Editor’s Note: Some names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of a person who committed suicide and their spouse.

On such a damp and blustery morning it was hard to tell if it was rain or tears that slid down the cheeks of some that were gathered for the Fourth Annual Polk County Suicide Awareness Walk/Run. One thing that was not in question was the passion the crowd had to raise money for mental health awareness and services. 

Organized and operated by community volunteers, the Polk County Suicide Awareness Walk was started in 2016, and in the first three years raised $100,000 for suicide prevention in area communities. This year efforts were once again successful, with their walk enabling $40,000 to be contributed to the cause.

After her son Jordan died by suicide on August 19th, 2015, Tristan Divine decided to create a fundraising team in memory of Jordan and participate in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walk, held in September 2015, at the Mall of America. Divine’s team raised almost $7,000 in just three weeks. She decided after that walk to keep the money they raised for suicide prevention, in Jordan’s memory, local. Divine, leading a group of volunteers, decided to start a walk in Polk County. Her goal is to help bring awareness to our own community and bring awareness into our schools and give the kids an outlet to encourage positive emotional health.

Executive Director for the Mental Health Task Force of Polk County, Tom Brock, said  despite the weather they still had approximately 500 people attend the walk. “It is a meaningful statement regarding the support this event experiences,” he said.

Polk County Sheriff Brent Waak spoke before the walk/run. He said, “It was an honor to speak at such a great community event about an issue that needs so much support and attention.” Waak said mental health is a priority for his administration. He shared he had met with the Attorney General Josh Kahl three weeks ago and with legislative officials in Madison to address the lack of local beds for mental health situations. He said often times his team must go over four hours away to Winnebago Mental Health when dealing with someone in crisis. He explained the process; how they first spend hours at a local hospital, then get shuffled out of the region with the person needing help. During his time onstage Saturday, Waak asked for a round of applause for Amery behavioral health in their efforts to have beds available, they are the only hospital in the region with that initiative. He shared his concern for the high suicide rate with law enforcement. “Very few departments have a prevention program. We are starting peer support and Chaplin for our employees. We are trying to get rid of the Stigma with mental health so everyone feels they can seek help if needed,” said Waak. He said that suicide exceeds line of duty deaths. 

Amery Hospital and Clinic offered their support at the event as part of Health Partner’s “Make It OK” campaign. Their mission is to reduce the stigma of mental illnesses and to change hearts and minds about the misperceptions of mental illnesses by encouraging open conversations and education on the topic.

Jane Smith shared that she has shown up at the Polk County Walk for the past few years and thinks of it as therapy. She feels like it is the one time of year where she can look into the eyes of others who have felt some of the same pain that she has experienced. “Everyone deals with it differently. There isn’t anyone who has felt the exact feelings that I have, but I think it is likely that there are others at the walk who can relate,” said Jane.

Jane’s husband committed suicide a decade ago. He left her with two young children. Jane has spent countless days struggling with the battle between trying to forget that day all together and trying to recall each and every minute that she had with Jon that day before she received the call that forever changed her life. 

“It was a hectic morning, I was shuffling the kids out the door and heading to work. I swiftly said goodbye to Jon. I have wondered since if he knew that was the last time he would kiss me. I’ve wondered if I would have hugged him tighter or longer if it would have made a difference. I wondered if he stood at the window and stared at our children one last time, but these are things I will never know.”

Jane said she was never aware of her husband having any issues with depression or mental illness of any sort. She is unsure if Jon would have admitted feelings of sadness to her. “I just wish he would have talked to someone-anyone.” She said the couple were having financial difficulties, which had put a strain on things at home. “He had joked one time that he was probably worth more dead than alive, but there is no way to know whether he was seriously thinking about ending his life at that time.” She shared she wishes that he knew that ending his life would not end all of the family’s difficulties saying, “It was the start of a different set of difficulties. Our finances could have changed over time, but the new set of difficulties that started after he was gone will never go away.”

Jane said she struggled with feelings of embarrassment and wondered if people blamed her. She was really angry at first, next she was sad and then she felt guilty over being angry with Jon and sad in front of her children. “I have spent every single day since living in fear. I am so damn scared that one of my kids will follow in their dad’s footsteps. I cannot go through this again.” She shared that she tries very hard to have open dialogue with her children about how Jon’s suicide has affected all of them. 

“It has changed my relationship with Jon’s family and the dynamic between myself and  our friends. At first I thought about moving far away, but I would harbor the feelings I have no matter where we lived and didn’t want to put my kids through more change. There are many days that I put on a brave face, but the walk is the one day that I feel I do not need to,” she said.

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