Kaitlin Mahr had beauty, talent, intelligence and a family who loved her.
She also had depression.
“Someone would look at her and not see the face of mental illness,” said Todd Mahr, Kaitlin’s father. “They’d say this young woman has everything going for her.”
On Nov. 17, 2007, Kaitlin lost her battle with depression. She died of a prescription drug overdose.
Kaitlin was only 20, but her short life is making an impact.
Determined to help others, her family has made it their mission to tell her story — honestly — so others will know they’re not alone. So people will understand mental illness doesn’t care whether like Kaitlin, you’re a valedictorian. It doesn’t care that your mom was a nurse and your dad is a doctor.
The Mahrs are also drawing attention to the need in the
La Crosse community for services to help people like Kaitlin. As part of Gundersen Lutheran’s major Campus Renewal project, the new inpatient behavioral health building will provide improved treatment areas and allow for additional program development for patients.
It’s not something the Mahrs gave much thought to before Kaitlin got sick. Now, they’re helping lead the charge to make sure the new behavioral health building will be a welcoming place.
Kaitlin went to Onalaska High School and loved English and dancing.
She graduated in May 2005 as valedictorian.
When Kaitlin left home to go to college at Lawrence University in Appleton, her behavior soon changed.
She wasn’t sharing as much with her parents.
“She was not herself whatsoever,” said Debra, Kaitlin’s mother.
During a parents’ weekend in November, they asked what was wrong.
“I didn’t want you here,” Kaitlin said.
It was hard for her parents to hear. Harder yet to understand.
Kaitlin didn’t know anyone at college and seemed to have trouble making friends.
“It wasn’t the experience she thought she’d have,” Debra Mahr said.
By January, Kaitlin seemed to be doing better. Then she called her dad one day and said she was calling to say goodbye.
“I was embarrassed. I’ll admit it,” said Todd Mahr, director of Pediatric Allergy/Immunology at Gundersen Lutheran. “How could my daughter have a mental illness? Why couldn’t I fix it?”
Kaitlin had her stomach pumped and had pills and alcohol in her system. Her parents committed her to a treatment facility in Green Bay.
The whole process opened the Mahrs’ eyes about the lack of behavioral health facilities, especially for young people.
“It was our first little wake-up call,” Debra Mahr said.
The diagnosis was depression, then bipolar disorder, a condition where a person experiences severe highs and lows.
“As we looked back, we could see the signs even in high school,” Dr. Todd Mahr said.
Her parents were told by professionals that if Kaitlin was hellbent on killing herself, she would do it.
Kaitlin got on anti-depressants. She tried to exercise and eat better as part of her recovery.
By her junior year, things seemed to be getting better. The family went on a trip to Russia in October. They were spending time together, enjoying their adventure.
Then there was a breakup with a boyfriend. She skipped class the next day, although she’d texted friends to make plans.
But Kaitlin was gone — dead from a mixture of medication and alcohol. There was no suicide note.
“She was just trying to feel better,” Todd Mahr said. “That’s maybe how I rationalize it.”
Her family is left to fill in the blanks.
Toward the end of her life, Kaitlin was open to talking about her struggles.
“She was very up front about it,” Debra said.
Even in their overwhelming grief, the Mahrs made a conscious decision to be honest in Kaitlin’s obituary: “Kaitlin Elizabeth Mahr, age 20, lost her battle with depression and died of an accidental overdose Monday, November 19, 2007.”
It was the first step of many to help others by telling Kaitlin’s story.
They know there are other parents out there who don’t know how much pain their children are in.
“It pulled at us,” Todd Mahr said. “We knew we needed to do more.”
That’s where the Campus Renewal project comes in. The Mahrs immediately got involved in the planning, making sure that a new behavioral health facility was a priority.
Gundersen Lutheran’s current Inpatient Behavioral Health Unit was built in the early 1970s. There are only 26 inpatient beds and 14 private rooms. The new space will provide 34 private inpatient rooms. There will be additional beds for adolescent patients and a separate area for vulnerable behavioral health patients. The first phase of the project is expected to be completed by December.
The Mahrs aren’t only supporting it by sharing their daughter’s story. They also have made a financial commitment.
“It will be a lasting legacy to Kaitlin,” Todd Mahr said.
Looking back, the Mahrs aren’t sure how they got through those first days after their daughter’s death. It’s still hard to know Kaitlin is gone. But they take comfort knowing that her story and their actions will, hopefully, help others.
“She was not ashamed. She was honest,” Debra Mahr said. “Now we’re her voice.”