Sixteen months after Wayne Elhart's death, his wife finally found the note he left behind.
"I love you all," it said. "This depression has gotten the best of me. Please don't blame yourself. Please use me to help others."
Today, that's exactly what his brother, Jeff Elhart, is doing. The president of Elhart Automotive Campus in Holland, Mich., has worked to bring mental health awareness and suicide prevention programs into his family-owned dealership, high schools, faith organizations and beyond.
That mission continued Thursday, when Elhart and Christy Buck, executive director of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan and founder of the Be Nice. educational program, discussed their efforts at the NADA Show.
In the U.S., about 20 percent of the population grapples with depression or anxiety according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Elhart and Buck want to bring awareness to the subject, especially at a time when the pandemic may be a catalyst for distress.
"There's not a single person in the world that hasn't been affected somehow by the pandemic," Buck said.
Chiefly, awareness comes in the form of the Be Nice. campaign, which is an acronym — Notice, Invite, Challenge, Empower — that outlines a road map others can use to offer help to anyone struggling.
"We find society either says, 'This is far too complicated,' or the other pet peeve of mine is, 'We just need to talk about it,' " Elhart said. "Well, talking about it without an action plan probably does more harm than good."
The Elhart brothers were business partners for 32 years at the family-owned dealership, which sells GMC, Hyundai, Kia, Genesis and Nissan vehicles. They used to sell other General Motors brands and Chrysler vehicles, but the turbulence surrounding the automakers' bankruptcies a decade ago trickled down to the dealerships.
Those financial crises set the stage for the depression that overtook Wayne Elhart, his brother said. Wayne died by suicide on March 25, 2015.
Within a matter of months, Jeff Elhart had collaborated with Buck and sought to bring the Be Nice. curriculum to the dealership's 110 employees. In the years since, he has woven it into the dealership's culture.
A monthly check-in with each employee incorporates the programming. As a result, Elhart says one employee felt compelled to share stories of a family member's long-ago suicide attempt and seek therapy. About four years ago, a suicidal employee sat in a closed garage with his vehicle engine running — but felt compelled to call another employee for help.
Elhart says he's heartened by the frequency with which employees come forward to share their mental health struggles.
The Be Nice. programming works, he said. It's one reason he wanted to share the message at the NADA Show, and why the Wayne Elhart Be Nice. Memorial Fund will pay for half of the $1,500 cost for the first 50 dealerships that sign up for the program.
"We need to nip depression and anxiety in the bud," Elhart said. "When you create a culture of one iconic language, a simple language, you can do that."