A suicide prevention plea

Ron Waltemeyer, left, speaks to Rep. John Sarbanes to promote suicide prevention, education and research as a part of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's annual advocacy forum in Washington on Feb. 9. (Photo by Sarah Pastrana / February 8, 2012)

Before asking the question, Rep. John Sarbanesmade sure to say "if you don't mind sharing." Ron Waltemeyer didn't mind.

It was why he was in Washington. It was why he was sitting in Sarbanes' office. It was why he spent the day trekking around the Capitol meeting with federal lawmakers or their aides.

Waltemeyer, a Towson resident, lost his son to suicide. He shared bits of his story with Sarbanes on Feb. 9 before asking him to help in the effort to promote suicide prevention.

Along with Donna Curley and Sara Tagget, two Ellicott City residents who also lost children to suicide, Waltemeyer presented Sarbanes with statistics — about 44,000 people die by suicide every year — and ideas — suicide prevention education needs to be taught in schools. And early.

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Waltemeyer said that eight months before his son Aaron, who had actually attended high school with Sarbanes' daughter, shot himself in May 2010 at age 19, Aaron had participated in a survey where he was asked questions by an unlicensed college intern.

Among the questions were "Do you have access to a weapon?" and "Do you every have thoughts of suicide?"

Aaron had answered yes to both questions, Waltemeyer said, "yet no one referred him to a mental health professional, either on site or off site, or notified his parents."

"If anyone conveys to you that they've had thoughts of suicide," Waltemeyer said, "you have to take that seriously."

Pointing to a piece of paper containing the survey questions and Aaron's responses, he added, "This should never happen to anyone, in my opinion, especially when we have parental releases on file to be notified."

It wasn't long after Aaron's death that Waltemeyer decided to become an advocate for suicide prevention.

"Immediately after my son's suicide, I went online and I Googled suicide," Waltemeyer said.

In his research, he found that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. Aaron had attended McDaniel College. Waltemeyer said he committed suicide his freshman year after learning he was going to be academically dismissed.

"I went on an investigative-type situation where we met with the college ... to ask questions if they knew what was going on with Aaron," Waltemeyer said.

He said there were warning signs, including an email from a faculty member at the college requesting a meeting with Aaron that went unanswered for weeks. The faculty member had not followed up.

"There were events leading up to the actually suicide," Waltemeyer said. "There were opportunities along the lines to seek treatment. That's what I want to emphasize. Depression is treatable."

Waltemeyer's personal experience has led him to push for colleges and universities to provide more communication with parents when something becomes noticeably different about the child — such as if their grades drop or they're missing class.

In his research on suicide, Waltemeyer discovered the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an advocacy group. He called and got involved with the organization just a few weeks after Aaron's death.

His activism was spurred by his personal tragedy, but Waltemeyer has another reason to push for suicide prevention. He's a veteran, and veterans account for 20 percent of the country's suicide victims.

Waltemeyer, Curley and Tagget are all board members of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Maryland Chapter, which was formed last year. They joined members of other chapters of AFSP in Washington, Feb. 8 through Feb. 12, to advocate for legislation that would aide in their suicide prevention, education and research efforts and to share ideas and information with the other chapters.

In Maryland, Waltemeyer is working with others in the chapter to increase awareness about suicide. They provide education resources and host support groups. They've held fundraisers to earn money to promote their cause.