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Local family uses loss to raise awareness about suicide prevention

LA CROSSE, WI - Hundreds of people are coming together in La Crosse to learn more about how to prevent suicide.

The goal is to raise awareness about suicide and help people learn how to spot mental health concerns in their loved ones and the people around them.   

The president of the La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Summit, Christine Hughes, says the fight to end suicide relies on more than just medical professionals.


"Suicide prevention is a community issue, it's a community effort so to speak. We want to give people information so they can identify someone who's at risk, needs help, and get them connected with treatment or support to help prevent suicides," said Hughes.

Among the presenters at the summit is the Mahr family.

Their daughter overdosed six years ago.

Now they are doing everything they can to prevent others from experiencing the same loss and pain.

Sam Mahr was just 16 years old when his older sister, Kaitlin, lost her battle with depression.

Since then, he's changed his career path, going to school for clinical psychology and interning with Gundersen Health System's behavioral health unit.

It's all work he hopes will make some good come out of the tragedy of losing his sister.

"Katie was my older sister, still is," said Sam.    

Every day, the memory of Katie drives him to keep working, studying and speaking out.

"She was an avid learner. She loved to read and so I try to honor her by continuing my education," said Sam.

Katie suffered from bipolar disorder and lost her life after overdosing when she was a junior in college.

Since then, her family has worked relentlessly to raise awareness about mental health needs and suicide prevention.

"I really want to turn the tragedy of losing my sister Katie into something positive, and there's a great community need for suicide awareness and mental health awareness," said Sam.

"I wanted to put a face with mental illness. What does somebody look like with mental illness? That [pointing at her daughter's picture] doesn't look like someone with mental illness," said Deb Mahr, Kaitlin's mom.

The Mahr family started Kaitlin's Table and have worked on many initiatives, including opening a teen center with the YMCA.

It's all work Deb said helps them heal.

"I go to the colleges and talk about depression and bipolar disorder," said Deb. "It's been cathartic for us. It's my feeling and Sam's that we do not want her to be forgotten. She was here only 20 short years but we're making sure that her life is making a difference in this community, and it's what keeps us all going."

As Sam speaks for the first time publicly at the Suicide Prevention Summit about his sister's death, he knows helping others fight a similar battle is exactly what she would want him to do.

"I think she'd be proud. I hope she would be -- but I know she would be. She always said she was my biggest fan and to this day I still believe it, and I know I am her voice. My mom is her voice. My dad is her voice. We speak for her now and I think she would want that, I know she would," said Sam.

Sam plans on going on for his master's degree in clinical psychology.

He wants to do research and also has a passion for working with adolescents struggling with their mental health.

The Mahr family also played a large role in raising awareness about the need for the inpatient behavioral health unit Gundersen Health System recently opened.

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