A Gilbert couple’s hard work – started three years ago in the wake of their 15-year-old son’s suicide – paid off as a sweeping mental health bill flew unscathed through a series of legislative hearings straight to the Governor’s desk.
On March 4, Governor Doug Ducey signed the bill into law after it gained unanimous support at the legislature.
The week prior, four Senate and House committees each voted unanimously to recommend that the full legislature approve Jake’s Law, which would require insurance companies to treat mental health in the same manner as physical illness, finally enforcing a 12-year-old federal law.
“Jake is more than his mental illness, and he is more than his death,” said Denise Denslow, who pursued the legislation in the wake of her son’s death. “In a lot of ways this is his legacy. He was full of compassion, empathy, and love and he always looked out for others.”
“I know that this is what Jake would have wanted us to do,” Denslow said. “We can’t bring Jake back but we can make sure this doesn’t happen to other families. Thank you for allowing us to honor Jake.”
An important provision of the law creates a Suicide Mortality Review Team, aimed at identifying the root causes of each suicide as quickly as possible to prevent more deaths.
One goal of the legislation is to expand the availability of counseling and other mental health services to students in schools, addressing problems before the grim prospect of a child viewing suicide as an option for ending their pain.
School districts have the option of contracting with a mental health provider and billing the state or providing the services and seeking reimbursement from the state.
Mental health advocates view Jake’s Law as a critical next step in suicide prevention, beyond the Mitch Warnock Act, now requires training of school employees to recognize the early warning signs of suicide.
“I tell people all the time, your stories have power. It’s your stories that change hearts and minds,’’ Denslow said. “I think it’s past time for this. We have lost our son. We can’t bring our son back, but we can make sure it doesn’t happen to someone else.’’
Three years ago, Denslow and her husband, Ben, sold their larger home near Chandler Fashion Mall, in need of a fresh start after Jacob’s death in January 2016.
The couple moved to a smaller house in south Gilbert and plowed the money they made into launching the JEM Foundation in Jacob’s memory. They committed themselves to a non-profit charity, not a partisan political organization – even though politics were a necessary part of getting a bill passed.
“We had a lot of people tells us ‘you will never get a parity law passed in Arizona,’’’ Denslow said.
But the Denslows weren’t going to be discouraged easily.
After two hospitalizations in Sept 2015, both of them lasting five days, Jacob was discharged from an in-patient program after an insurance company ruled it was not a “medical necessity,’’ even though mental health professionals feared he was not stabilized.
An out-patient program proved inadequate when he took his own life three months later.
Despite a lack of background in politics, the Denslows embarked on a grassroots effort. They spent three years cultivating relationships and learning what it takes to get a bill passed.
They eventually found allies willing to help them. They started with Sen. Sean Bowie and Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, then built some bi-partisan support by adding influential Republicans, including Chandler state Rep. Jeff Weninger and Chandler Sen. J.D. Mesnard.
Those allies include Sen. Kate Brophy-McGee, R-Phoenix, the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, where Jake’s Law got a friendly reception that was repeated at three other hearings.
Committee members also include co-chair Sen. Heather Carter, R-Phoenix, who has long supported suicide prevention and health-oriented legislation.
Scottsdale resident Christie Lee Kinchen praised the legislature and Governor for their support of Jake’s Law.
“In the final remarks during the last vote today, the Speaker House of Representatives, said so poignantly ‘Pain has no party,’” Kinchen said. “Today we have made a huge step in the right direction to remove the stigma of mental and behavioral health in Arizona.”
Kinchen, a suicide survivor herself, worked alongside the Denslows to lobby for passage of the law and shared her story repeatedly with legislators, including the struggle to pay medical bills in the wake of a suicide attempt.
“Behavioral health will have to be treated the same as physical health by our insurance companies,” Kinchen said. “Our youth will have access to more resources. This is for all of Arizona! I’m so proud!”
Legislators repeatedly praised the Denslows and other victims of suicide for telling their deeply personal stories at the legislative hearings, proving that the human touch can be persuasive.
“I want you to know that we know and we care,’’ Carter said, after some tearful testimony. “We will do everything we can to make sure these services are provided in a timely manner, so that your sons and daughters did not die in vain.’’
Kinchen told various committees how her father took his life when she was a child, how she had attempted suicide, amassing massive medical bills during her treatment.
“We need you’re help. Jake’s Law will save lives. You can be life savers,’’ Kinchen said.
Brophy-McGee responded, “the reason you are here is because God has a plan for you’’ to help others.
Randall Bass, a physicist, testified that he had attempted suicide in the eighth grade, leaving a gash in his head.
But after receiving treatment, Bass said he went on to a long and productive career. He said teen suicide deprives society of the contribution victims would have made if they had lived.
The Denslows told the committees how their son wanted to be a fighter pilot and loved hockey, but they recognized signs of mental illness throughout his life.
They tried virtually everything to help him and eventually, Jake was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.
“We knew about these struggles at home, but he hid them from the outside world,’’ Denise Denslow testified.
Denslow said her son would likely be alive today if Jake’s Law had been in existence.
But she praised insurance companies for engaging in constructive meetings with suicide prevention advocates long before Jake’s Law was introduced, eliminating a potential source of opposition.
A representative of Blue Cross/Blue Shield was listed as a supporter of Jake’s Law on the Senate’s web site. Many medical organizations also were listed as supporters, including the Arizona Medical Association, the Arizona Nurses Association, Phoenix Children’s Hospital and the state’s three largest hospital chains, Banner, Dignity and Honor.
“People don’t see all the work that goes on behind the scenes,’’ Denslow said, praising Brophy-McGee for her work in putting together a coalition of supporters. “Ben and I have been working on this for three years.’’
She said she modeled Jake’s Law after Timothy’s Law, a similar measure in New York State. Timothy’s Law was dedicated to the memory of a 12-year-old boy who took his life.
“The system failed them. The status quo is not working. We need to make changes to save our citizens. They deserve better,’’ Denslow said.
Wayne Schutsky contributed to this report.