Kentucky flood victim’s family calls for more mental health services as region recovers

Provided by Showhouse Productions

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A Kentucky actor and screenwriter’s death following devastating flooding in late July is being investigated as a suicide, and his friends and family hope the incident emphasizes the need for mental health services as part of Eastern Kentucky’s recovery.

Tony Calhoun, 52, who lost everything he owned in the Breathitt County floods, killed himself Monday morning, said Calhoun’s fiancée, Edith Heather Lisk.

Breathitt Coroner Hargis Epperson said Calhoun’s death is being investigated as a suicide. Gov. Andy Beshear is counting Calhoun as the 39th death in the state flood toll.

Calhoun’s parents, Betty and Lowell Thomas Calhoun, said that if even one person could be helped by talking about Calhoun’s death , it will be worth them telling his story.

Betty Calhoun said her son was emotional after he lost his belongings, including memorabilia that he had collected since he was 5 years old, but he was proud that he had not broken down in tears.

What happened on Monday, she said, “was his way of breaking down.”

Epperson, Calhoun’s parents and his fiancée all hope that in light of Calhoun’s death, President Joe Biden, Beshear and other state and federal officials will make sure flood victims get mental health services.

Flood victims, Betty Calhoun said, should be assured by mental health professionals “that they don’t need to give up on life, that they can start over.”

Hundreds of people in Eastern Kentucky have no place to go home to, Epperson said, and they need guidance, support, mental health therapy and counseling for next steps.

“Their homes are gone,” he said.

Everything in Calhoun’s collection from first edition comics to ballcards were destroyed in the flood that took his home, Lisk said.

“He did lose his home and everything he had worked for and collected since he was” 5 or 6 years old, said Lisk. Tony was also trying to take care of his parents, clean out his house, and clean out his parents basement and trailer that had flooded. He was denied help by FEMA because he had homeowners insurance, she said.

“I was trying to provide him with as much information as I could find to help him and his parents. Help for hot meals, water, cleanup,” she said.

Lisk was out of state caring for her own parents, but the two planned to marry.

“He was the love of my life,” she said.

Lisk is hoping that her fiancé’s life and death puts a priority on mental health and provides more help to caregivers.

“Also, awareness on how the floods are impacting people’s lives in Eastern Kentucky outside of just a loss of property,” she said.

Kentucky River Community Care is the state designated mental health center for Breathitt, Letcher, Knott, Perry, Leslie, Wolfe, Lee and Owsley counties, said Mary Meade-McKenzie, CEO and executive director of KRCC. Those in need of mental health services and crisis counseling can call 1-800-292-7491 or talk to KRCC staffers on the ground at shelters and distribution centers, identifiable by KRCC t-shirts.

Actor, son and partner

Friend Charles Shouse said Calhoun was an actor, a screenwriter and a film producer. Shouse said several years ago, before the COVID pandemic, he and Calhoun were preparing to produce a feature film called “Bad Tom.” Calhoun wrote the script and Shouse was going to direct it.

Shouse and Calhoun also made the documentary “The Untold Story of Bad Tom Smith,” which was narrated by Tom Wopat and aired on KET as well as other TV stations in Kentucky, Shouse said.

Calhoun had several undergraduate degrees. His parents said a school psychologist once told them that Calhoun tested at near genius level.

He was an only child and doting son who nursed his parents through sickness.

Betty Calhoun said he had been helping her and her husband with physical therapy and an improved diet which allowed them to care for themselves after periods of ill heath.

A Bible by his side when he died, “his faith in God and Jesus Christ was solid,” Lisk said.

Lisk said Calhoun asked her to get saved just before he died. Betty Calhoun said he asked his parents to pray so that he could see them again in heaven.