Out of the Darkness
The Peyton Riekhof Foundation for Youth Hope Supports Students Who are Struggling with Mental Illness
Writer: Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photograph provided by Peyton Riekhof Foundation & Josh Brown
When you lose a loved one to suicide, for a time you lose hope. You struggle to breathe, to sleep, to think, to function. It’s how Mike Riekhof felt when he lost his teenage daughter, Peyton, to suicide in 2013. And if he felt this bad, he couldn’t imagine the pain his daughter must have carried to make her fatal choice.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), suicide claims nearly 45,000 lives annually. When Riekhof emerged from the fog of grief, he was compelled to help youth in the area who found themselves drowning in darkness and despair. So in 2014, he founded the Peyton Riekhof Foundation for Youth Hope.
“I knew there had to be some change in our community in terms of how mental health was viewed and how mental health illnesses can be fatal,” says Riekhof, who even though he was in the healthcare field (he works for a pharmaceutical company), didn’t know the warning signs of clinical depression. Plus, as so many do, Peyton hid her agony well.
“She was this very happy person on the outside, but on the inside, she was hurting every day, fighting depression, anxiety and insomnia,” Riekhof says.
Riekhof partnered with the HSE and Fishers High School administrators to start anti-stigma clubs in the schools. Participants proudly wear their anti-stigma t-shirts, which are paid for by Riekhof’s foundation.
“It helps de-stigmatize the disease of depression and other mental health illnesses,” says Riekhof, noting that the HSE club has 70 members. “I’ve seen a big change in students opening up and talking.”
In addition, the schools hired Brooke Lawson, a full-time mental health coordinator, to facilitate weekly support groups.
“HSE schools are so grateful for the partnership we have with the Peyton Riekhof Foundation,” Lawson says. “Students have benefitted greatly from the support groups.”
In March, the Peyton Riekhof Foundation for Youth Hope will host its fifth annual Night of Hope event, which includes speakers as well as 22 mental health organizations who are on-site to distribute their materials. This year RemedyLIVE will put on a dynamic program.
“They pose questions to the crowd like, ‘Have you ever thought about suicide or harming yourself?’ The crowd answers anonymously with their responses going up on the screen and students can see that others are hurting, too,” Riekhof says. “They realize they’re not alone.”
Last year 500 people of all ages attended Night of Hope. Although Riekhof would love to see every seat filled, his board members remind him that it’s about helping one person, saving one life. That message was brought home last year when a mother told Riekhof that the greatest benefit to the evening was recognizing unity.
“Prior to the Night of Hope, I felt that our family was alone on this journey of parenting a suicidal child,” she said. “This was the first time I learned that there’s a community who understands our struggle.”
Riekhof is committed to ongoing education, awareness, and destigmatizing. In 2018, he hopes to include additional student support groups, a parent support group and an event focused specifically on young men’s health (since according to AFSP, men die by suicide 3.57 times more often than women). In the book “Anxious for Nothing,” author Max Lucado cites a study that involved more than 200,000 incoming freshmen — all reporting “all-time lows in overall mental health and emotional stability.”
Middle school and high school students worry about performing academically and athletically, they fret about getting into certain colleges, they are bullied on social media. They wrestle with eating disorders, pornography addiction, drugs and alcohol, self-harm and abuse. And then there’s the pressure to succeed.
“There’s this culture that you’ve got to make the travel teams, be enrolled in the AP classes, live in certain neighborhoods, attend the best university. Add to that never shutting off technology and it has created a high-anxiety world,” Riekhof says. “It’s a culture we need to work at changing, and it takes a village to do so.”
Riekhof notes that depression, anxiety and stress are starting to hit at the grade school level now, which is why early intervention, discussions and support are so critical.
“Our goal as a foundation is to provide resources to help our youth,” Riekhof says.
A Night of Hope will be held March 20 at Fishers High School from 6:30-8 p.m. For more information, visit thepeytonriekhoffoundation.com