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Suicide makes for another 9/11 tragedy Death prompts widow to embark on new life

For Toni Steinbarth, the date 9/1 1 was seared into memory a year before the terrorist attacks on New York City and Arlington, Va.

On Sept. 11, 2000, her husband killed himself by jumping off the Skyway.

Nine years later, Steinbarth has come to terms with her husband's suicide by earning her master's degree in mental health counseling and becoming an outreach counselor at Crisis Services in Buffalo.

And knowing that her husband died during National Suicide Prevention Week makes her believe that she can find meaning in the tragedy.

"It's just a sign that this is what I'm supposed to be doing," she said. She shared her story with The Buffalo News to spread awareness about preventing suicide.

On that terrible morning nine years ago, Steinbarth was on the phone with a friend from work, watching a television news broadcast on mute when she saw the car she and her husband shared parked on the side of Route 5 over Pearl Street in downtown Buffalo.

"I caught the end of the report. Someone had fallen or was pushed off the Skyway," she said.

She soon figured out that her husband of just a year had taken his life.

"He had struggled with mental illness," Steinbarth said. "He was diagnosed bipolar."

She later would learn much more about the disorder and how it led to her husband's death.

Toni and Andy Steinbarth had met five years before his death. She was working backstage for a South Buffalo community theater group when he came in to audition.

"We just kind of hit it off," she recalled. He also got along well with Toni's young son from a previous marriage.

Andy Steinbarth was open with his future wife about his mental illness. He shared with her that he had struggled with drug addiction during his freshman year in college. He talked about his medications, how he had high expectations for himself and how he had a hard time accepting his mental illness.

A year before his suicide, the couple married. It was a difficult year for them.

"He was in the hospital a couple of times," she said. He attempted to overdose himself on Mother's Day.

Before the marriage, Toni Steinbarth had worked with her fiance to get the help he needed, and he finally found medication that seemed to work.

Both of their families urged them to hold off on getting married. They were worried the stress of the impending marriage was affecting Andy Steinbarth. But he convinced Toni otherwise, bringing her to his psychiatrist's office to prove he really wanted to get married.

The Friday before he jumped, he gave his wife a long story about how he needed the car the following Monday. She found out why that Monday morning.

Toni Steinbarth was devastated by her husband's death, but she saw her way through it. She knew she needed to stay strong for her then-8-year-old son, who had grown close to his stepfather.

She also came to realize she needed to make something positive of his death.

"I decided I needed a way to figure out how to have this have meaning for me," she said.

She had always been interested in social work but not in going back to school. Now she was ready. She was thrilled when she finally was able to apply for her master's degree at Niagara University.

Her employer at the time, the AAA travel agency, allowed her to start working part time so she also could attend classes.

After graduating in early 2008, Steinbarth got her job at Crisis Services.

Going to work was difficult at first. But she was excited about the many ways she could help people, including those with the kind of mental illness her husband had.

"I love it," Steinbarth said of her position at Crisis Services, which provides a 24-hour crisis hotline that receives more than 40,000 calls a year. It also helps clients connect with mental health counseling and provides advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

"I absolutely love my job," she said. "It is suicide prevention. But it's not just about suicide. It's education. It's helping families deal with chronic mental illness or who are in the middle of a crisis."

She acknowledges knowing the anniversary of her husband's death occurs during Suicide Prevention Week is bittersweet.

"To me, it's reinforcement that this was the past and this is how things had to happen for me to have some kind of impact or change on people," she said. "I don't think I would have been here if this hadn't happened."

Anyone in crisis can call the Crisis Services 24-hour hotline at 834-3131.

Crisis Services also is helping with the American Federation for Suicide Prevention's annual Out of the Darkness Walk, which begins at 10:15 a.m. Saturday at the Delaware Park Rose Garden.

For more information, visit the Web site www.outofthedarkness.org.

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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