Katie Desmond provides substantial evidence that one person not only can defuse a volatile situation but also turn a life from threats of suicide to one of hope.
For her, that person was La Crosse County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Valencia, who, she says, “treated me like a human being instead of a low-life scum criminal” when he responded to a call five years ago to quell a confrontation between her and her dad, Mike Desmond.
“I feel like he saved my life,” said Katie, a 29-year-old graduate of Aquinas High School in La Crosse who has grappled with depression since her teens and sometimes resorted to cutting herself.
“The most I would do was cut with something not too sharp or deep, because I didn’t really want to die,” she said in an interview. “But the physical pain was easier to deal with than the emotional pain.”
Katie, her father and Valencia will talk about her quest to reverse course from despair to hopefulness during the 10th annual Suicide Awareness Event from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Riverside Park in La Crosse.
The free public ceremony, which remembers those who have committed suicide, will occur on the eve of the seventh annual Suicide Prevention Summit from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the La Crosse Center.
Suicides hit 20 for year
The events are taking place amid somber statistics, with La Crosse County suicides reaching 20 so far this year. That's the second-most on record and puts suicides on pace to equal or surpass the record of 26 last year.
Aiming to stanch the bleeding, organizers have enlisted the Desmonds, Valencia, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student Alexis De Jager and others to convey hope-filled messages.
The Desmonds’ optimism evolved from what seemed like a hopeless incident, when Katie was threatening suicide and attempting to leave the Shelby home where she lives with her parents, Mike and Karen, and Katie’s daughter, Kaileen.
“I restrained her so she wouldn’t hurt herself and said to Karen to call 911,” Desmond said. “I had wrestled Katie to the floor and was holding her …”
“… not in a harmful way,” Katie interjected.
The responding officer “arrived with an attitude that it was a domestic or a battery case and somebody had to go to jail,” Mike said.
“If somebody’s going to jail, cuff me and take me,” he said, extending his wrists to demonstrate his actions that night.
Valencia defused the situation when he arrived.
“He said first of all, nobody was going to jail, because he recognized that it was not a domestic incident, not battery, but a mental health situation of a dad trying to restrain his daughter,” said Mike Desmond, director of the La Crosse Area Boys and Girls Clubs and a board member of the Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area.
Sergeant went 'above and beyond'
Valencia spent 1½ hours talking with Katie to calm her down, an effort her dad described as “above and beyond.”
Having had a few unpleasant scrapes with the law, Katie said, “This guy comes along and wow … That man, that day, changed my whole perspective of police.”
Accepting responsibility for her involvement with thefts, Katie said, “I’ve been arrested, but that was my fault, not theirs. I have a lot of respect for those guys.”
Police in general are “really stepping up their game and getting the mental health angle, the struggles people go through.”
Much of the credit for that goes to the mental health coalition’s Crisis Intervention Training, Mike Desmond said.
“The whole story of the night is exactly what Crisis Intervention Training is about,” he said. “Police often are the first responders on a scene, and the training helps them recognize a mental health situation, then defuse it and handle it with skill.”
Valencia, whom the coalition honored in 2012 for his skill in handling crises, “definitely changed the course of that night and the course of her life,” Mike Desmond said. “Cops are not bad guys, but Mike Valencia is exceptional.
“He’s a very humble guy,” Mike Desmond said, a fact born out in Valencia’s deflecting attention from himself as he talked about the incident in an interview.
“She has strength, and I was fortunate enough to be able to make a difference to her,” Valencia said.
Aims for best solution
“I always try to find the best solution,” he said.
“As police officers, we all come in to the job wanting to help people,” Valencia said. “Helping people is what we do, but making a difference is a bonus.”
Valencia occasionally checks in to see how Katie’s doing, whether he is on the clock or off.
She recalled an instance several months later in which she ended up in jail, and Valencia was working the third shift.
“He heard I was there and came to see me,” she said. “He came down and talked to me through that little grate in the middle of the night. It meant the world to me. … I can’t ever say enough about Mike Valencia.”
Celebrating 10 months into a job at Festival Foods today, Katie said, “I feel like I’m at a good place, but I still feel I should be farther along.”
Daughter 'is my rock'
The death of her grandfather a month ago was an emotional setback that she is trying to shake, but she feels her life now has a purpose, especially with 6-year-old Kaileen.
“She is my rock,” said Katie, who also credits a therapist, support groups and her family with her victories.
“It’s been a partnership,” Mike said of the efforts he and Karen have expended. “Sometimes, I run out of energy, and Karen’s got the energy. Sometimes she runs out of the energy, and I’ve got it.”
“We have marked that night as the last time she has made a suicide threat or we felt she was in danger,” he said. “She has down days like we all do, but she has new hope.”
Explaining the family’s willingness to talk openly, Mike Desmond said, “We need to normalize mental illness. We are all dealing with something emotionally, whether it be anxiety, depression, fears, low self-worth -- I could go on and on.
“We keep hearing about stigma. The only way to break down that wall is to talk about it and normalize the discussion,” he said.
“My dream is that we will embrace mental illness for what it is — a medical problem — and we will treat it with compassion instead of judgment,” he said.
Friends' deaths prompt suicide try
Also pulling back the curtain of secrecy is De Jager, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in communications and psychology at the UW-L.
De Jager said she attempted to overdose at age 14 after two close friends were killed in a car crash.
“That was a dark moment of my life,” she said.
De Jager has a semicolon tattooed on her right hand as part of Project Semicolon on Facebook, which symbolizes that life is not over, just as a semicolon indicates that a sentence continues.
“There is so much support available through other people and sharing the same philosophy,” said De Jager, who hopes to become a clinical counselor.
“Although it seems hopeless, we can get stronger every day despite the struggles,” she said.
Katie Desmond echoes those sentiments, saying that, when someone is troubled and asks her for advice, “I try to explain what I’ve been through and how I’ve hurt people. Hurting people doesn’t help. It seems to make people feel better that they’re not alone in feeling that way.
“Life is hard, but you’ve got to give yourself a chance. I sure as hell didn’t think there would be a reason to say I’m glad, but I am.”