A mom’s mission: Suicide Prevention Month goes beyond September

Following the death of her son by suicide in 2018, Anna Downing is spreading a message of hope to save even just one person from the same fate.
Published: Sep. 14, 2022 at 9:51 PM CDT

LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - It’s a difficult conversation to have with loved ones: talking about mental health and suicide. It’s also one that’s becoming increasingly important and more mainstream in recent years and for one Nebraska mom, it’s one she’s having with anyone who will listen.

Following the death of her son by suicide in 2018, Anna Downing is spreading a message of hope to save even just one person from the same fate.

“That day was like somebody took a knife and just gutted me,” Downing said.

Her son, Thomas, took his own life during his freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She said earlier in the day they had spoken, he assured her everything was fine, and hours later, he was dead.

“After the shock and everything wore off I was like this has got to stop.”

She describes her son as a young man who loved theater and speech and as someone whose voice could command a room with no effort.

“He would be friends with anybody, he would talk to anybody he would give rides to anybody,” Downing said. “He was just very loving and giving and caring.”

She’s now dedicated her time to having tough but necessary conversations about mental health and suicide on boards, in schools, and even through support groups online.

The journey has brought her back together with Thomas’ former teacher. He said creating those connections and safe environments for students to talk to about those issues is one of the most important parts of his job.

“When you think of somebody like Thomas who had all these wonderful things going for him and he took his life, think about the person who doesn’t have all those things going for them,” said Clark Kolterman.

Students like Julya Metschke are also getting involved. She connected with Downing as part of a school-related project on suicide awareness. She hosted a panel, put up signage in her school, and collected shirts - 271 to be exact - to represent the number of Nebraskans who died by suicide in 2020.

Metschke displayed those shirts on chairs in the school’s auditorium, something she said made her think of the far-reaching impact of suicide.

“It’s a person and their parents and their grandparents and their aunts and their uncles and their siblings and their friends,” she said.

While Downing remembers her son every day, September brings awareness to the forefront. It’s Suicide Prevention Month and the narrative is changing.

“20 years ago, you know, your son committed suicide, what kind of a parent were you? That’s not the way things are now, it’s, people realize that there’s an illness that causes it,” Downing said. “And with that support system, it makes it easier to talk about.”

Downtown Seward’s main drag is now dotted with signs and pinwheels, reminding people they matter.

“When you save one person you’re saving who knows how many other lives,” Downing said.

Over the summer, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline transitioned from a 1-800 number to just three digits: 988. It offers instant help to those struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts.

During the first week of 988, it got more than 96,000 calls and messages nationwide. Compared to last year, it’s a 66% increase.

If you or somebody you know might be struggling that number is available 24/7.