Kaitlin Mahr was one of the valedictorians of Onalaska High School's Class of 2005, an enthusiastic and energetic student who loved school and learning. She was a junior honors-level English major at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., before her tragic death in 2007. Hers is not the "face" most people would associate with serious depression; changing the face of mental illness recognition, diagnosis and treatment is a primary goal of the "Kaitlin's Table" initiative.
"Kaitlin was very honest about her disease once we had a diagnosis," says her mother Deb Mahr. "She never tried to hide that she had bipolar disorder. I have to admit that until Katie was diagnosed, I didn't know much about mental illness. I realize now how important it is for families to have support and knowledge so we can better understand what the person is going through. We are trying to be her voice now, to help break down some of the stigma surrounding mental illness."
Kaitlin's brother Sam adds, "I like remembering all the good times. They always bring a smile to my face. I will never forget all the little things about her: her birthday, stubbornness, beauty, uncanny sense of humor and most of all her love for her family. I know that Kaitlin will always be looking upon me, cheering me on and motivating me to keep going. I lost my sister, my idol and my best friend. However, she will always be those things to me until the end of time."
According to research by the National Institute of Mental Health, half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 where social stigmas and lack of healthcare access can delay diagnosis and treatment. It is not uncommon that a decade or more may pass before this vulnerable population receives treatment, leaving a critical gap where untreated disorders can lead to more severe and difficult-to-treat mental illnesses. Or to tragedy, like that experienced by Dr. Todd and Debra Mahr in 2007, when their 20-year old daughter Kaitlin lost her battle with depression and died of an accidental overdose.
"Our life changed on that day," says Dr. Mahr, a pediatric allergist at Gundersen Health System and member of the Board of Directors for Gundersen Medical Foundation. "As we came out of our fog of grief, Deb, Sam and I started talking about what we could do to shine a light on adolescent mental health issues and help remove the stigma." They met with the Foundation to create a special fund in Kaitlin's memory, established with memorial gifts to provide financial support for programming aimed at youth and young adults dealing with depression and mental health issues.
With an emphasis on collaboration, "Kaitlin's Table" is designed to break down barriers and reach out to youth and adolescents who are struggling with life's challenges. The approach involves trained volunteers, including community members, students and peers, and behavioral health professionals, to provide appropriate support and care referrals in a non-threatening manner.