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Mom keeping busy spreading the word about youth suicide

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“Mark Upchurch, 19, of Buckley died Feb. 14, 2006. He was born Dec. 4, 1986, in Enumclaw. He played football, rode dirt bikes and enjoyed camping.”

That's how the obituary for Mark started. It went on to list his family of survivors and it gave friends and family a date and time for a memorial service. What it didn't note was Mark took his own life.

Mark's mother Michelle Maxwell admits at the time she wasn't ready to mention it either.

“People are afraid to talk about it,” Maxwell said. At first, so was she.

But now, she's moving forward and telling anyone who will listen. The Enumclaw mother's mission is awareness. To help draw attention to her cause, she spent Sunday afternoon with her surviving boys, friends and Shari's of Bonney Lake coworkers at the third annual Puget Sound Suicide Awareness Day Walk. Plugged as “walking laps for life,” the event at Federal Way's Memorial Stadium was in conjunction with World Suicide Prevention Day. It's also a kickoff to National Suicide Prevention Week, which runs through Saturday.

“My son's been gone since Valentine's Day. He grew up in Enumclaw. He was a class clown. He played sports. What happened to Mark could happen to anybody,” she said. “At the beginning, I probably was not ready to talk about it, but now it's been 6 1/2 months and I want people to know.”

She wants people to know, in Washington, more than 700 suicides took place last year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 to 24 year olds in Washington, topped only by accidental death, with between 100 and 120 completed suicides in that age group each year - a rate of about two a week. For every suicide there are another 20 attempts, seven which result in hospitalization.

Mark took his own life shortly after his 19th birthday in February. There are a long list of warning signs and Maxwell said she saw some of the signs, like depression, but Mark didn't display many of the signs.

“He was in that scary stage between boyhood and manhood and depression runs in our family,” she said.

“It's all about awareness.

“It would have been really easy to stay under the covers and never come out,” she said of the period of time following her son's death.

But she has two other sons to care for and now she has a calling. She can be a voice for suicide prevention. She can put a face to it.

“It's a healing thing,” she said. “If one positive thing that can come out of his death. If it can save one child or make one person think about what they're doing.”

That's what drew Maxwell to the Puget Sound Suicide Awareness Day Walk. It's sole purpose is to draw awareness. As an added purpose, organizers asked walkers to carry a pair of new shoes with them in memory of those lost to suicide. Each pair of shoes would be donated to local shelters.

Since this year would have marked Mark's 20th birthday, Maxwell decided she wanted to donate 20 pair of shoes. Friends, family and strangers started helping her collect them. Thursday, before the walk, she had collected 40 pair and counting, all going to the Tacoma Rescue Mission.

The walk is over, but Maxwell is still raising awareness. She will continue to collect new shoes. They can be dropped at Shari's Restaurant in Bonney Lake. She's also connecting people with help organizations like the support group Survivors of Suicide, which has an Auburn chapter and another in Tacoma. She can be reached at 253-632-6251. Information about Survivors of Suicide is available at www.auburnsos.com.

The national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Brenda Sexton can be reached at bsexton@courierherald.com.

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