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Mothers Of Teen Suicide Victims Work To Put A Face To Idaho's High Rates

Idaho ranks consistently among the top states with the highest rates of youth suicide in the nation.

Some suicide prevention advocates say not enough is being done to bring those numbers down. Now, one unofficial lobbying group is catching the ear of policymakers: parents who have lost children to suicide.

This past April, as Idaho Gov. Butch Otter stood between the marble pillars of his ceremonial office to sign House Bill 246 into law, he said, “It's something we've needed for quite some time.”

The bill established anti-bullying training for school employees and set the expectation that they step in when it happens.

It had taken years for this bill to reach the governor's desk. Previous versions were voted down or never left committee. But now long-resistant lawmakers had approved the law.

'Nobody really talks about it'

One of the people standing not far from the governor on the day of the signing was Carmen Stanger.

“Wow, that was a very triumphant moment,” Stanger recalled.

Triumphant, but also bittersweet. The reason Stanger was there, and had worked so hard on the bill, was that her 15-year-old daughter Maddie had died by suicide the previous year.

Across all three Northwest states, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds. But the rate in Idaho outpaces Oregon and Washington by about 40 percent.

Stanger is part of a group of parents in Idaho that have tried to put a face on the issue because, Stanger sayid, “Nobody really talks about it.”

And it seemed to work on the anti-bullying measure. Conservative Idaho lawmakers had been skeptical that bullying was a matter for state law, or a problem at all. But the bill's sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Ilana Rubel, said hearing parents talk about the bullying their kids had experienced and tying it to suicide seemed to change that.

“When you've heard four or five of those mothers and fathers speak, it would be pretty hard to vote against the bill,” she said.

A daughter’s death

Speaking to a panel of lawmakers wasn't what Stanger imagined in February of 2014 though. In fact, politics were the last thing on her mind. It was just days after her daughter's death.

And she got a Facebook message. It read, “I'm a mom. I've been through this and if you need me, anytime, anywhere, here's my number.”

The woman at the other end of the message was Julie Zicha.

“You know I was so worried, I didn't know how she would respond at first,” ZIcha said.

Zicha had also lost a child to suicide -- a 19-year-old son, who had also gone to high school in Pocatello, and who like Stanger's daughter had been gay.

Stanger said after a while she did respond, and she found someone who understood in a way other people didn't.

“It's the worst thing you could never imagine,” she said. “And worse than that. And she knew.”

This turned out to be the first message of many and not just between Zicha and Stanger. The two started contacting other families when they heard about suicides in Idaho. In Boise, Jerome, Rupert, Aberdeen, Blackfoot, Coeur d'Alene.

“Sometimes it's just gleaning a story off Facebook or some other social media,” Zicha explained.

“If I hear of one, I let her know, if she hears of one, she lets me know,” Stanger said.

“It's been pretty amazing,” ZIcha added. “We've actually put together quite a little network of families.”

'You know the loss was not in vain'

It was this network of families Zicha tapped into when she learned the anti-bullying bill would be coming up in the legislative session. By the time the bill reached the first hurdle in the House Education committee, Zicha, Stanger, and other parents -- some who had just recently lost children -- had already called, written, or talked to most of the lawmakers in person.

The committee ended up passing the bill unanimously, and from there it won approval in the full House and in the Senate.

Of course, this bill was about bullying, not about suicide. Bullying has been identified as a factor in some suicides, but experts caution it’s not the sole cause.

Stanger and Zicha plan to take on other issues that they hope could lower Idaho’s suicide rate: like increasing access to mental health and removing the stigma of seeking it. They're working on getting an Idaho chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“It gives you the opportunity to have some kind of say in the matter I guess,” Zicha said. “Because you reach a point in time where you feel like maybe it wasn’t all in vain. You know the loss was not in vain.”

They say they expect to be back at the Capitol again.