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Local mental health writer turns tragedy into healing, prevention

Ester Leutenberg with her latest mental health facilitator workbooks

Mitchell A. Leutenberg had a mental illness. The first time he tried to die by suicide, he asked his parents not to tell anyone. He died at his fourth attempt eight years later in 1986. He was 30 years old.

In the years since, Mitchell’s mother, Ester Leutenberg, has wanted to write a workbook on suicide. “I didn’t know how to start, and I knew it would be tough for me,” she says. In the meantime, she’s written more than 100 workbooks for health facilitators on topics such as erasing the stigma of mental illness, building resiliency, and coping with grief, and two self-help books, co-authored with her daughter Kathy Khalsa and other mental health professionals.

“When Kate Spade died by suicide on June 5, 2018, and Anthony Bourdain died by suicide [three days later,] I knew I needed to begin work on the much-needed workbooks about suicide, for both teens and adults,” Ester says. That night in her dreams, her son Mitch sat next to her on the bed and said, “It’s time!” She decided that even though it might be difficult writing the workbooks, it would be worth it if she helped even one person.

“Suicide & Self-Injury Prevention Workbook” and “Teen Suicide & Self-Harm Prevention Workbook,” both clinician guides to assist clients, are now published and available this month through Whole Person Associates and Amazon. Ester co-wrote these workbooks, and 60 others, with John J. Liptak, Ed. D., a counselor who teaches at Radford University in Virginia.

For the eight years before Mitchell’s death, Ester and her husband, Jay, told no one, including his three younger sisters, about Mitchell’s three suicide attempts. “It was a shanda (Yiddish for shame or scandal) back then. He was afraid people would feel differently about him. And he was right,” says Ester.

But during that time, she set about learning everything she could about clinical depression and mental health. She attended classes, visited psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, not for herself, but to find help for Mitchell. She used the serenity prayer to remind herself of what she could and could not control. She read Barbara Gordon’s “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can,” about weeding through many therapists to find the right one, highlighting parts for Mitchell to read. 

Mitchell died in November 1986. By July 1987, Ester and Kathy, now a psychiatric occupational therapist, were writing their first workbook together, “Life Management Skills,” as a way of healing themselves and helping others. They co-founded Wellness Reproductions and Publishing, running it alongside the family printing business, and went on a writing streak. When managing the business got in the way of writing, they sold it to carry on with the important work — writing books to help mental health professionals help clients. About seven years later, Kathy was ready to take a writing break. “I was not done. The only way I can make sense of Mitchell’s suffering is to help others,” says Ester. She began co-writing books with several mental health therapists. “They have hands-on knowledge and training that I don’t.”

She believes that if Mitchell had access to some of these materials, along with talk therapy, it would have helped him open up and talk about his feelings, which he was unable to do. She acknowledges that he may have died by suicide anyway.

Ester’s workbooks run the gamut from life skills and well-being to self-esteem, relationships, body image, positive thoughts, stress, anxiety, surviving trauma, and more. They are teaching tools in universities and used among a variety of therapists. They target teens, adults, seniors, and other mental health niche audiences. “The value of all of our books is that the user doesn’t have to buy one for every client,” for a therapy group or multiple practitioners, Ester explains. The activities are reproducible. “I didn’t go into this for the money, but because I lost a son and didn’t want others to go through it.”

Lately, some of her work targets gifted children. “Gifted kids are unique. They have many social and emotional issues,” she says. She has completed eight of a series of 10 workbooks in this genre. The remainder is among 12 workbooks she currently has in the works.

Her husband of 65 years, Jay, gives her full support and “with his printer’s eyes” is one of her many reviewers and proofreaders. Ester and Jay moved to Sun City Oro Valley from Cleveland, Ohio, 12 years ago. They maintain a busy lifestyle and recently joined Congregation
Beit Simcha.

“People used to ask me when I would quit writing books, and I’d say after I’ve written 100. Now, I say when I turn 100,” Ester, who is in her early 80s, chuckles. “I really just want to keep writing. I don’t consider it work — it’s just what I need to do.

“We’ve come a long way in reducing the stigma of mental illness, but we still have a long way to go,” Ester says.  About the loss of Mitchell, she says, “You never really get over it. It doesn’t get better; it gets different.”

In Mitchell’s own words

Mitchell Leutenberg shared a letter with his mother, Ester, that he penned in February 1985, to a family friend whose son had just died by suicide. Ester believes he shared it with her so she also would understand his own perspective. Excerpts from Mitch’s letter are shared here:

“…in an act of desperation and thought, he chose not to live. The pain he was experiencing was more than he chose to continue with. Had he been physically ill with a cancer or something … this death might have made more sense, but you will have to accept his decision,  you have no choice. …Consider his belief that this was his last best chance at peace or sanity. One’s mental health is more valuable than one’s physical well being, and without being at peace, little is worth it … Accept his decision as he intended and within Jewish doctrine, you and all of us will mourn his death, but we will continue.”