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City firefighter who lost brother to suicide speaks of struggles, offers hope

Allison Schroeder understands the pain that can grip a family after suicide.

She tried to take her life three times in the months after her brother, Matt, took his in October 2015, two weeks before his 35th birthday.

“Everything was so clouded by my anxiety and depression and my grief that I wasn't thinking straight and doing things I would normally do,” said Schroeder, 30, a Buffalo firefighter who has chosen to speak out about the struggles that followed her brother’s death.

She will be among several panelists to participate Saturday in a free regional program to mark International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, in which those affected by suicide loss gather to find comfort and gain understanding as they share stories of healing and hope.

The program runs from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Butler Rehabilitation Center Auditorium on the campus of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, 400 Forest Ave. Preregistration is requested by calling 816-2014, though doors will open starting at noon for all who want to attend.

Most, but not all, of those who die by suicide exhibit warning signs, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Matt Schroeder showed few of those signs, which include talk about feeling hopeless, trapped or in unbearable pain; having no purpose; and how much easier things would be for others without them.

Still, looking back, his family wonders if Matthew’s intense personality, mood swings and struggles holding a full-time job should have signaled an undiagnosed mental health condition – which raises the risk of suicide.

Matt Schroeder, front left, left behind an immediate family that includes his father, Mark, front right, and back row from left, sister Allison, mother Kate and brother Mike. All are helping to care for Matt's daughter Marlee.

"During arguments, he would say stupid things and then apologize," said his sister, who has a 6-year-old daughter, Lily. "To us, it was Matt being Matt. Now, I read a lot about suicide and depression. A lot of the things that he did or said, and how he behaved, it's clear he had some kind of depression or anxiety. … When we cleaned out his house, we found a survey from a doctor’s visit. It asked questions like, 'Are you depressed?' 'Do you feel guilty about your life?' 'Do you get angry?' Anything negative, he marked with 10s [the most extreme]. At the end, it asked, 'Would you ever commit suicide?' That was a zero."

Matt Schroeder had a deep and abiding passion for TV wrestling, the Buffalo Bills and college football (especially sizing up draft prospect for his beloved pro football team). His family mattered most, particularly the daughter was raising, Marlee, 2½ at the time of his death. He and his siblings gathered so often at the home of his parents that his mother often asked with a smile, "Do you guys eat at your own house?"

Matt seemed overwhelmed and run-down when he asked Allison to babysit the toddler in the hours beforehand. His family thought he had the flu. His mother, Kate, father, City Comptroller Mark Schroeder, and brother, Mike, now help raise 5-year-old Marlee with help from her mother’s family.

The months after Matthew’s death were a blur for his sister. She landed a job a few months earlier as a city firefighter and sick days became more and more common. In the two years that followed, she began to realize how paralyzing mental illness can become when she began to battle it herself. She was hospitalized three times, each after a suicide attempt.

A combination of medication, counseling and – most importantly, support from family and friends – helped lift the clouds that formed after the death of her brother.

“I got to the point where I said, ‘This is not about everyone else, this is about you. This is about your daughter. This is about your family.’ Everybody can think what they want. It really doesn't matter…

“I see things differently not being depressed. It's hard to explain. In 2017, when I was in and out of hospitals, I never thought I'd get to a place where I'd be happy and OK.”

Friends and co-workers who have learned about her struggles have shared stories of similar loss.

“My dad experienced this on the political end,” Allison Schroeder said. “He said a lot of people reached out to him about people in their family, and he had no idea. I always tell him how proud I am of him for putting it out there and saying my brother did take his life because suicide is a huge epidemic. A lot of people in the political world, or higher-ups, hide it – and these are the people that can maybe help and spread the awareness.”

More than 45,000 Americans took their own lives in 2016, more than twice the number of those killed by homicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the second-leading cause of death for those ages 10 to 34, and fourth-leading cause for those ages 35 to 54. There are 25 attempts for every completed suicide, the CDC estimates.

What has most helped the Schroeder family heal?

Allison Schroeder always wanted a tattoo with a lily because of her daughter's name. Matt used to tease her, saying "You can't get a tattoo, you're too indecisive. You're going to get it on your foot or on your rib like every other girl and then you're going to hate it." After Matthew died, his sister got a tattoo with his name, in his writing, and a semi-colon on her right wrist. "The Semi-Colon Project was created in 2013 to say the story is not over, either your story or the person who died by suicide," Allison Schroeder said. "I always look at it and just laugh. It's probably the first and last tattoo I'll ever get. "

“The community,” Allison Schroeder said, “and with us being so close not only as an immediate family but with my mom's family and my dad's family. We all have pretty outgoing personalities, so we all have really great people in our lives. Matt did, as well. On the anniversary [of his death], his friends and neighbors all came to our church and all came together afterward.

“Also, and I don't think we even realized we were doing this, but we weren't judgmental of each other. ... I looked at how everyone grieved. We were all on completely different pages. I've also learned a lot of the simple things matter that you forget about when your grieving or sad or depressed. Self-care is important. You've got to sleep. Even if you don't want to shower, you've got to shower. You've got to eat.

“Another big thing. I'm on medication now. A lot of people are embarrassed about it but you [often] don't have to be on it forever. But I was in a bad, bad place, and I would rather be on this medicine than be buried in the ground right now.”

Has she thought about what Matt would have wanted for their family?

“I think he would be super proud of me,” Allison Schroeder said. “My dad ran for mayor and even though he lost, he still picks his head up and does what he needs to do. Him and my mom take good care of Marlee. My brother, Mike, he's so good. We're all trying to overcome what happened. I think he'd be happy with how we're doing. That's how I think about it now. At first, I felt really guilty, and that's what put me in a hole. Now I kind of live in the moment.”

Depression, mental illness and addiction are treatable. For help in the region, call the 24-hour Crisis Services hotline at 834-3131, its 24-hour addiction hotline at 831-7007, or the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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