Danielle “Dani” Leedy lit up every room she entered. Her dazzling smile, boisterous personality and infectious laugh drew people to her. From the time she was a teen, she went out of her way to help people in need – to the point of bringing in people off the streets to live with her family. She had a way of making people feel special, and exuded a confidence that matched her accomplished professional life. “A force” is how her stepfather Jeff Heck describes her.
What few people knew is that Dani battled depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and body-image issues. She had tried to take her own life three times, at the ages of 15, 20 and 22. The mask she wore so skillfully is called “smiling depression.” Its dark, impulsive currents coursed beneath her radiant façade even as she managed her mental illness from the age of 15 with the help of counseling and medication.
By her 30s, Dani seemed past those vulnerable days. She helped to run a company and had all the outward appearances of success – financial and otherwise. Her family thought she was in a solid, forward-looking place. Dani seemed to feel it too. She had found a rhythm with a therapist she respected and was compliant with her medications. She had learned important lessons from her most frightening suicide attempt at 22 that gave her a new perspective.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the deceptive disease crashed like a wave over the jetty she had built to keep it at bay. One moment was all it took to pull Dani from the surface.
Dani ended her life in February 2019 at the age of 33. The day she died she had signed a lease on a new apartment in Washington, D.C.; she had a boyfriend; and she was looking forward to seeing her new niece who had been born the previous morning. Inspired by Oprah Winfrey, Dani had plans in motion to launch a business as an inspirational speaker through which she would share her story to help women and girls.
“We thought she was in a good place,” Jeff says. “She would say, ‘When I was 22, it was hard to see tomorrow. But now that I’ve been through it, I need to tell people it’s a moment, and it’s going to pass.’ But she got herself into a moment of real darkness and couldn’t get through it.”
Jeff and Donna Heck determined “not to let suicide win,” as Donna put it. Within days of Dani’s death, the couple marshalled their blended family of their five other grown children and friends to create 33 Forever in Dani’s honor. The non-profit organization raises awareness and empowers and comforts those struggling with depression, anxiety, low self-worth and suicidal thoughts.
“I’ve learned that mental health challenges are everywhere, in every family,” Donna says. “People will open up and talk about it once they know they are not being judged. We hear from people literally all over the country who are impacted by Dani’s dream and 33 Forever.”
Suicide was the leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34 in 2018. It was the fourth-leading cause of death among people 35 to 54 that year, according to the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, the lead federal agency for research on mental disorders. For children ages 10 to 14, it is the leading cause of death. One in five cases of depression will end in a person taking their own life.
This year, 33 Forever established the Behavioral Health Immediate Care (BHIC) and 33 Forever Endowed Fund to provide operational support for the BHIC program in The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health.
BHIC is the only program of its kind in central Ohio and a rarity in the nation. It ensures access to follow-up care in seven days for patients after an inpatient mental health stay at Ohio State Harding Hospital. BHIC also provides an alternative to the emergency department for patients with urgent mental health care needs.
“We are so proud to be partnered with Ohio State and the BHIC,” says Jeff, an Ohio State alumnus. “This is a huge area of need not just at OSU and the BHIC but everywhere.”
As her stepfather who always knew Dani would be a force in the world, Jeff says 33 Forever is Dani’s vision come to life.
Says Donna, “She’s having a chess game in heaven, and she’s putting the pieces on the board where she wants us.”
Mental illness affects the whole family.
That was true for Danielle “Dani” Leedy’s family, a loud, loving blended brood of five siblings – one older brother and four younger sisters.
With Dani’s first suicide attempt at age 15, the younger children did not understand what was happening. Mom Donna Heck told them their sister’s brain was not feeling well, so she was in the hospital. The older children were afraid and didn’t ask a lot of questions, stepdad Jeff Heck says.
When Dani went to college, she reached out to several of her siblings when she struggled with her illness. Years later, her parents learned that her siblings had been there for her during her struggles while in college, which included a second suicide attempt at age 20.
As a young professional, Dani was living on her own in Florida. When she tried to take her life at 22, her family did not know if she would survive. Emotions ran the gamut from anger to confusion to fear to sorrow. Through the process of Dani’s in-patient and follow-up care, the family educated themselves about her disease. As they learned about depression, they came to understand how an intelligent, beautiful girl with a loving family could want to not live. “We knew it was a lifelong thing,” Donna says.
For the past two years, the family has been adjusting to life without Dani, who died by suicide in February 2019 at the age of 33. Here, Dani’s siblings reflect on how her mental illness affected them and their family’s life.
“As a whole, I personally always felt this lingering ‘something’ with Dani – not that something was going to happen, but just that we knew she carried this weight all of the time; she carried this disease with her from her teen years until the end of her life. It was just something that was always there for her – sometimes more well-managed than other times, but always there.”
Mandy Brickner, younger sister by 3 years
“I just worried – about her and I worry about my siblings and family now. I feel more like ‘anything could happen’ and the ground feels unsteady. I want my kids to know her and that is the hardest part.”
Sara Bennett, younger sister by 13 months
“Dani was never vocal about her depression. She tried to put on a brave face for everyone. I remember when I was 10, and it was her first attempt, I didn’t fully understand what happened. But I never thought differently of her. Growing up I always saw her as being one of the strongest people I knew. She truly inspired me, and in my opinion, she hid what she was really feeling so well that I never imagined this to be the outcome.”
Dennette Santamaria, younger sister by 4-1/2 years
“When I got the call that Dani tried to take her life at 22, I remember being at work and feeling hopeless, scared, worried. I had a ton of questions that I was afraid to ask. After her passing, I was numb and wanted to feel something. I woke up every day with what felt like a hole in my heart for the first year. It’s still an emptiness you feel daily.”
Josh Leedy, oldest of the six siblings
“Dani was my best friend in the entire world. She made me a better person. I never want anyone to experience the pain of losing someone to suicide, and I never want anyone to feel like their only option is ending their life. There is always hope.”
Alex Leedy, younger sister by 9 years
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