Meet the Father-Daughter Duo Who Created a Comic Book Hero to Help Teens Struggling With Mental Health (Exclusive)

Ethan Sacks was sitting in the cafeteria at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital in March 2019, overwhelmed with guilt and fear

Published Time: 09.06.2024 - 20:31:09 Modified Time: 09.06.2024 - 20:31:09

Ethan Sacks was sitting in the cafeteria at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital in March 2019, overwhelmed with guilt and fear. His 15-year-old daughter Naomi was upstairs in the children’s psychiatric ward, hospitalized for major depression and suicidal ideation, and he was spiraling into self-blame.

“Maybe if I had been a better parent, I would’ve caught this earlier and helped her,” Sacks remembers thinking. He and his wife, Masako, a bank manager, “were completely unmoored,” he says. “We thought, ‘Where do we go from here?’"

As he waited for visiting hours to see his daughter, the comic book writer and former Daily News journalist pulled out an old reporter’s notebook and stared at the blank page. “I wanted to come up with a story that would inspire Naomi to want to live,” says Ethan, 51. He scrawled a single sentence in his notebook: “A girl who doesn’t know if she wants to live is the only one who can save all life on Earth.”

Over the next few years that nascent idea became a fully realized labor of love for both Ethan and Naomi, now 20. The result, A Haunted Girl, a comic cowritten by the father-daughter team with art by Sacks’s collaborator Marco Lorenzana, is a supernatural horror tale that follows teen heroine Cleo as she navigates life after a suicide attempt and battles a demon apocalypse that only she can prevent.

A book version of the four-part series, which includes a mental health guide and resources, has just been released. “For Naomi, I hope the experience is empowering,” says Ethan, who has authored several Marvel and Star Wars comics. “And if we reach people and help through the book, that’s a plus.”

A Haunted Girl “involves the supernatural, but there’s also a real-life story many kids go through,” says Brett Wean, director of writing and entertainment outreach for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who consulted on the comic. “It feels authentic—and positive.”

Cleo’s story begins in a hospital, much like the one Naomi found herself in when she was a fresh-man at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School. After struggling with anxiety for years, Naomi had begun experiencing symptoms of depression.“Everything felt gray, and it was hard to visualize the future,” she says. “It didn’t feel like things could get better.”

When her school learned Naomi told a friend about a suicide “daydream,” a school social worker called her parents. “They said, ‘You need to pick up your daughter. We can’t let her leave by herself. She’s suicidal,’ ” Ethan recalls. “We were in uncharted territory.” That began a series of hospital stays, totaling more than five weeks, followed by months of outpatient treatment.

As Naomi began to improve with therapy and medic -

ation, Ethan realized he didn’t just wantto write a story for his daughter—he needed her help in telling it. “I thought it would offer some catharsis for her, but also, she has an authenticity I don’t,” Ethan says. “Together we could do some-thing better to help than I could alone.”

With Naomi’s input Cleo became a more realistic hero. “I wanted her to be a little bit miserable because I had felt miserable,” Naomi says. “We wanted her to be relatable, and to show that it can get better.”

That's an important message for others who are struggling says Dr. Vasilis Pozios of the American Psychiatric Association, another consultant for the book. "The story treats mental illness like a physical health condition in that it's a controllable condition like diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol," he says. "With proper treatment, people can live their lives as they wish."

Because of her own history, Naomi was able to provide true-to-life details for the story, like the centering techniques Cleo uses to calm herself, which Naomi learned in dialectical behavior therapy—and she added a few quirks from the psych ward. “One thing I particularly wanted to include was the paper spoons in the hospital,” Naomi says. “In my second hospitalization, someone tried to self-harm with plastic utensils, so we only had paper spoons. That did not go well—a lot of us gave up and ate with our hands!”

Naomi also understood the challenges Cleo faces returning to school after her hospitalization.“It was like I fell off the planet,” she recalls of her own experience. “And when I came back, I didn’t know what to do socially. It was intimidating.”

The climactic fight between Cleo and the demon felt familiar as well: “In the book there’s an external demon saying things like, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier to give up?’ but it does feel like voices say that in your internal thoughts, and it’s hard to fight.”

After writing together, “I had more of an understanding of what she went through,” Ethan says. For Naomi, who just finished her sophomore year in environmental studies at McGill University in Montreal, the book has provided a measure of her progress. “I can see how far I’ve come, and that’s reassuring,” she says.

Naomi says she hopes the story shares a sense of possibility with readers:“I want people to know it may not be as smooth as you hope but there's a path to feeling happy and content in life."

If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or visit

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