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Loss of children inspires Ellicott City mothers to advocate for suicide prevention

Before asking the question, Congressman John Sarbanes made sure to say "if you don't mind sharing."

Donna Curley and Sara Tagget didn't mind. It was why they were in Washington that day. It was why they were sitting in Sarbanes' office. It was why they spent the day trekking around the Capitol meeting with federal lawmakers or their aides.

Curley and Tagget are Ellicott City residents who have lost children to suicide. They shared bits of their stories with Sarbanes Thursday, Feb. 9 before asking him to help in the effort to promote suicide prevention.

Along with Towson resident Ron Waltemeyer, who also lost a child to suicide, Curley and Tagget 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.

Midway through their conversation, Sarbanes said: "Each of you've taken a tragedy and made a decision to become advocates. I'm curious, if you don't mind sharing it, what was that point where you kind of decided 'I'm going to channel this'?"

Curley, whose son Colin was 22 when he lost his battle with depression in 2006, a few weeks before Christmas, answered first. She said she was numb the first year after Colin's death and that she would get out of bed in the morning and keep going because of her two younger sons. Losing a child to suicide, Curley said, increased the risk that it could happen in her family again.

"Living through it once was hard enough," she said. "Thinking that you may every have to go through this again, I can't go there."

Curley added: "I can't see it happen again in my family. I don't want to see it happen to your family ... or anybody's family."

Tagget said after she got the call on Sept. 20, 2008 from someone at Michigan State University, where her daughter was a senior, telling her that Katrina shot herself, she needed to understand how this could happen. She and her husband, Dave, did research and joined local support groups.

"I started seeing people coming to the support groups after me, and it was more and more people," she said. "And they were all like us."

Seeing all those people inspired Tagget to want to speak out, talk about suicide and help prevent it from happening to other families. Tagget said she'll speak to "anybody and everybody," including her students at Mt. Hebron High School, in Ellicott City, where she is a teacher.

"I feel when I talk about my daughter, not only does it bring her back to life, but it shows them ... gives them an education about suicide and prevention," she said.

Tagget and Curley both participate in a support group for survivors of suicide that the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Howard County started in 2009.

"It was through them that we learned a lot about suicide prevention," Curley said. "And it's become a mission."

'Warning signs were there'

Both Curley and Tagget learned things from their personal tragedies that they were able to share with Sarbanes and others regarding what can be done to prevent suicide. In addition to Sarbanes, they met with Maryland Reps. Roscoe Bartlett and Chris Van Hollen and aides to Rep. Elijah Cummings and Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin.

"What we have found after (Katrina's) death is a lot of the warning signs were there," Tagget said. "She was medicating similar to a college student, but in her case it was to really help the pain."

Tagget also noted that the night before Katrina died, she took down her Facebook page. Some of the signs were there for Katrina's friends to pick up on, Tagget said, but they weren't taught enough about depression or how to tell if someone was thinking about committing suicide.

"One of the things that has been on my docket because of all this is we need to have some more suicide prevention in schools," Tagget said.

Curley said Colin was having trouble sleeping while attending St. Mary's College of Southern Maryland, so he went the school counselors but they weren't helpful. Colin came home his junior year, Curley said, and told her and her husband, Kevin, that he needed help, so they got him to go see a psychiatrist and psychologist at Sheppard Pratt, a Baltimore-area system that treats mental health conditions. They started him on medication, which was never changed.

"Within a year-and-a-half, he was gone," Curley said. "We were never educated by the psychiatrist or psychologist about how to help him."

Curley works as a physical therapist at Northwest Hospital in Baltimore. She said being around patients every day, many of whom suffer from mental illness, she thought she understood depression.

"But my understanding is just very superficial, which is what I found out after my son was gone," she said. "I truly think if we had much more education, things would have turned out differently."

Increasing awareness about suicide prevention is one of Curley's main goals as an advocate. She said suicide education needs to happen "not just across college campuses, (but) high schools, middle schools, everywhere."

Promoting prevention

Curley, Tagget and Waltemeyer 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, Curley and Tagget are 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 area 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 Curley and Tagget were 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.

Sarbanes didn't make any commitments to sponsor a House version of the bill, but he 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 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 Curley and Tagget that he is 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 Curley's and Tagget'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. ... Keep up the great work that you're doing."

Curley and Tagget plan to continue their advocacy work and expand the efforts of the AFSP Maryland Chapter.

"If we can help another family prevent this, it does not bring our children back," Tagget said, "but it certainly makes the memory of them and the life they could have had, a little more special."

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