News Article Details

Suicide Prevention Vigil held in response to area tragedies

Columbus Telegram - 9/5/2018

Sept. 05--Donna Wolff said she believes wholeheartedly that mental illness needs to be treated in the same manner as any other malady.

When people suffer from heart disease or lung cancer, they receive treatment from medical professionals. The problem, she said, is that same can't be said of when a person's brain isn't functioning properly. When debilitating depression weighs down on people, many times they don't receive the help they need and are crushed.

"There's a lot of people left behind who don't know how to grieve because there is such a stigma and taboo associated with it," said Wolff, founder of the Northeast Nebraska Suicide Prevention Coalition in Norfolk. "And we really need to start talking about this issue -- a mental health issue. The brain is an organ like anything else. If your heart was failing you have no problem going to the doctor. But, when it's an imbalance of the brain people are totally afraid of getting help for it."

Wolff, whose son died by suicide in March 2009, created the nonprofit organization to provide resources to other families coping with the loss of a loved one as well as working to prevent more death at the hands of mental illness. On Tuesday, Wolff spoke during a 7:30 p.m. Candlelight Suicide Prevention vigil held in Frankfort Square.

The vigil was held in response to four confirmed suicides in Platte County during August, according to Robin Swearingen, facilitator for the Columbus Area Survivors of Suicide Support Group. The group, utilized by those 18 and older who've been affected by suicide, meets the first Tuesday of the month from 7-9 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, 2710 14th St.

"There have been four suicides in Platte County that we know of since August," Swearingen said. "They ranged from the ages of 18-80 and happened in about the first two weeks of August."

After learning of the deaths, Swearingen said she took action and coordinated the vigil with the help of Wolff and The Rev. Cynthia Stewart, leader of First United Methodist.

Swearingen said she felt compelled to take action because she knows firsthand the mental anguish felt by family members and friends of those who've taken their own life. She said her 21-year-old nephew living in the Holdrege area died by suicide in September 2011.

The vigil provided an outlet for people to receive more information about suicide prevention and learn about all of the vital resources at their fingertips. Attendees had the chance to learn where to turn to and what to look for in terms of suicide precursors.

Tears were shed and sympathy was shared on Tuesday night as dozens of people, young and old, in attendance took time to reflect on the passing of loved ones. A table was on display featuring numerous items, including suicide awareness bracelets and resources available for those suffering from depression and those seeking to help their loved ones.

There was a moment for a group prayer to remember those lost to suicide and discussion about support options. After that, attendees helped each other light their candles for a moving candlelight vigil in memory of their loved ones, whose names were read aloud.

"People need to see what's going on. It's not easy to talk about," said attendee and Columbus resident Stacy Coughtry, who lost her daughter to suicide six years ago. "I hope people find peace, but it's still taboo to talk about."

Fellow Columbus resident Jeff Schneider was also in attendance.

"Hopefully this (event) will increase awareness and generate more help for people with mental illness," he said.

Although it's virtually impossible to pinpoint one stressor or another that ultimately leads to action stemming from suicidal thoughts, Swearingen said mental illness is something that builds and boils. People not afflicted with mental illness inevitably are relieved of these stressors and feelings, while someone with a brain imbalance isn't.

"It's like a tea cup. Everyone has problems every day and for most of us the tea cup fills up and eventually tips over," Swearingen said. "Those who are suicidal, it keeps filling up and never tips over. It keeps building and building, and clearly no one really knows why."

Swearingen formed her support group in April 2017 after receiving encouragement from Wolff and completing formal training through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The support group is directly affiliated with the Prevention Coalition, she added.

Typically, six regulars attend meetings. Although the pain of coping with suicide is never alleviated, it can be dealt with in a productive way.

"One mom in particular, she has really gotten stronger," she said. "She had a (teenage) child within the last couple years commit suicide and she has been able to start healing."

September serves as National Suicide Awareness Month and National Survivors of Suicide Day is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 10. Awareness, in its many forms, continues being of the utmost importance, Wolff said.

Nothing gets better from not dealing with a problem at hand. It keeps growing and adapting and showing its ugly face, she said.

"There have just been so many (suicides). Everyone thinks it's Omaha and Lincoln, but we (smaller communities) are losing people to suicide, too," Wolff said. "Statistics show that one suicide touches six people personally, and we know that number is actually much higher."

" ... There is a lot of help available out there, but we have to let them know that it's OK to ask for and receive that help."

Anybody with suicidal thoughts or impulses is asked to contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

Managing Editor Matt Lindberg contributed to this story.

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at


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