Whenever Sara Tagget shares her personal story of her daughter who killed herself a decade ago, it allows the mother to get her daughter back for a moment.
“It’s hard to talk about her, but we all like to talk about our kids [and] why is mine any different? She’s just not here, but she’s still my baby girl,” Tagget said. “When she died the love didn’t die.”
On Sept. 20, 2008, at the age of 21, Katrina Tagget took her life during her senior year at Michigan State University. Katrina was a graduate of Centennial High School in Ellicott City.
As Katrina was growing up, her mother and family “thought she was just a moody teenager.”
“We thought she would outgrow it. We didn’t understand depression, the risk of suicide,” Sara Tagget said.
Suicide was the leading cause of death for ages 15-19 between 2014 and 2016 in Howard County, according to data that was provided to the health department from the Maryland Vital Statistics Data.
Howard County officials want to end that.
The “It’s OK to Ask” campaign aimed at reducing youth suicide was announced last month in Howard. The campaign, focused on encouraging youth and adults to talk openly about suicide and suicide prevention, is part of a plan developed by the county health department.
County Executive Calvin Ball said, “I want people to be empowered and know that it’s OK to ask — it’s OK to ask for help and it’s OK to ask [if] you think someone else needs helps.”
“Often times the most difficult and uncomfortable conversations are the most important,” Ball said.
Since her daughter’s death, Tagget has shared her story many times because she strongly believes that, in order to stop suicide, it needs to be talked about. She shared Katrina’s story at the press conference introducing the “It’s OK to Ask” campaign.
“I’m thrilled we are doing this … I have lived in Howard County for 35 years and up until now people have not really wanted to talk about suicide,” Tagget said.
In response to the increasing trend of youth suicide, the Howard County Health Department spent most of last summer and the fall researching and developing a plan, according to Dr. Maura Rossman, county health officer.
“If you ask most people, I don’t think they would necessarily think at all it [suicide] would be the No. 1 death in youth,” Rossman said.
The plan has five pillars to it: increasing awareness and reducing stigma, prevention, early identification and intervention, referral to treatment, and postvention.
A lot of emphasis was on the first pillar, increasing awareness, where the “It’s OK to Ask” campaign was born, Rossman said.
She said the campaign will “hopefully educate and train the community, particularly youth, their parents, their teachers [and] anyone associated with youth, in understanding that one of the most important things that we can do to prevent youth suicide is to talk about it and ask about it.”
“It’s a myth that talking about it will make people commit suicide,” Rossman added.
Health department staff will work with community organizations in providing specialized training and presentations for those who want to bring components of the youth suicide prevention program to their groups. The department is also looking to bring ambassador programs to local church and cultural groups.
A Teen Mental Health Ambassador program will also be implemented in county high schools, where student interns will be points of contact about the campaign for their peers.
As schools superintendent of nearly 58,000 students, the mental health of those students is always on Michael Martirano’s mind. Since he started his role as acting superintendent in 2017, mental health has been at the forefront of his platform.
Not only wanting to keep his students healthy and safe, suicide hits close to home for Martirano.
“Three years ago my wife took her life after many years of suffering anxiety and depression,” he said. “This topic is very, very, very personal to me and my personal crusade is to use my life experiences … and shine the light on an issue in society that needs more attention.”
In high school, one in six students seriously consider attempting suicide, and it’s one in five for middle schoolers, according to data from the health department.
In January, a River Hill High School student took his life.
“My darkest days as superintendent is when i get a call late at night that one of our students has taken his or her life,” Martirano said.
It is crucial for Martirano that his students and staff are taught skills and techniques to assist them in relieving stress and managing their emotions.
And if his students are suffering, Martirano doesn’t want them to suffer in silence.
By providing information about how it is OK to talk about suicide, it “helps to say to young people and our staff that it is OK to tell someone, it is OK to seek assistance,” he said.
In his proposed budget, Martirano is seeking to 34 new positions, to the tune of $2.7 million, that are dedicated to mental health efforts. These positions include more social workers, counselors, psychologists and pupil personnel workers.
Tagget, who is a math teacher at Mt. Hebron High School, has brought her mission of suicide prevention to her students.
Three years ago during Pi Week, her math classes aimed to increase awareness about mental health and suicide prevention by raising money. The classes strive to raise $24,000 each year, which is the cost of 24 hours of support at Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia.
Last year, 25 schools participated in the Pi Week fundraiser and raised more than $60,000 for Grassroots, Tagget said.
The Katrina Tagget Memorial Foundation was established shortly after Katrina’s death and each year a charity golf event is held. The donations from the event have gone to Grassroots, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Out of the Darkness Walks, a branch of AFSP.
Sara Tagget could see the memorial foundation contributing financially to the county’s new program as well.
She has also seen the direct, positive effects of sharing Katrina’s story with her students. A student approached Tagget after class one day saying she was worried about her friend who was talking about suicide and didn't know what to do.