MOORHEAD, Minn. — Heather Thingvold says her brother, Steve Altepeter, loved a handful of things in his life: spending time with his family, kids and dog, spending time at the family's hunting land, history and the Minnesota Vikings. But, she says, as a kid, her little brother was so much more.
“He was funny, sweet, and when he smiled, his eyes just sparkled. Steve was a daddy’s boy and my tag-a-long, but he was also a little shyster. I took the blame for his shenanigans on several occasions, because I had to protect my little brother,” she said.
But Thingvold says two years ago, even though she tried her best, she couldn’t protect her little brother from suicide.
“I was supposed to be able to protect him. Should I have forced him not to be alone that day? It goes through my head all the time: What could we have done differently?” she said.
Sadly, for Thingvold, Steve’s death in November of 2018 was not the first time she and her family have felt the pain of suicide. They have buried at least three family members because of suicide. Thingvold hopes by telling their stories, she might help raise awareness for a crisis gripping the nation.
“This is a problem,” she said. “Something needs to change.”
Anxiety and Depression
Thingvold was just 22 years old and living in Minneapolis when she first felt what suicide can do to a family. Her beloved uncle, Tim Altepeter of Thief River Falls, Minn., died by suicide in 1996 after battling anxiety and depression.
“He was just the nicest, goofiest guy,” she said of her uncle. She says through the shock and sadness of it all, she thought about her grandmother and Tim’s children, who were in high school at the time.
Then, in 2014, her uncle, Joe Adolph of Watkins, Minn., died by suicide as well.
“It was the same thing. He had a long history of depression. He had been inpatient and had come back home and was getting some of the support that is needed. But one day, his sister came to check on him, and he was gone,” said Thingvold.
Once again, the pain of suicide was rippling through the entire family.
“I just had this desperation and this gut-wrenching sickness for his family that is still there," she said. "I was sick for his wife, Benita, and their three children."
Less than five years later, the family would once again face the trauma of suicide with Steve’s death. While Steve was four years younger than Heather, he clearly felt a sense of responsibility for her because of some abuse Heather endured as a child by a family friend.
“He blamed himself for some stuff that happened to me, and to numb it, he drank,” she said. "He wanted to know how I could get over things and live a normal life and he couldn’t.”
Steve, a father of four, went through alcohol treatment a few different times over the years, and was clean for three years, when he injured his back at work and needed surgery. He refused pain meds after the first surgery to his back, but the second one was much more invasive, and she says the surgeon insisted the pain medication would be necessary. And although he initially took some, Thingvold says rather than taking the chance of getting hooked on the meds, he chose to quit cold turkey. She says he then figured since he no longer craved alcohol, it would be safe to use it to numb his pain.
“And with that, he completely went backwards,” she said. “Because he broke his sobriety, he felt he disappointed everybody. It was a downward spiral after that.”
He was just 41 years old and had to use a walker around the house. His sister says he became increasingly depressed when doctors told him he needed a third surgery. Thingvold says he didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. That is when, according to Thingvold, Steve started talking about death.
“Though it had been so many years, he was actually talking about my grandparents and Joe and Tim, all of the people he’d want to see again if he were to die,” she said.
At that point, Thingvold said there was no mincing words with him.
“I asked him straight out if he was suicidal. He told us he needed help, but he couldn’t get it,” she said. "He was very open about where he was at. He was actively telling us, making calls, attempting to get prior authorization from insurance for inpatient treatment and reaching out to treatment centers. He said his brain was broken and nobody could fix it. He couldn’t fix his thought process. He couldn't get out of that cycle.”
In the end, Thingvold feels the system failed him.
She says one cry for help came at 1:43 a.m. one morning in September of 2018. Because she had her phone turned off, Thingvold didn’t see the text from her brother until 5 a.m. When she tried to return his call, Steve did not answer. She immediately got in her car and drove to Fertile, Minn., where he lived, to check on him.
“I was just praying that he’d wake up when I got there. I was praying that he was alive,” she said.
When Thingvold arrived, Steve’s dog, Charlie, met her at the door. She called out a couple of times, and as she entered his room, Steve woke up. He was not happy about waking up; in fact, she says he was actually angry. He had taken a bunch of pills the night before with the plan to overdose and not wake up. She rushed him to Fargo, where he was admitted for the weekend, but says he was released with no plan for the future, even though he told them he had attempted suicide and was still suicidal.
Over the next two months, Thingvold says her brother attempted suicide two more times. On Nov. 9, 2018, Thingvold says Steve seemed like he was actually having a good day. But later that night, Thingvold says her mother called her and said "something feels off."
Thingvold and her niece, Steve’s oldest daughter, then 19, drove to Fertile in the early morning hours of the 10th to check up on him.
“On the way there, on the side of the road, I saw a gray wolf. I’ve never seen one out in the wild before, and it was just that feeling of doom, like somebody was trying to prepare me for something really, really bad,” she said.
Thingvold walked into the house to find her brother had taken his own life.
It doesn’t have to be this way
Thingvold says during her brother’s months-long struggles, many members of the family were checking into how to get Steve help.
“Because he wasn’t actively drinking, he couldn’t be admitted for that. For the suicidal ideation and the depression, there wasn’t an available bed,” she said. “There was even a three-week wait for the outpatient program. How is somebody that is actively suicidal supposed to wait for three weeks to start treatment?”
Steve was planning to start an outpatient program on Monday, Nov. 13. While attending the outpatient program, he was to stay at Thingvold’s home.
“He just had that really bad evening,” she said. “He couldn’t hold on. I truly believe that he thought he was doing us a favor.”
Thingvold says nothing could be farther from the truth.
“I think it just gets to that point where somebody feels so isolated and alone, that they think that they're such a burden to everyone because of something that happened. And there is never something that happened that could be bad enough that people would want you to take your own life,” she said. "Situations are temporary, suicide is permanent. The pain never goes away."
Thingvold says while some people might wish to push the pain away and try to move on, their family has wanted to raise awareness about suicide by participating in fundraisers and also pointing out what they say are serious shortcomings of our healthcare system.
“Our nation doesn't have the infrastructure to support people with psychological issues, such as suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety, and it's a disservice, it truly is just a disservice,” she said.
Thingvold, a registered nurse, says she believes part of the problem also lies with a lack of supervision with people on antipsychotic and antidepressant medication.
“They throw a med at you," she said. "If it’s not working, they take you off the med, then they start another med without the other one clearing your system. Antidepressants alone put you through such a whirlwind of emotions and state of mind."
She says because of the strain on those treating addiction and mental health, time is limited for following up on the use of medications, and she says there just isn’t a good system in place to monitor it.
“For example, there is for Coumadin (a blood thinner) to monitor your blood levels, things like that,” she said. “But when it comes to the emotional well being, we don’t have a good, solid system in place to help monitor that.”
Thingvold also says there needs to be a real conversation about insurance reimbursement for the treatment of people who have a mental illness, those who suffer from depression, and for those that have or still do consider suicide.
While there is a need for comprehensive systemic changes to meet the needs of those contemplating suicide, Thingvold says help can also come on a personal level — not just from families like hers, who have experienced suicide first hand, but from everyone.
“If it’s somebody in your classroom, at work, or somebody you're walking alongside the street, we all have the opportunity to make the difference in somebody's life that could make or break them. I don’t think we all realize that we have the power to do that,” she said. “You know, you might be the last straw to somebody who's having a really bad day or the ray of light that changes somebody's mind. Which would you rather be? Treat people with respect, be kind and know that everybody's facing their own battles. I think it's so important.”