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Seven months ago, Eric Dyches was in his car, on his way to help his wife calm down from a severe panic attack, when his father-in-law delivered the shocking news: Emily Cook Dyches had jumped out of his vehicle on the interstate and ran directly into the path of a semi-truck. She’d been killed instantly.
The Salem, Utah, mother of five had suffered from postpartum depression for more than a year since the birth of her last child, Trey, but nobody dreamed that her perinatal mood disorder would lead to her death.
“She’d spent the day with her parents and her dad was driving her home when she became so anxious that she panicked and he had to pull over,” Eric, 39, tells PEOPLE. “I was on the phone with my father-in-law when she jumped out.”
After gathering his children around that afternoon to tell them that their mother wouldn’t be coming home, Dyches felt strongly that he had do something in Emily’s honor to help other women who suffered from debilitating postpartum depression.
Several weeks after Emily’s memorial service, he started The Emily Effect, a foundation and online help center for women experiencing perinatal mood disorders. Run by Dyches and a small band of volunteers, the organization focuses on directing women to resources, including therapists specializing in postpartum issues, and doing away with the stigma associated with mental disorders.
“When Emily first started having anxiety and depression, it was maddening trying to find the right help,” says Dyches, who works as director of operations for a Utah County investment firm. “There were many times when I felt like we’d exhausted our options and didn’t have anywhere else to turn.”
“Then there was the feeling of ‘self shaming’ that Emily had to deal with,” he adds. “It was that feeling of, ‘We can’t see it, so it must not be true.’ She felt like she was the only one going through this, because all of the other moms she saw were putting their best foot forward. She felt incredibly alone.”
Emily, of course, was not alone, he now realizes, as witnessed by the hundreds of personal stories that women have left on his website about their own emotional struggles after giving birth.
When Jena Christiansen, 32, a mother of four, heard about Emily’s death from a friend, “everything about her and her story resonated with me,” says the Hurricane, Utah, marketing rep.
“I started having postpartum depression after my second child, and by my fourth, I would contemplate driving off a cliff or in front of a truck,” she says. “It was a daily battle to get up and function.”
After reading stories about other mothers’ depression on The Emily Effect website, Christiansen realized how much goodness was in her life.
“I had ‘EM’ tattooed on my left wrist – it stands for something much bigger than myself,” she tells PEOPLE. “It’s also been a reminder, especially on my bad days, that I have to do this life. My kids need me and I need them.”
Shea Jackson, a homemaker from Perry, Utah, who suffered severe depression and anxiety after the birth of each of her four girls, finally decided to seek help after coming across The Emily Effect website.
“Reading Emily’s story made me realize the seriousness of what I was feeling,” says Jackson, “and it made me realize that anxiety is not a weakness. Although I never knew Emily, I feel an empathy and closeness to her. We shared the same feelings.”
Emily Cook Dyches, simply known to her family as “Em,” had a sunny personality that blended perfectly with her roles as a mother, photographer and piano teacher, says Eric, who met his wife in the third grade and married her in 1998 when they were both attending college.
“When we started raising a family, she had minor baby blues after the births of our other children,” he tells PEOPLE, “but things got progressively worse after she had Trey in March 2015.”
Normally cheerful with a soothing demeanor, Emily suddenly became frighteningly unpredictable, with wide mood swings that required treatment in a psychiatric care unit for almost two weeks.
“She was in there with convicted felons – they were not equipped to handle new moms or visits from children,” Eric says. “When we got home and she was on medication, the switch would be flipped off and she’d seem fine. But it always came back with a vengeance.”
An estimated 15 to 20 percent of all women experience postpartum depression and anxiety, making it the No. 1 complication of childbirth, Amy-Rose White, a perinatal psychotherapist and founder of the Utah Maternal Mental Health Collaborative, tells PEOPLE.
“The silver lining is that although women are at highest risk for mental illness during their reproductive years, they also respond to treatment better than at any other time,” says White. “I’m in awe of the courage and determination of the Dyches family as they work tirelessly to ensure other women do not suffer Emily’s fate. The most important message they are spreading is one of awareness.”
In spite of Emily’s depression, says Eric Dyches, his wife still found time to care for Trey, now 1, and snuggle with her other children – Jace, 15, Addison, 13, Kolby, 10 and Macie, 6.
“More than anything, she loved being a mom – it was what she loved most in life,” Eric says. “And she was very good at it. She was so engaging and warm and magnetic. She made our house a home.”
After realizing that what happened to his wife could happen to any mother, “I sat down with the kids and we decided to raise awareness about perinatal mood disorders,” he tells PEOPLE. “It’s been therapeutic for all of us to help normalize the conversation so that moms experiencing problems will know that it’s OK to get help.”
Dyches, who recently found love again and was remarried on Sept. 1 to Leslie Huntsman, a college friend of Emily’s, hopes that The Emily Effect will help women know that there is no shame in having postpartum depression.
“Our goal is to help save lives and let them know there is hope and help out there,” he says. “Emily wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”