BELTSVILLE – Linda Diaz knows firsthand that teen suicide and depression are topics many people would prefer not to discuss, although dismantling the stigma of them could save more lives of at-risk youth. Lauryn Santiago was Diaz’s athletic 15-year-old daughter who dreamed of being the youngest person to try out for the Olympics in skeet […]
BELTSVILLE – Linda Diaz knows firsthand that teen suicide and depression are topics many people would prefer not to discuss, although dismantling the stigma of them could save more lives of at-risk youth.
Lauryn Santiago was Diaz’s athletic 15-year-old daughter who dreamed of being the youngest person to try out for the Olympics in skeet and trap shooting or archery. She also wanted to serve in the U.S. Army. While reflecting on the late Prince George’s County teen’s dreams, the mother from Beltsville recounted the events that led to her daughter’s suicide on Feb. 16, 2013.
“Lauryn was very happy, she was extremely loving, and she was always laughing and playing. She was an honor roll student,” Diaz said. “She was born, raised and died in Prince George’s County. She was being bullied in regards to her sexuality and this started around November of 2012.”
Diaz could have buckled under the shocking loss of her youngest daughter, but she continues to muster strength to educate others about suicide and mental health awareness. While serving as the lead volunteer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) Maryland chapter, Diaz wants county residents to know where services and resources are available if they ever encounter a mental health crisis.
Information will be presented during AFSP’s second Prince George’s County Out of the Darkness Walk that will be held at Bladensburg Waterfront Park, located at 4601 Annapolis Rd. in Bladensburg, on Sept. 10 from 10:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. Adventist Healthcare, Great Southern Tattoo Company, Family Services Foundation Inc. and Alphi Phi Alphi Fraternity, Inc. Pi Upsilon Lambda are event sponsors. In addition to the two-mile walk, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks and Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk will be guest speakers. A Kidz Corner, music, entertainment and other activities will also be underway.
“The reason why I would love for everyone to come to the walk is to be able to create a better tomorrow for our youth. Our children are our future, and although mental illness affects children and adults, it is very important for me to educate everyone,” Diaz said. “If we cannot help our children to mold and be able to cope with life without pushing them into silence, what is our future going to contain? So it is important to be able to understand mental illness and to be able to see the signs of mental illness.”
As Diaz unpacked a heart-wrenching story of how Santiago was suffering from depression without her mother knowing, she explained how she thought her daughter, who was a freshman in high school, was experiencing growing pains which can be typical of teenagers. Diaz reached out to a school counselor at Laurel High School after receiving a letter from the school informing her that Santiago needed to bring her grades up in some classes. During their conversation, Diaz pointed out that Santiago was a straight-A honor roll student who was taking honors classes. Her slipping grades, withdrawn behavior and mood swings were abnormal for the ambitious teen. Diaz requested for the school counselor to meet with her daughter. However, Diaz said the meeting never transpired, although the school counselor had agreed to follow up. Diaz called back but was unable to reach her again.
“No later than a few weeks later, I lost Lauryn to suicide. The school counselor had never even reached back out to Lauryn at all,” Diaz said.
Within five weeks of losing Santiago, one of the teen’s best friends reportedly attempted suicide. Diaz also said she fought to get an AFSP walk in Prince George’s County because youth throughout the county who knew Santiago wanted to acknowledge her death.
“A total of about seven to 10 of Lauryn’s friends are clinically diagnosed with depression and I worried about that. That is what sparked my interested to reach out to AFSP because I couldn’t understand what was going on,” Diaz said. “I had no idea that the different types of traumatic events in a child’s life can cause what’s called a contagion effect.”
Diaz learned that traumatic events which occur in a child’s life can spark or trigger an underlying mental illness that has probably gone undiagnosed. Her fight to establish suicide prevention safeguards for local students led to legislation.
Peña-Melnyk helped Diaz to take action. “Lauryn’s Law” (SB0251/HB0947) was signed by Gov. Larry Hogan on May 12, 2015. It requires school counselors in Maryland to have obtained specified knowledge and skills required to understand and respond to the social, emotional and personal development of students, by July 1, 2016, as a part of their certification renewal. Diaz will return during this legislative session in hopes of expanding Lauryn’s Law to include educating youth and other staff members about mental illness and contemplation of suicide.
Jasmine Lolin, a college-bound 18-year-old, keeps in touch with Diaz and is helping with the walk. She met Santiago in the sixth grade and they attended Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School and Laurel High School together. Lolin described Santiago as an outgoing person who always cared about other people’s feelings. Santiago’s friend wants to create her own mental health organization at Bowie State University to help teach people about mental health and suicide.
“Suicide is a big thing, so (AFSP’s) main goal is to reduce suicides by 20 percent by the year 2020. That’s what I’m trying to do as well. I’ve been going to walk every year, so this is really important to me,” Lolin said. “This is for adults, this is for children, and this is even for elders to do. We’re trying to get the youth and everybody else involved to make a change.”
To register for the Out of the Darkness Walk, visit http://afsp.donordrive.com/event/PG/. In-person registration will also be permitted.