One morning when she was around five years old, Suzanne Crouch woke up in a tiny panic.
“Where’s mom?” she asked her dad.
“She went to see the doctor for her nerve medicine,” he replied matter-of-factly.
Though the little girl had no clue what that meant, her father didn’t seem worried. And so, neither was she. Crouch assumed her mother was sick and the medicine would make her feel better. To that point, when her mother returned home later that day, she seemed fine. Nothing more was said about the event, but Mary Crouch would return to the doctor’s office again and again. It is unclear what “nerve medicine” the doctor prescribed. But we can guess it was probably something like the mild tranquilizer Miltown, which was widely prescribed to patients with anxiety disorders during the 1950s. A popular precursor to Valium, it was said to “calm the nerves.”
Nerve medicine, if you will.
For Crouch, the incident held little significance back then. “When you’re very young, you think every family is like yours,” she says. “It wasn’t until I was older that I realized my family was different than other families. Not bad, necessarily, but different.”
Fast forward through the decades, and Crouch is now the 71-year-old two-term lieutenant governor of Indiana, and she’s in the running to become the Republican nominee for governor in 2024. Over a political career spanning nearly 30 years, she served as a county auditor, county commissioner, state representative, and state auditor before taking office as Governor Eric Holcomb’s running mate.
In the past few months, she has crisscrossed the state, visiting county fairs, marching in parades, and attending GOP picnics and dinners. Her campaign includes a strong focus on Indiana’s mental health crisis, an epidemic that impacts Hoosiers at every socioeconomic level. Earlier this year, she took the unusual step of testifying before both the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House Public Health Committee to speak in support of legislation that would provide more resources for community mental health centers and expand the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline to include mobile crisis response teams. She believes treatment must be accessible and affordable and that there must be a sustainable funding source, along with continuing efforts to reduce the stigma that keeps people from seeking treatment. “We’ve got to get people help. We can’t afford not to,” she says.
I caught up with Crouch in May at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Indianapolis, where the inaugural Indiana Roundtable on Mental Health Summit was underway. Crouch helped spearhead the daylong event, which hosted nearly 500 attendees, including mental and behavioral health professionals and business, community, and faith leaders from across Indiana. Crouch moved between meetings, jotting down notes and talking with other attendees between breakout sessions that covered topics from school-based prevention and early intervention, to employee-retention strategies that support mental health, to the role faith communities can play.
When Crouch discusses mental illness, she speaks with urgency. She has her talking points, of course. One in five Hoosiers is living with a mental illness or substance use disorder, she often states. It’s a crisis costing Indiana more than $4 billion a year.
The numbers are eye-opening on their own, but when Crouch puts names and faces to the statistics, it gets personal. She often drives her point home with the phrase, “No family is immune from the disease, including my own.” Indeed, it wasn’t just Crouch’s mother who experienced bouts of anxiety and depression. One of her sisters, her older brother, and her daughter also struggled with mental illness or substance use disorder to varying degrees, with her sister’s struggle leading to her dying by suicide in her early 20s.
Crouch didn’t talk about this publicly until the Covid-19 pandemic drove those issues to the forefront with an unprecedented number of people suddenly grappling with feelings of isolation, loneliness, and loss of control. “We all went through a mental health challenge. It might have been fear, anxiety, or depression,” she says. “But now there’s more awareness and acceptance [of mental health issues].”
Despite the reassurance of shared experience, revealing her family history was initially difficult and uncomfortable. “You’re making public a private part of your life,” she says. At first, she shared bits and pieces of her family history in speeches and news stories, including an extensive interview with thestatehousefile.com in January. Crouch briefly referenced her mother’s depression, her sister’s death, and her brother’s chronic alcoholism. “I have grown up with family members that have suffered with mental illness and addiction, and that is what drove me to be an advocate.”
Here was someone in the public eye—an elected official—revealing private, sensitive information about her life. I wanted to know more. What was it like growing up amid that backdrop? How had it impacted her life and, ultimately, her decision to begin sharing her family story? I asked if she would share more of her personal journey, and she agreed. A month later, I drove to her address in Evansville for what I was sure would be a heavily guarded interview, probably with some public-relations presence in the room.
At her home, I was greeted by her husband, Larry, a retired labor attorney, and their Norfolk terrier, Bubby. But both quickly retreated to a back room while the lieutenant governor and I sat down at the dining room table. Surprisingly, there were no aides nearby to keep tabs on our conversation or “clarify” anything she might say. Over the next three hours, it was just the two of us as she shared the stories from her past—deeply personal and often painful—that explain why she chose to get so involved in mental health and substance abuse issues.
Suzanne Crouch was born in Evansville to Mary and Lawrence “Edgar” Crouch Jr., the second of five children. When she was four years old, her father, a mechanical engineer with International Harvester, transferred to the Chicago plant. Eight years later, he moved his growing family back to Evansville to start his own business, Consumer Concrete Block Products. They lived on the west side of Evansville, an old, working-class area where waves of German immigrants settled in the mid- to late 1800s.
During a driving tour of sites from her Evansville childhood, Crouch showed me three homes where the family had lived. The one they moved into after returning from Chicago was a small four-room house her parents rented so they’d have more money to invest in the new business. Crouch says her parents slept in one bedroom and the four girls in another. Her brother Larry, the eldest sibling and only boy, was in the basement. Though money was tight, the kids attended 12 years of Catholic school. Crouch remembers her mom sewing clothes and stretching meals to squirrel away every penny she could.
She recalls her childhood as normal but not always easy. “I was really tall—5-foot-8—in grade school,” she says. “It was painful because you want to fit in, and I didn’t.” Her classmates made fun of her, calling her the Jolly Green Giant. When she told her dad about the razzing, he instructed her to turn it into a joke. “Don’t let them know it bothers you,” he said. So she began responding to the taunts with a hearty, “Ho, ho, ho!” mimicking the canned vegetable brand’s mascot’s catchphrase, and the teasing stopped.
Her brother looked out for her, as well, but Crouch says he could also “be a bit of a bully.” Once when she was around six years old, he began picking on her. She warned him, “If you don’t stop, I’m going to cold-cock you.” He stuck out his chin and told her to go ahead and try. “So I hauled off and cold-cocked him, knocked him to the ground, and ran like heck,” she laughs. “He quit bothering me after that.” Crouch says those experiences taught her not only to stand up for herself but also to be more accepting of people who are different.
After graduating from Mater Dei High School in 1970, Crouch attended the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville because her dad had insisted his college-bound children spend their first year of school in town. Crouch transferred to Purdue University the following year and majored in political science. Her sister Nancy, 18 months younger, joined her in West Lafayette two years later to pursue a degree in English. Crouch describes Nancy as a quiet, kind, and gentle soul who was artistic and loved to write. But the family soon discovered Nancy had been silently struggling with depression. During her first year at Purdue, she attempted to take her own life and was admitted to a mental health hospital for a few weeks.
No one saw it coming, but her parents thought the incident could have been prompted by a recent head injury stemming from a car wreck that happened as she and Crouch were driving to West Lafayette. The driver in front of them slammed on the brakes, and the cars collided. Nancy smacked her head on the dashboard and broke a cheekbone.
Nancy’s doctors, however, diagnosed her as manic-depressive, which is now referred to as bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that causes mood swings ranging from mania to depression and that can be managed with medication and counseling. The family attended one counseling session to help them understand Nancy’s condition. After that, there was no further discussion of it. “We just kind of blamed it on the car wreck and had no real knowledge of mental illness at that time,” Crouch says. “We just assumed she’d get better.”
She didn’t. Upon returning to Purdue that fall, Nancy attempted suicide a second time—and then a third time, which resulted in her death. When Crouch later read Nancy’s journals, she saw “what a dark place” her sister was in. But the family didn’t talk about it back then, which was not unusual for that era. It was years before Crouch began delving into Nancy’s death and other life-altering events. Tragedy would strike the family several more times. Crouch’s sister Shannon, who had been living with Crouch and her husband, died in a car wreck in December of 1980 at the age of 22. In October 2022, Crouch also lost her brother Larry to alcohol-related illness. He was 72, divorced, and estranged from his family. While he was “off-the-charts smart,” according to Crouch, he essentially “drank himself to death. He had the gene.”
Yet, the lowest point in Crouch’s life involved her daughter, Courtney. A good student throughout high school, she was accepted at a prestigious northeastern university. She dropped out less than two months later, the result of heavy drinking and skipping class. (Now 36, Courtney says she can trace her troubles back to a time in high school, when she lost someone close to her to cancer and began drinking to numb the pain.)
Courtney returned home after dropping out and began seeing a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. Intent on returning to school, she got a scholarship to a university in New Orleans. But once there, she began binge drinking again. Her parents pulled her out of school and got her into a series of facilities and treatment centers to help her overcome what was determined to be Stage 4 alcoholism—the point at which a person loses control over drinking and their body needs alcohol to function, according to a widely used measure called the Jellinek Curve. Her mom (a state legislator at the time) recalls attending a parents’ weekend at a residential treatment center in Florida, during which parents were asked to share how they felt. “I said I felt hopeless,” Crouch says. “I just remember feeling that way.”
But today, Courtney is 16 years sober. Having quit before she turned 21, she’s happy to say that she has “never had a legal drink.” She credits her parents for being so supportive and is proud that her mom is “being vulnerable” in using her platform to give others the opportunity to seek help. “Mental illness does not discriminate. It’s not something you do to yourself. It’s inherited and can be managed,” Courtney says. “If you’re a diabetic, you take insulin. If you’re bipolar, you take medicine, as well.”
While Crouch escaped the afflictions and demons that haunted several members of her family, her life was profoundly affected by a traumatic brush with death in the 1970s. A newly married realtor in her mid-20s, she received a call late one Friday afternoon from a man who said he was an executive with a large local company who was considering a move to Evansville. He wanted to see some homes but had to fly out early the next morning. Did she have time that evening to give a new client the lay of the land?
Excited by the opportunity, Crouch said sure. She picked him up in front of a hotel on that rainy night and showed him several properties. But as they drove down one country road, the situation suddenly turned terrifying. “He pulled out a gun,” Crouch recalls. “He put it to my head, cocked it, and said, ‘We can do this the easy way or the hard way.’ My life literally flashed before my eyes.”
Filled with panic, Crouch knew she had only one chance to get away. She asked if he would put his gun down on the floorboard and help her remove her raincoat. When he did so, Crouch threw the coat over his head and bolted out of the car. As she ran down a gravel road in high heels, the man gave chase but stopped after she tried to kick him in the groin. She kept running up an embankment and across a corn field to a house with its lights on—the home of a deputy sheriff. She was out of breath but safe. Her assailant took off in her car and got away.
Many months later while thumbing through mug shots of suspects picked up for similar crimes elsewhere, Crouch recognized her attacker. He was being held in another city on multiple charges of rape and at least two murders in several states. His M.O. sounded chillingly familiar. “He would pick a city, go there, and get the realtor book,” Crouch says.
The assault shattered Crouch’s sense of safety. When her husband was away on business, she would place dinner knives in the narrow space between the door jamb and the top of the front door. If someone tried to break into her apartment, the knives would fall to the floor, and she’d hear the commotion and grab the large butcher knife stowed beneath her mattress. She never learned what happened to the man who attacked her (though she hopes and presumes he was convicted and sentenced). Eventually, the incident became a distant memory.
When Crouch looks back on the things that have happened in her life—from the early loss of a loved one, to her family’s struggles with addiction, to her own horrifying near-miss—she doesn’t ask, “Why me?” Instead, she figures, “Why not me?”
Her mother lived to be 91, long enough to see Crouch sworn in as lieutenant governor in 2017. It was a few more years before Crouch found her voice and decided to share her family story. Now, people come up to her with their own stories about loved ones lost to addiction or mental illness. “Even legislators have started to share part of their stories,” she says. “I think that’s how we start on this journey of recovery, by just talking about it and normalizing it.”