Arizona House of Representatives

The members of the Arizona House of Representatives gave Ben and Denise Denslow a standing ovation last Tuesday after they unanimously approved Jakes Law.

The grassroots movement that sprung from the East Valley in the wake of a long string of teen suicides that started three years ago culminated last week in the unanimous passage of a sweeping law intended to prevent suicide and expand mental health treatment.

Gov. Doug Ducey immediately signed Jake’s Law with a flourish, while Denise and Ben Denslow – the Gilbert couple who campaign for the law for three years – held a picture of their 15-year-old son, Jacob Edward Machovsky, who took his life in January 2016.

Jacob died three months after an insurance company decided that in-patient treatment was no longer a “medical necessity.’’

The overriding goal of Jake’s law is parity, forcing insurance companies to comply with a federal law and to treat mental illness no differently than physical illness.

But the wide-ranging legislation also has other important goals. 

It creates an $8 million fund to expand behavioral health treatment in the schools, and a Suicide Mortality Review Team to investigate the root causes behind each suicide.

Jake’s Law represents a significant next step from the Mitch Warnock Act, passed last year to require training of teachers and other school employees to recognize the early warning signs of suicide.

“We all admire your resolve and determination to help prevent this tragedy from happening to other families,’’ Ducey said, praising the Denslows and Angela Gamboa, another East Valley resident who lost her son to suicide under similar circumstances.

“In honor of everyone in Arizona lost to suicide, this bill is for you,’’ Ducey said.

The law becomes effective 91 days from the last day of this year’s legislative session. Last year, new laws took effect on July 1.

The Denslows were political novices overcome by grief. 

They were inspired by Timothy’s Law, a parity bill in New York named after a 12-year-old boy who completed suicide, and decided to pour their time and resources into the Jem Foundation to accomplish their mission.

That mission was accomplished with a stroke of a pen, seemingly with lightning speed on Tuesday, but only after months of meetings and politicking skillfully orchestrated by Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, the bill’s sponsor.

“It’s mostly an overwhelming sense of gratitude,’’ Denise Denslow, Jake’s mother, said. “It brings a sense of peace to the tragedy we faced. In a lot of ways, this is Jake’s legacy.’’

Ben Denslow noted that his stepson wanted to be a fighter pilot and knew what it was like to be bullied, so he would always stand up for other marginalized kids.

But Jake was always burdened by mental health problems that eventually were diagnosed as bipolar disorder.

“This whole thing is so him. He had a kind heart,’’ Ben Denslow said.

Brophy McGee said she feels fortunate to have met the Denslows and that her ultimate goal throughout was to save children’s lives.

“I am so grateful for the Denslows’ dedication and commitment,’’ she said. “We put politics aside, for really good policy for kids. I am honored to sponsor Jake’s Law.’’

The grassroots movement dates back to a forum organized by Katie McPherson, a longtime Chandler educator and former principal who used her extensive contacts in education to chronicle a growing number of teen suicides in Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler, Tempe and Queen Creek.

McPherson has compiled an unofficial list of at least 38 suicides, mostly involving teenage boys, in mostly affluent neighborhoods that have occurred since July 2017. 

The shocking numbers mobilized the community, raising awareness about the warning signs of teen suicide, the need for meaningful conversations between parents and children, and the dangers of social isolation created by over-reliance on cell phones and obsessive use of video games.

The annual Arizona Child Safety Review Program report found that in 2018, suicide among young people increased by 28 percent, from 50 to 64, with males 15-17 years old at the highest risk.

Firearms were the second most popular means used, prompting a recommendation to remove firearms from the homes of anyone suffering from any form of mental illness.

“The number of suicide deaths in 2018 is the highest ever reported by our teams,’’ wrote Dr. Mary Ellen Rimsza, who directs the program, which has issued 26 yearly reports.

Rimsza concluded that all suicide deaths are preventable with proper intervention, and they were among the 327 preventable deaths of children, with 843 children dying from a variety of causes.

“We’ve suffered and we have been able to turn our suffering into something that will help others,’’ said Christie Lee Kinchen, a Scottsdale Realtor who father completed suicide when she was a little girl, and who later attempted suicide.