Depression & Suicide in Rural America: Joey’s Story

Who’s Joey?

Joey’s a white, 54-year-old male living in a small town in rural North Dakota. He’s been married for 29 ½ years to fellow Napoleon native, Missy (Sperle).

He’s the proud father of three grown children (Amanda, Megan and Elijah) and has an adorable 9-month-old grandson.

Joey’s the middle child with two sisters and an in-law to Missy’s 12 siblings.

He’s provided for his family as a restaurant owner and manager, retail manager and maintenance worker at the Napoleon Care Center.

Joey loves spending time with his family, especially hunting with his son, mowing the lawn and watching TV.

He’s described as kind, soft-hearted, genuine and sweet.

Joey loves people, but is shy.

He works hard not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Joey can also be a prankster and a joker.

He has a strong Catholic faith.

Joey has suffered with depression for 34 years.

On December 9, 2016, Joey ended his life by suicide.

Battling Depression

This wasn’t Joey’s first attempt at ending his struggle with life.

Three times he overdosed with medication chased by alcohol. The last time by a fatal gunshot in the master bedroom.

“In the 35 years we were together, it was like a roller coaster ride,” said his wife, Missy. Joey was hospitalized for the suicide attempts. He saw doctors for decades and took a variety of antidepressants. He even had shock treatments, which worked for a few years, but, according to Missy, also affected his short-term memory.

Joey’s depression peaked when he was under pressure or conflict was present in his life.

“Joey loved his family so very much but I believe the suffering just got to be too much. He was so tired of the struggle to keep going,” shared Missy.

Suicide’s Effect on Family

Joey’s children felt deep guilt in the months after his death. “These days were very hard. The kids felt guilty because they didn’t call or visit their dad more often.”

Somehow they believed if they’d have reached out and visited more frequently his suicide could’ve been prevented.

Not likely.

Hilzendeger Family

Joey and Missy often talked about suicide because of his 30-year depression battle. “I knew the day would come where he’d accomplish it. However, I always figured it’d be by means of overdose and not by shooting himself on a day when all the children were coming home.”

Missy assured and comforted her children and told them what she’d say to any family who’s suffered such a loss:

1. This is not your fault. Depression is an illness like cancer, diabetes or alcoholism. It is no one’s fault and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

2. Use available resources for helping you cope: support groups, pastoral counseling, therapy, physician visits, retreats, spa services-whatever is available to you and makes you feel better.

3. Stay strong. It may feel like you will never get over this. It is not easy and you will never forget. Each day does get better and you will learn to live with it. You have to believe God loves you and will help you through this.

Though she coaches her children and others to be guilt-free, Missy sometimes blames herself for Joey’s suicide. “We were together for 35 years and I just couldn’t bring him back from the darkness this one last time.”

However, Missy has never been angry with Joey for what he did. “We were together so long and I knew how much he struggled on so many occasions. I can’t be angry with him.”

She admits, though, she’s been disappointed that he didn’t fight harder, especially after they had their first grandchild. “He was so unbelievably proud of that little boy.”

Missy is comforted knowing that she and the kids did not miss any warning signs of Joey’s impending suicide. “He battled depression for 30 plus years. Though it was difficult, it was part of our lives for so many years.

I wish I could have him back, but for Joey’s sake, knowing how much he suffered for so long, I truly hope and pray that he is now at peace.”

Moving Forward

Joey is terribly missed by all. Thinking of him brings both a smile to Missy’s face and tears to her eyes.

She talks to him regularly, asking him to watch over the family and to keep them safe, always, but especially from the current pandemic. “I pray every day that Joey is at peace and is right beside God.” That was always his greatest wish.

Missy’s relies heavily on her immediate and extended families to cope and is deeply grateful to each of them for their commitment to her. “They’ve helped so much with everyday life since Joey’s death. I wouldn’t have been able to get through this without them and my faith.”

Her toughest days were the grief-filled ones the first four weeks after Joey’s death. “I cried every day, many times a day. I remember thinking I’d just lost my husband yet everyone is moving on like nothing happened.”

She returned to work and kept busy, yet when summer arrived, she was hit with another wave of grief. She was alone to tend to yard work-one of Joey’s favorite chores that he enjoyed so much.

I had a wake-up call. Life was moving on with or without me. “The pain of his death has not gone away. I have just learned to live with it.”

“It’s been 3 ½ years. Every day is anyone’s guess how the day will be. Some days I feel like crying when I hear a certain song or relive a special memory. The next day, I’m just fine.”

Wishing Missy and her beautiful family days of peace and happiness ahead.

Thank you for sharing your story so that others may have hope.

If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, please seek immediate help from a physician or mental health professional. In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For more information, visit the NSPL web site (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org).

Pinochle Tournament

Keeping Legacy Alive

Joey loved playing pinochle https://bicyclecards.com/how-to-play/pinochle-2/, as do many in the Napoleon, http://napoleonnd.com/ North Dakota community.

To keep Joey’s memory alive, every March his family hosts a pinochle tournament in Napoleon with funds donated to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in memory of Joey Hilzendeger.

If you’d like to make a donation to the card tournament, send a check to Missy Hilzendeger 322 Avenue C East, Napoleon, ND 58561.

Or, you can donate directly to AFSP online in memory of Joey Hilzendeger. https://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=cms.page&id=1390&eventID=2043

The 5th Annual Pinochle Tournament is scheduled for March 2021. The day is not yet available.

What Can You Do?

  • Seek help if you are suicidal. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Leave notes of encouragement for Missy below.
  • Donate and participate in the Pinochle Tournament.
  • Send a donation in Joey’s name to AFSP.
  • Encourage loved ones to seek help.
  • Objectively listen and pay attention.
  • Keep the lines of communication open.
  • SHARE this post with others struggling with depression and/or suicidal thoughts.
  • SHARE with family members left behind.

North Dakota Facts

North Dakota saw the nation’s largest increase in suicide rates from 1999 to 2016- 58 percent.

That was more than twice the national increase of 25 percent, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That means that in North Dakota, which has the nation’s 10th-highest suicide rate, a person dies by suicide every 57 hours.

In 2019, 154 people committed suicide.

Guns are the leading means of suicide nationally as well as in North Dakota. They account for slightly more than half of all suicides in North Dakota.

Easy access to firearms, along with increased social isolation and lack of behavioral health services, are among the reasons cited for higher suicide rates in rural areas.

Learn More

https://www.theitem.com/stories/the-pain-of-suicide,339546

http://www.ndaap.com/uploads/2/6/4/7/26479511/reaching_zero_suicide_in_nd.pdf

https://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/suicide-numbers-keep-rising-in-nd-but-there-s-help/article_41deb409-b5b9-5efa-b48c-6b0d6efe7753.html

https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/the-sin-of-suicide.html

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/men-and-depression/index.shtml

https://www.governing.com/gov-data/health/county-suicide-death-rates-map.html

https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/01/30/americas-suicide-rate-has-increased-for-13-years-in-a-row

https://www.nbcnews.com/health/mental-health/suicide-rates-are-rising-especially-rural-america-n1050806

https://www.kfyrtv.com/content/news/Resources-in-ND-available-when-mental-health-and-suicide-grief-becomes-too-much-567637891.html

https://afsp.org/state-fact-sheets

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Linda Leier Thomason writes freelance business and travel stories along with feature articles. Her work experience includes a Fortune 500 corporation, federal government, entrepreneurship and small business. Read more about her background and qualifications by clicking on the “Meet Linda” tab above.

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