When Diane Dittmar began to experience serious anxiety after her daughter left for college in 2011, the doctors she consulted couldn’t seem to figure out how to help. Though there was concern about her condition, no one mentioned the possibility that this loving mother and active community member would take her own life.
But nine months ago, Ms. Dittmar committed suicide at her Cream Ridge home. She was 51. Her husband, son, and daughter, extended family, friends, and colleagues at Stuart Country Day School, where she served as a trustee and in several other positions, were stunned.
“The doctors as well as my family members thought that she would absolutely get better and they would get to the bottom of what was causing her depression,” says her daughter Allysa, a Stuart graduate and a student at Johns Hopkins University. “In fact, on the day she took her life, my dad and I had a conversation about her before we found her and he was so certain that this would be resolved. So as you can imagine, her death shocked us.”
To help them come to grips with their loss, the Dittmars have become active in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. On June 9 and 10, Allysa and her father, George, will participate in the organization’s fundraising Overnight Walk, being held in San Francisco [her brother Dan, a senior at Savannah College of Art and Design, has classes so cannot join them on the walk]. The Dittmar team is one of 14 out of 450 to have raised $10,000 toward the cause. In fact, they have far surpassed their original goal of $2,000. Early this week, Allysa reported a total of $11,784.
The fundraiser is an 18-mile trek from dusk to dawn, signifying walking “out of the darkness.” Proceeds go toward educating the public, training mental health professionals, and primary care physicians. According to Allysa, $30,000 will go toward a year of research into the genetic, biological, or behavioral factors that contribute to suicide.
Allysa attended Stuart from kindergarten through high school. Though she is deaf (she communicated with Town Topics via email), she graduated with highest honors, received the Janet Stuart scholar award and the Town Topics award for writing, and was her class salutatorian. Throughout Allysa’s years at Stuart, her mother was committed to making the school a better place. She was president of the Stuart Parents Association from 2002 to 2003, and joined the board of trustees in 2004, serving until 2010.
“The board was so impressed with her [and others — but mostly her] service that we changed our bylaws to allow trustees to serve an additional year,” wrote fellow trustee Mark Johnson, in an email. “So her service on our board ended in June, 2011. She was a passionate believer in the school, its mission and in its ability to be a transformative institution for its students. She was the very best trustee I ever served with [and that covers 14 years of Sacred Heart trusteeship] and it was my honor to have served with her.”
Diane Dittmar was her high school salutatorian. She put herself through college and worked in the property and casualty insurance industry before taking a break to raise her children. She was active in her church and headed several seasons of Vacation Bible School
Allysa thinks suicide is not discussed openly today because it is so difficult to comprehend. “Even doctors do not know … they certainly did not have a solid and concrete solution for my mom,” she said. “Additionally, I think people are afraid of it because there’s no real and simple solution such as taking a pill. Instead, there are so many factors behind it, both emotionally and physically, that cannot be all solved by a quick fix solution.”
A lack of understanding leads some people to regard resorting to suicide as a weakness, because it is the simplest answer, Allysa adds. “But suicide does not reflect some sort of character flaw. My mom was one of the strongest people I’ve ever known and she had such a passion for life, from working in her garden to playing the piano. So for her to resort to suicide, she was not in the right place; she was suffering.”
An estimated 13 million Americans contemplate suicide every year, resulting in one million attempts and 36,000 reported annually, Allysa said. “Reported suicides outnumber homicides by a ratio of 2:1, and if we were to count unreported suicides, the ration would likely be closer to 3:1.”
Sharing experiences with people who have suffered similar losses has helped Allysa and her family come to grips with their loss. “Already,” she says, “I have gotten to know several people through networking and I’ve realized that there are other families and friends out there going through similar experiences. So when we embark on the walk in June, simply meeting other people and seeing that we are not alone will really help us heal. I have also met others who struggle on a daily basis, be it from anxiety, depression, and it has really helped me understand what they go through. I was not present for the majority of 2011 because I was in school and my mom tried so hard to conceal her struggles whenever I was home because she didn’t want my brother or me to worry.”
Well-meaning friends don’t always know what to say or how to help. And that makes the Overnight Walk important to Allysa and her father. “It is especially meaningful to me because my friends and family often do not know how to help and what to say,” she said. “Because they’ve not experienced losing someone to suicide, which, I believe, is much more difficult to heal from compared to their types of losses because you have so many unanswered questions and guilt. Also, my friends all have parents, and it’s hard for them to relate to not having a parent, and especially not having a mom.”