions,” explains Leutenberg, who was brought up Orthodox and then became a Conservative Jew. Around 10 years ago, Leutenberg attended a retreat with her daughter Kathy at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Accord, N.Y.

“It was out in nature. I felt very spiritual,” says Leutenberg, who has done “a lot of struggling with God. My father died when I was 16. I watched Mitchell suffering. I loved my religion but it didn’t give me peace.” When Leutenberg returned to Cleveland after the retreat, she and her husband joined a Reconstructionist synagogue, which they attended until moving to Tucson two years ago.

In 2003, Leutenberg was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I remembered my grandfather in Prague who had been deathly sick when he was 5 years old,” she says, and was dipped in special healing waters, which is an old Jewish tradition. Another healing Jewish tradition is to change your first name; her grandfather changed his from Charles to Alter. He lived to be 81.

Leutenberg recalled a similar ritual at the retreat center, which she hadn’t been ready to participate in at the time. But, she says, “I was diagnosed with cancer on a Thursday; changed my name from Estelle to Ester, my Hebrew
name, at my [Cleveland] synagogue on Saturday; and had surgery on Tuesday. It all went well. I had radiation, took medication for five years, and that was that.”

Determined to go on with her active life post-cancer, Leutenberg believes that “mental illness is like cancer or any other disease. It’s a real illness that shouldn’t prohibit anybody from getting a job. The only difference is that it’s in the brain.” When people say mental illness may reduce job performance, “how is it any different,” she asks, “than when a person has diabetes and isn’t feeling well, is crabby or distracted?”

The major difference between being mentally ill in the 1970s or ’80s and today is that the “Mitchells of the world are now able to talk way more about their mental illness,” says Leutenberg, adding, “today people think nothing of saying ‘I take medication for depression.’ It’s far more acceptable. Schools also educate about mental illness. There are ads in magazines and on television about depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It’s all over the place.

“But we still need to be able to fund mental health more fully,” she says. As for further reducing the stigma of mental illness, Leutenberg equates that goal with seeing women who’ve had heart surgery wearing low-cut dresses: “You can see their scars. They’re like a badge of courage.”

Leutenberg participates in the Survivors of Suicide support group, which meets the first and third Thursday of each month at the Catalina Methodist Church, 2700 Speedway, Building H-30, from 6 to 8 p.m.