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KC area family hopes service dog will help daughter battle mental illness at college

LeiLoni service dog
Posted at 4:00 AM, Apr 04, 2022

EDGERTON, Kan. — Many parents know the fear that comes with sending a child to college, especially if the school is in a different part of the country.

But one local family has an extra layer of apprehension because the daughter who's leaving struggles with clinical depression, major anxiety and has even considered suicide.

"One night about 10:30, we got a knock at the door, which terrified me,” Laura DePew said. “It was a police officer, saying that they'd just gotten a call from somebody that knew LeiLoni, and that she was suicidal."

Laura DePew can't forget the night at her Edgerton home in March of 2020. Her daughter LeiLoni remembers the hours leading up to it.

"That day, I had had two people tell me to kill myself," LeiLoni said. "I just didn't want to deal with it anymore. I started thinking about, we don't have guns in our house, but we have this knife, and it could definitely do some damage. That was the thought I had, those were the words I thought."

At just 15 years old, she texted a friend about her deadly plans.

"Had my friend not called the police, I probably would have killed myself," LeiLoni said.

“That was the turning point," Laura said.

LeiLoni says that for years, kids at school told her to kill herself. By the time she got to high school, she says it happened almost every day.

But the details of those conversations weren't shared with her parents.

"She was coming home crying because she's not included in things, or bodies change at that age, and her body didn't look like the other girls' bodies," Laura said. “I actually didn't realize how bad it was."

Not long after the night police knocked on their door, the pandemic forced students to learn from home. LeiLoni never went back, and her family dynamic was forever changed.

"It took us probably a good year, a year and a half, before we left her alone," Laura said.

Since then, LeiLoni has been homeschooling through Lawrence Virtual School and focusing on the things that give her comfort — the musical instruments in her basement studio, and her collection of stuffed animals, including the Winnie the Pooh doll she carries with her almost everywhere. She says she's better now.

"I still have some days where I feel like I'm worthless or like people don't want me around," LeiLoni said. “I've gotten a lot better at advocating for myself and helping myself feel noticed and feel better than I did."

In the fall, she's planning to attend Utah State University, pursuing a career in deaf education.

That campus is 1,100 miles away.

"That's not a day's drive, that's a two-day drive,” Laura said. “How am I going to get to her if something happens, and she can't deal with it? I’m still not comfortable.”

That, hopefully, is where Cali, a service dog being trained in California right now, comes in.

"In a way, it's a little bit of a replacement of me, because I can't be there with her," Laura said.

Britany Morano founded Cornerstone Companions to pair service dogs with people who need help. She trains her dogs to, among other things, retrieve phones or medicine and interrupt repetitive behavior that can accompany depression or anxiety.

"The reason I chose Cali for LeiLoni specifically is because she's a higher energy dog,” Morano said. “And sometimes people with depression and anxiety need a little bit of a jump start if you will, a little bit of a push."

LeiLoni, who's never had a dog, knows what else Cali can do for her.

"Cali is gonna be a reason for me to get up every day,” LeiLoni said. “To take care of her, and to get outside, and go on a walk and stuff like that."

But Cali is also a gentle reminder to the people in LeiLoni's future, of the weight she's working hard to carry.

"If somebody has a cast on their arm, it's a physical disability that you can see," Laura said. “I was reading a blog that said, ‘I wish I could just put a cast on my head so that people could physically see that I have a disability.'"

The family and Morano both stress that Cali is a service dog, not an emotional support animal.

Laura also tried to make sure it's not just the dog that she's depending on to help her daughter. She has at least five different friends or family members with who she's made plans with who can get to LeiLoni in just a couple of hours if need be. Still, she says the family has regular conversations on whether or not LeiLoni should go.

LeiLoni gave KSHB 41 permission to speak to her psychologist, Dr. Stephen Lassen. Lassen offered insight into what her treatment has been like, and why parents need to know just how common suicidal thoughts are. Remember, LeiLoni's parents had no idea until the night police showed up at their door.

"We don't go around telling people about it, but when we ask people if they've had thoughts like that, 7%, 8%, 9% have had those thoughts before," Lassen said. “We've seen rates of 20-30% increases both for adults and children in suicidal thinking as well as gesturing over the past five to six years."

He said parents need to have open conversations with their kids about mental health.

"We have to be willing to hear some hard things that may be uncomfortable for us to hear, and be willing to have an open dialogue with kids about this," Lassen said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there is help available 24/7. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

More about LeiLoni's story and their effort to get a service dog can be found online.