Out of the Darkness: Panhandle beauty queen struggled with mental illness
ALLIANCE — She liked to fly high like a butterfly. She could make that come true as a member of the cheerleading team who was tossed in the air as part of the performances. She had her future planned out.
Kaelia Shae Nelson would have been 22 on Sept. 17.
By all accounts, Kaelia was one of the most genuine people you would ever meet. From the time she was a baby, Kaelia was independent, strong-willed and smart.
“If she was in trouble, she would walk herself to her room for a time out,” said Mark, Kaelia’s father.
She was a talented dancer, who loved contemporary dance. When she glided across the stage, the audience could feel her emotions, especially in dances she choreographed herself. She was a fixer and planned to be a counselor one day.
Mark describes his daughter as having, “genuine to the core natural beauty.”
“She was a petite powerhouse,” Mark said. “She was five-foot-one, 97 pounds of beautiful.”
Kaelia grew up in Alliance, the youngest of three siblings. She adored her two older brothers. She had a natural stage presence and loved children. Her plans were to return to the Alliance area and be a school counselor.
After Mark’s mother died in August 2017, Kaelia asked if her grandmother’s house was something she could move into when she was finished with college.
“There may be some people who have thoughts of suicide and can’t see past today,” Mark said. “But she was a visionary in her life. She had methodically planned out her life.”
Mark and Shardel will take part in the Scottsbluff and Alliance Out of the Darkness walks on Saturday, Sept. 8, and Saturday, Sept. 15. The primary goal of Out of the Darkness community walks is to raise awareness of the devastating effects of suicide and to raise funds for local and national suicide prevention and awareness programs. Janelle Visser, health educator for Panhandle Public Health District, said the walks provide an opportunity for people to see there are other supporters.
“Nobody is alone in going through this,” Visser said. “You see it the day of the walk.”
Kaelia struggled with her mental health issues, but was open about it. She used her platform as Miss Chadron to raise awareness to the stigma surrounding mental health.
“Suicide is a public health problem and is plagued by silence and stigma that continue to be barriers for seeking help,” Visser stated. “These walks help bring suicide out of the darkness and raise money for education, prevention and awareness programs.”
Kaelia’s mother, Shardel, believes there are two types of stigma. The first is the stigma the general public puts on a person. The second is the stigma a person puts on themselves.
“For some reason, they can’t accept it either,” Shardel said. “They don’t want to have the mental illness either.”
Mark said he felt Kaelia wanted to handle things on her own as an adult. She was looking to find her way as an individual and thought she could do it alone.
“She didn’t want to talk to us about it,” Shardel said.
Kaelia revealed her struggles to her parents during her senior year of high school. She was depressed and began seeing a counselor. Still, Kaelia wanted to try to be an adult and take care of herself.
In June 2016, Kaelia texted her mother. Shardel was on her way home from North Platte. Shardel heard Kaelia say, “Mom,” before she lost the signal. When Shardel was able to call her back, Kaelia said, “Nevermind. I had a question, but I figured it out.”
Shardel kept driving and didn’t think anything of the conversation. A short while later, Kaelia called again.
“Mom, I took a bunch of pills.” Kaelia had called for an ambulance for herself and she needed to hang up because it had arrived.
“There’s that panic that sets in,” Shardel said. “I turned the car around and headed toward Lincoln where Kaelia was at.”
Kaelia was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar. After that attempt, Mark and Shardel thought Kaelia was doing better. Kaelia tried to be so strong, but she didn’t want to talk.
“That’s where that stigma comes in,” Shardel said. “You don’t want others to know how bad you’re struggling.”
Kaelia transferred to Peru State College after spending a year-and-a-half at Nebraska Wesleyan. She chose to give her parents the “big picture” story about the transfer. It was cheaper and there were better opportunities for cheerleading. Her boyfriend was also a freshman there.
“She didn’t want us to know that he was one of the reasons why she transferred,” Mark said. “She was guarded in that relationship and was trying to help him be a better person.”
Mark believes Kaelia took on a lot with her new boyfriend.
“What she had going on with her mental illness, she needed someone to guide her instead of being the guide,” he said. “She kind of gave up a lot of herself and lost herself along the way.”
Kaelia had attempted suicide three times. Mark said each time it was in relation to issues with her boyfriend. Her first attempt was in January 2016. Shardel said after Mark’s mother and a good friend of Kaelia’s died, Kaelia struggled with the issue of death.
TRYING TO DO IT ALONE
Kaelia also had other stressors in her life. She had received a concussion, her second, after being dropped during a toss in cheerleading practice. Once she had recovered, she tried to get her academic career back on track.
Her parents had come to visit her that fateful weekend.
Mark breathes deeply as he recalls the last day they spent with Kaelia. He and Shardel were with Kaelia the entire day, including homecoming on Saturday night. She insisted her boyfriend didn’t want to join them for dinner that night because he was in a bad mood. What they didn’t know and didn’t learn until later was that she had broken up with her boyfriend that day.
“When she broke up with him, it broke her to the core,” Mark said.
He turns away, holding back the tears. He wishes she had called them, reached out to them.
Sobbing, Shardel says Kaelia never let on there was anything wrong.
Mark worried that because Kaelia kept some of her personal issues private, she may be doing the same with her counselor. He agonized over contacting her counselor. He knew the counselor couldn’t provide any information, but he also knew her boyfriend was a large stress in her life. In fall 2016, he made the call.
“I said, ‘I know you can’t say anything, but as a concerned parent, if she is not divulging issues with her boyfriend, that needs to be looked at,’” Mark said.
Kaelia called Mark a few days later even though she usually texted. She informed Mark that if he ever called her counselor again, she would quit going.
Kaelia tried to keep seeing her counselor, but she missed some appointments and was told she could no longer come. Shardel is angry Kaelia was dropped from counseling. Kaelia was 75 minutes away from her counselor. They closed at 5 p.m. and she had classes she was trying to attend.
“I had found someone open until 8:30 p.m. in Nebraska City,” Shardel said. She stops momentarily and puts her hand over her mouth to keep from weeping. Tears flow freely down her face and over her hand. “I was going to talk to her on that Sunday about it and I never got to.”
Mark, Shardel and Kaelia had plans for Sunday. She told them Saturday night she wanted to sleep in Sunday morning, but she needed to get more groceries for her dorm room in Nebraska City.
As Sunday began to drag on and they didn’t hear from her, Shardel called and texted Kaelia and her boyfriend. They drove from Nebraska City to Peru State College. Along the way, Shardel kept looking in the ditch for Kaelia’s car.
“Her heart’s already worried,” Mark said.
They arrived on campus and went to Kaelia’s room, but the door was locked. There was no answer.
The Nelsons’ story will continue in Saturday’s Star-Herald.