LA CROSSE, Wisconsin (WXOW) - A 2011 study by the National Institute of Mental Health found almost 30% La Crosse High School students self-reported depression symptoms. And nearly 15% of those students had considered or attempted suicide. Next month Gundersen Lutheran will open a new Behavioral Health Facility in La Crosse.
An Onalaska family has spent the last five years raising support and funds for the new building. The Mahr family understands the need for a place of healing and hope.
When Kaitlyn Mahr took the stage, it was as if she didn't have a care in the world. Her grace and beauty out-shining the spotlight under which she danced.
As Kaitlyn's family watches her senior recital dance from 2005, they are stung by the reminder that this is a routine to which there would be no encore.
Kaitlyn's mom, Deb Mahr says, "She was really the love of our life. We miss her a lot."
The 18-year old appeared happy and healthy when she left for Lawrence College in the fall of 2005. But her mother says Kaitlyn quickly changed.
Deb: "With in the first few weeks of college her personality changed and we knew something was up."
Still Kaitlyn seemed to be doing well... until the end of her Freshman year.
Kaitlyn's dad, Todd, says: "She called me on the phone to say goodbye. She had been [drinking] at a Frat party and had a fight with her boyfriend, and called me to say goodbye."
Afraid his daughter would take her own life, Todd contacted police who took Kaitlyn to the local hospital. But the facility in Appleton was full and at that time there was no in-patient adolescent mental health facility in La Crosse.
So the Mahr's were forced to send their daughter to a hospital more than 3-hours away from home in Green Bay. After being released from the hospital, Kaitlyn returned to Onalaska where doctors diagnosed her with Bi-Polar Disorder. She continued treatment on an out-patient basis and by the following fall, was doing well enough to return to college.
Kaitlyn continued to do well for another 2 years. Until the fall of her junior year....
Todd: "Whatever that was that one little thing that put her in a spiral she just couldn't pull herself out of."
A friend found Kaitlyn dead in her dorm room.
Todd: "We don't really know what happened. She was texting friends. It was the Monday before Thanksgiving break. She was making plans. She didn't leave a suicide note. We don't like to think she committed suicide. She died of an accidental overdose. She started taking her meds and unfortunately the meds she was taking for bi-polar disorder, really if you take too much of them an mix it with alcohol, which she did, can lead people to be extremely foggy and just not know what they are doing. Then they start taking more. Throughout the day she kept taking more."
Just five months later, the Mahr family made the decision to turn Kaitlyn's tragic death into a call to action. They joined forces with Gundersen Lutheran to raise awareness about Adolescent Mental Health and raise funds for a new Behavioral Health Center.
The Mahr's also helped design the building by sharing with architects what they did and did not like about the facilities where Kaitlyn was treated.
Todd says, "You deserve dignity and privacy and hope. You gotta have all that to really get better and it's hard to do in something that looks like a jail."
Five years later and the state of the art facility is finally ready for patients. Kaitlyn's influence is everywhere from the big windows, to the bright colors, to the classroom named in her honor.
Todd: "She is our driving force. She's with us and she's with everything that we do. I think she would be proud of us as we are proud of her."
Proud that even in death, Kaitlyn has helped create a place of not only healing, but hope.
Deb "I wish that she had known how many lives that she had touched and has touched since she's been gone."
The Adolescent Wing alone will almost triple in size from 3 to 8 beds. That may not sound like a large facility, but very few Wisconsin facilities offer any type of in-patient adolescent care at all.
You can tour the new Behavioral Health Building. Gundersen Lutheran is holding a community open house Saturday, January 5th from 10am-2pm, with a special presentation to be held at noon.
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