An hour before midnight on Thursday, Sept. 1, Pat Oldenkamp, 75, looked out from her cottage apartment, located in the backyard of her ex-husband’s West Palm Drive home, and saw him puttering in his kitchen, still the tall, handsome, lanky man she had met years earlier when they were both flight attendants for Eastern Airlines. It was the last time she would see Glenn Leppert, 72, alive.
Friends called or texted him on Friday, but he didn’t respond. His daughter Alexis, 40, who was preparing to move into his home with her husband, couldn’t reach him Saturday morning and so she asked her mother to wake him up.
Pat found his body on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, sitting on the sofa, his feet propped on a pillow on the coffee table like he had done a thousand times before, looking as though he might turn on a football game.
“She tried to wake him up and he was stiff and so he’d been sitting there for a while,” said Pat’s sister, Lakeland Realtor Natalie Oldenkamp, 58. She described an almost feral cry that came from her sister that day, one she had never heard before.
But Leppert, a daily gym devotee, didn’t die of a sudden heart attack or stroke. He left letters behind explaining that he had taken an overdose of OxyContin and telling Pat, Natalie, Alexis, and her husband, Sean, how much he loved them and to, please, not be mad at him.
“He was very upset about the state of our country and the world and he said that he loathed the human species outside of his friends,” said Oldenkamp, saying she agreed to speak about Leppert in the hope that it might help someone. “I don’t even know what to say about that because the world is pretty ugly right now. But there’s a lot of beauty in it, too.”
September is National Suicide Awareness Month.
Statistics show suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
“We use this month to shift public perception, spread hope and share vital information to people affected by suicide,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness website states. “Our goal is ensuring that individuals, friends and families have access to the resources they need to discuss suicide prevention and to seek help.”
NAMI officials point to multiple warning signs for loved ones to look for:
- Suicidal ideation, with thoughts like “I wish I wasn’t here” or “Nothing matters” and becoming more explicit and dangerous
- Increased alcohol and drug use
- Aggressive behavior
- Withdrawal from friends, family and community
- Dramatic mood swings
- Impulsive or reckless behavior
- Collecting and saving pills or buying a weapon
- Giving away possessions
- Tying up loose ends, like organizing personal papers or paying off debts
- Saying goodbye to friends and family
This year, the U.S. government launched a new 9-8-8 number for calling or texting that is operated throughout the country and via the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If someone is uncomfortable talking on the phone, they can chat online on the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988lifeline.org.
9-8-8 works like 9-1-1, but it “improves access to crisis services in a way that meets our country’s growing suicide and mental health-related crisis care needs” according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. “988 provides easier access to the Lifeline network and related crisis resources, which are distinct from the public safety purposes of 911 (where the focus is on dispatching Emergency Medical Services, fire and police as needed).”
Leppert is one of 86 suicides in 2022 in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, according to statistics on file with the Florida Judicial District 10 Medical Examiner’s Office in Winter Haven. Their numbers show a decline in the last four years:
- 2019 — 171
- 2020 — 118
- 2021 — 117
- 2022 — 86, through Sept. 16
According to a report issued by Polk Vision last year, the suicide rate in Polk County — 13.8 per every 100,000 people — is slightly lower than that of the state of Florida, which is 14.5%.
But the statistics don’t shed light on the pain of its victims or the pain they leave behind with the people who love them.
Natalie said when her niece called to tell her, she went into immediate shock and doesn’t remember traveling the two blocks from her home across South Florida Avenue to Glenn and Pat’s home on West Palm Drive.
“I don’t even remember driving across the street — I had my pants on backwards,” said Natalie, managing to smile through the pain. “It was so surreal. It was so unexpected.”
Oldenkamp said it was Leppert’s second attempt. The first time was 10 years ago when he was living in Fresno, Calif. His ex-wife was living in Paris and his daughter and Natalie were in Lakeland. Oldenkamp said Leppert was lonely. He had made a date with a woman and took pills before she arrived, knowing she would find him and call for help. After that, he moved across the country to Lakeland, bought his home on Palm Drive and his ex-wife returned from Paris to live in his backyard cottage. Although they had been divorced for a dozen years, they became close friends. Natalie Oldenkamp, who viewed Leppert as another brother in the family, said he seemed to be doing a lot better in Lakeland. Friends found him to be happy-go-lucky and funny.
Natalie said she read the letter he wrote to her before Lakeland Police took it away to fingerprint it as they investigate the matter.
“I remember him telling me how much he loved me and how much we brighten his life and his heart. He said he was ready to transition. So I am hoping he is at peace,” she said. “I miss him. I don’t understand why he’d want to put Alexis through this — She said, ‘You know, he hurt me so bad,’ and I know he wouldn’t intentionally hurt her.”
Oldenkamp said Leppert might have been in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, as a friend told her after his death that he had complained of having memory issues. Oldenkamp also said he might have been on the autism spectrum because he had a lifelong inability to anticipate the feelings of others. Despite his brilliant mind — he had switched gears from being a flight attendant to becoming an intensive care unit nurse — she said he had an oft-used phrase: “It never occurred to me.”
Jacob, 58, understands the pain, the excruciating heartache that Leppert was feeling, one that those in its grip think won’t end. Some have described deep depression as feeling like swimming through tar.
Jacob, an educator in Lakeland, said his world began a downward spiral in 2015. A divorce, he said, contributed to his depression and feelings of worthlessness, although he is deeply loved by his family.
“I grew progressively more and more depressed. It took about a year to reach the bottom, and I stayed there for a long time,” said Jacob, who didn’t want his last name used because of the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues. He also agreed to talk in the hope that it might help someone.
“The worst part lasted three years. A thousand days and, worse, a thousand nights,” Jacob said. “The darkness is still there, and it comes back when my guard is down. I lost part of myself down there. Most days the meds work. I can smile without feeling like a fraud. I can laugh. The system worked. As long as I keep an eye on myself and stay vigilant, I can be some kind of normal.”
Jacob was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and general anxiety disorder. Bipolar and major depression are two of the three major psychiatric conditions — the third is schizophrenia. Jacob said behavioral health issues run in his family, with 150-year-old letters from his ancestors describing what he has endured.
He said he knows he is fortunate to have good health insurance and good doctors, who helped him work through the struggles of finding the right medication or combination of medications to keep the dark moods at bay. First, it can take months to get in to see a psychiatrist, and then months on a medication to see if it works. If it doesn’t, he said, you spend a month weaning yourself off the ineffective one and starting a new one.
“Finding out how to treat a mental health problem isn’t like finding treatment for a physical health problem. There are no tests to figure out what medication will help,” Jacob said. “You go to your doctor with the news that the last adjustment didn’t work. They come up with a new plan. Maybe the good result keeps being good, maybe not. Maybe there are new side effects. Maybe the old ones go away. Maybe not. At the end of your hour, you go home to wait another month for the new medication plan to take hold and work. Or not. If you’re taking three meds and things get better, you don’t know which one’s responsible, so you keep them all on the list. You build up a shaky tower of medication that you’re afraid to mess with. It’s a long and frustrating process. I take a lot of medication. Every time we try to reduce the load, bad things happen.”
Jacob said going to work was his only escape, so much so he dreaded leaving the office. Before the right medicinal combination, he spent a lot of time, especially sleepless nights, thinking about dying in a number of different ways. Nights, he said were bad, weekends were worse, and holidays were the worst of all.
Memorial Day weekend several years ago, his children were away and he spent the holiday sitting in his backyard, ruminating for hours about how he was going to die by his own hand.
“I didn’t do the things I’d been trained to do,” Jacob said. “I didn’t reach out. I didn’t make a phone call. I didn’t make the short drive to Mom’s house. I didn’t call the national hotline. I didn’t get up and go for a walk. I didn’t go down to the hospital and Baker Act myself. I was paralyzed with self-loathing, and I wanted it over.”
He said he assembled what he needed and “started taking the last steps of my life.” And then his daughter walked in, hours before he had expected her home.
“There was nothing to do but put everything back where it belonged and go in to make her something to eat,” Jacob said. “I was lost, I was beaten, and I was so tired; but I had to live for her and my son’s sake. I was living out of duty to them, not for myself. My kids saved my life, and I can’t tell them without admitting how close I came to ending it.”
Mental health professional
Alice Nuttall, associate vice president of behavioral health services for Lakeland Regional Health, said Jacob was experiencing some of the elements that can lead to suicide, among them isolation, loneliness and loss of hope. LRH is awaiting the opening of its new, $46 million behavioral health facility that will double the number of people it can treat in-patient once a certificate of occupancy is granted.
In addition to seeking professional help, Nuttall said those suffering must reach out to trusted family or friends.
“The best prevention of suicide isn’t just a pill or a form of therapy, it is connection with other healthy individuals and connection within a community,” Nuttall said in an email to LkldNow. “Connectedness is key to resiliency during difficult mental health periods. It can be almost like a safety belt, when you form trust with other people who care about you. When you feel like you aren’t seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, those connections can help guide you through that time.”
She said if you are worried about a loved one, it is imperative that you ask an important question.
“The bravest thing they can do is ask the question ‘Are you having suicidal thoughts?’” Nuttall said. “Many times, people are fearful of saying the word ‘suicide’ and asking this question, but research suggests that if we ask the question directly, people are less likely to commit suicide. Asking this question can save lives!”
And, she adds, if someone says they are having suicidal thoughts, your role is to not panic, but instead to stay with them, assist them with getting help, and connect them immediately with a mental health or other healthcare professional.
“Getting someone help when they are feeling hopeless may pull them back from potentially making a suicidal attempt,” she said.
Jacob echoed her words, saying he has a few friends he knows he can reach out to when it gets bad, as it does occasionally.
“If I have any advice it’s this: Stay connected. There has to be a friend or family member who knows what you’re going through. You have to give them the chance to talk you off the ledge,” Jacob said. “Even if you can’t feel your love for the people close to you, try to believe that they love you and will help you. Fight for medical care and be as patient as you can with the process. If you have a gun, sell it; if you don’t have one, don’t buy one. Believe that there is a life without pain, however hard it will be to get there. Don’t think about the stigma against mental illness, you’re blowing it out of proportion. Put the national hotline number in your contacts and use it if you need to.”
Oldenkamp and her family are still dealing with the fact that Leppert didn’t tell any of them what he had been thinking about for at least several months, including upon his return from a Hawaiian vacation with a sometime-girlfriend in May.
“He was 72 years old. He had a great life. I wish he had another 10 or 20 years that he could spend with us — I was supposed to be there with him and Pat to, you know, drink our wine and watch TV shows or whatever and just laugh,” Oldenkamp said. “But there’s so much depression and mental illness, especially, I think, with the pandemic, making everyone so isolated. It’s just so tragic. We have to get better at addressing mental illness and making it not be a taboo subject. I think we have gotten better.”
Jacob said if you can’t reach out to family or friends, call 9-1-1, the new mental health emergency number 9-8-8, or go to the emergency room.
“If all else fails, go to the hospital and say the magic words: ‘I am a danger to myself,’” Jacob said. “Give life one last try.”
Lakeland Regional Health’s Behavioral Health providers offer comprehensive behavioral health care for adults, children, and adolescents through both inpatient and outpatient services. Additional Resources such as Peace River Center | Florida, Mental Health America, Wounded, Warrior Project, SAMHSA, National Suicide Prevention (Text: “HOME” to 741741), the Florida Mental Health Helpline (Phone: 1-866-846-5588) and the new 988 number can help individuals through difficult times.
Correction: Natalie Oldenkamp’s last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-272-9250.
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