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Loss of son inspires Towson father to advocate for suicide prevention

SuicideColleges and UniversitiesBarbara A. MikulskiChristopher Van Hollen Jr.

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.

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.

Much of the chapter's efforts thus far have been centered in the Baltimore region, so the group is developing a database of volunteers and trying to reach out and connect with other parts of the state.

One of the main things Waltemeyer was pushing Thursday was for Congress to pass the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act Reauthorization of 2011. The bill, currently only sponsored in the Senate, would increase annual funding for youth and college suicide prevention programs administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration from $30 million to $32 million.

In addition to Sarbanes, the group met with Maryland Reps. Roscoe Bartlett and Chris Van Hollen and aides to Rep. Elijah Cummings and Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin.

Sarbanes didn't make any commitments to sponsor a House version of the bill, but did say he supports suicide-prevention efforts in schools.

"They key is to grab these warning signs as soon as you can," he said.

Another piece of legislation the AFSP advocates are pushing is the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would create requirements for all schools to develop anti-bullying and harassment policies, prevention strategies and reporting methods. The legislation has sponsors in both the House and the Senate; Sarbanes is a co-sponsor of the House bill.

Sarbanes told Waltemeyer that he is also supporting congressional efforts to increase the availability of mental health services.

"We're making progress on trying to remove the stigma associated with mental health and putting it basically on the same par with physical health services," he said.

But adding more protections in the law is not enough, Sarbanes said, noting there have to be efforts to reduce the social stigma as well.

He said Waltemeyer's efforts are a large part of that.

"I can't tell you how — I think the word is grateful — I am that you've taken this on, because it's going to make a huge difference for so many people out there," Sarbanes said. "If everybody responded to the stresses in their life and the tragedies the way you have, we'd prevent a lot more of this."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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