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Stephanie Downey works to increase awareness of the risk factors and warning signs of suicide. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Living on purpose: Work is a mission for suicide prevention coordinator

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Brooke Wichmann

For the Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Stephanie Downey realized her calling early in life.

“I knew I just wanted to be somewhere in the helping field,” said Downey, who has been the suicide prevention coordinator at Evergreen Youth and Family Services in Bemidji since 2008. “To me, it’s really about giving back to other people, giving of myself in a way that I can help somebody else out.”

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Downey grew up in Bagley, and has lived in Bemidji since graduating from BSU. “I do a lot of coordinating of prevention and awareness and education in the community,” she said. This includes organizing events such as the annual Run/Walk/Skate for Suicide Prevention and regularly going into area schools to do presentations for students. By increasing awareness of the risk factors and warning signs of suicide, as well as the available means of support, Downey works to reduce the rate of suicides in our area.

Gary Russell, program director at Evergreen Youth and Family Services, says for Downey, “work is more than just work. It’s a mission.”

Russell said Beltrami County no longer has the highest rate of youth suicide in the state, and he thinks Downey’s efforts in the community are partly responsible for that.

While the focus of her work is something that many people would prefer not to think or talk about, Downey has never shied away from this or other mental health issues. According to Russell, she excels in her role of coordinator, where she designs, implements and helps deliver a variety of programming. “She kind of thrives on being able to keep up all those balls in the air,” Russell said. “She has an ability to get a lot done and work on macro levels. It would crush other people, but she thrives on being able to do that.”

Still, Downey recognizes the challenges of her chosen work. “You don’t often see (your impact), because change in a person’s mental health isn’t something that happens overnight,” she said. “If you’re looking for immediate gratification in your job, of seeing this miraculous big change, this probably isn’t the field for you.”

So how does she stay motivated, inspired, and engaged? They key, she saID, is being able to recognize and appreciate the small things. “It might be something as simple as a smile from somebody or a realization that you see in their face, or (hearing about) something that a student does in their school.”

For Downey, the practice of cultivating gratitude and appreciation doesn’t just apply to her work. She actively seeks out beauty and opportunity in each moment of her life. “Like walking outside to my car,” she said. “It’s really cold, but the sun is coming through the trees in the park on the other side of the street. Or I come home and it’s dark at night and I see the stars up in the sky and I realize: ‘Thank you, God, for the reminder.’”

“But,” she admitted, “I haven’t always looked for these.” Developing her capacity to recognize and be grateful for little, everyday moments has taken time, effort and life experience.

Losing her father to lung cancer two years ago, and her brother to a heart attack when he was only 35 years old greatly impacted her worldview. “After losing people close to you in your life, you come to a different understanding of what is really important.”

She says that as she’s gotten older, she has grown stronger in her faith. She’s an active member of St. Philip’s Catholic Church and says that trusting that God has a plan for her has helped her appreciate little things in her life a lot more.

She says that her favorite word these days is “hope.” It is the hope that things can be better and that she can be part of that positive change that gets her out of bed every morning. “The hope that maybe if I’m doing a presentation, that there’s one thing I am going to say that will impact a person’s life to either help themselves or help somebody else out,” she said. Though she may not know when this occurs, she knows that there will be less chance for this kind of positive change if she does nothing. “If I don’t share what I believe in, then for sure it’s not going to happen.”

It is easier to find gratitude and appreciation when you feel good, so Downey makes time to take care of herself, doing things like exercising regularly (she currently enjoys kick-boxing), eating healthy foods and spending time with friends and family. “I see her doing a lot of things in terms of self-care.” Russell said. “She doesn’t neglect herself. She manages to contain things in a reasonable work week so she is able to make the time.”

Downey has been influenced by Sources of Strength, a program she uses with youth. She thinks it’s important that everyone, herself included, focus on building up the eight areas of strength mentioned in the program: access to mental health, access to medical health, family, mentors, positive peers, positive activities, generosity/giving back, and spirituality.

“That’s what’s going to be able to give us the coping skills to deal with the difficult stuff when it comes,” Downey said.

She also practices positive thinking. “There’s going to be difficult times in our life,” she acknowledges, but has learned to ask herself, “What can you take from them that you can turn into a positive thing?” Focusing on what is positive helps her make the best of each moment. We can’t control everything that happens to us, but we can control how we respond and “looking at the negative side isn’t going to make things any easier.” She offers the example of being stuck in traffic: “You can be angry at the person who cuts you off, or at how slow the traffic is going, or you can just sit back and go with the flow.”

Downey admits that focusing on the positive can take a lot of effort at first. “But,” she says, “it becomes a kind of habit if it is a practice that you try to engage in regularly.”

While it may take time and effort to acknowledge and appreciate the small things, Downey says the results are worth it. “If you always expect huge change or something magnificent, I think you lose out and are missing things in your day-to-day life. I find I’m more satisfied if I can be grateful for those everyday things that happen. I find more happiness than I was expecting.”

BROOKE’S SUGGESTIONS FOR APPLYING STEPHANIE’S WISDOM TO YOUR OWN LIFE

● Create a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, write down three or more things you are grateful for.

● Find ways to positively impact the lives of others. Downey says you could regularly volunteer your time, donate resources, or even do something as simple as smile at others as you walk down the street.

● Examine the eight areas of strength in your life. Choose one that is currently weak and develop a plan to make it stronger.

Brooke Wichmann of Bemidji is a certified life coach and has a master’s degree in peace education. She’s passionate about helping people realize their full potential to create meaningful change in themselves and the world. She owns Connectivity Coaching, and is co-director of Inner Compass Consulting. She can be contacted at brooke@connectivity-coaching.com

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