Jennifer Warnick

By Susan Bean Aycock

Volunteer board member, Advocate and Waco Community Walk Chair Central Texas Chapter, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Jennifer Warnick is a member of a club she never wanted to be in. After losing her mother to suicide 13 years ago, she has dedicated herself to helping the community create a toolbox of resources for suicide prevention by awareness, education and volunteer training through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).

After participating in the AFSP community walk in Austin the year after her mom’s death, she initiated a walk in Waco, where she serves as a full-time volunteer in addition to her day job as a TxDOT quality assurance inspector and records auditor. She’s also an Army veteran, having served in the U.S., South Korea and Kuwait.

“Until we realize that mental health is just as important as physical health, change can’t fully come to fruition,” she said. “But if we all continue to work together as a united front, change is inevitable.”

Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock sat down with Warnick recently to talk about shedding light on a long-stigmatized subject, educating the community on resources for suicide prevention and most importantly, sowing hope.

WACOAN: You’re involved in suicide prevention from a very personal perspective. Tell me about your mom, Diane.

Jennifer Warnick: I lost my beautiful mom Diane to suicide on September 3, 2011, at the young age of 50. She had the brightest smile and a laugh so contagious that if you heard it, it would bring a smile to your heart. The very gift of love she gave so abundantly was the one thing her mind wouldn’t allow her to receive in return, leaving her feeling unloved and alone. My heart shattered into a million pieces when I lost my mom; she was my best friend. But she was embarrassed to say that she needed mental health help because the subject was so taboo. My brother and I were afraid that if we said we thought she needed counseling or extensive treatment, she wouldn’t talk to us anymore.

WACOAN: How did your mom’s mental health struggles affect your childhood? 

Warnick: She had battled various types of depression since her teenage years, having had childhood issues of sexual and physical abuse. I can remember that as early as 6 or 7, I would see her crying uncontrollably but didn’t understand why. Her struggles became more prevalent in my teen years and she sought medication to control her depression, but didn’t seek counseling because of the stigma surrounding mental health. She would say, ‘I’m OK, I’m just tired,’ but started taking three different medications and drinking more alcohol. To our knowledge, she was never diagnosed as bipolar, but our lives were marred by her manic episodes that changed one minute to the next. Doctors then just dealt with [the] depression the best they could, but even they didn’t have the tools to deal with mental struggles the way they do now. Unfortunately, I didn’t know myself that tools even existed until after her death.

WACOAN: What were some of your feelings following her loss that are common to those who lose loved ones through suicide?

Warnick: The biggest feelings were trying to answer the millions of questions racing through my mind. What did I miss? Were my brother and I not good enough to make her want to stay around? What about her three granddaughters, my children: were they not important enough to her? Why now? Did she truly not believe that she was loved? Did she not know how much her family, friends and I loved her?

I felt lost, hopeless, angry and disappointed with my mom, myself and my family. I thought of the whys and the questions of what I should have and could have done. Millions of tears later, I realized that I could be the story my mom never lived to tell: falling down her own flight of stairs with no handrail to grab hold of. If only we could have seen the story through her eyes, maybe we could have begun to understand the battle of the mind behind that beautiful smile of hers.

The year she took her own life, her job of 20 years closed its doors and laid everyone off; her mom passed away after battling Alzheimer’s for five years; and her medical benefits were due to expire — meaning her depression medications wouldn’t be covered any more. She decided on her own to stop taking her meds because of their affordability two weeks before her death. The week after we buried her, we discovered the approval letter for the extension of health benefits in the mail.

WACOAN: Why are mental health challenges treated differently than physical ones in our health care system and how is AFSP working to change that?

Warnick: One of its greatest missions is to normalize mental health issues. There’s just been so much misinformation and stigma surrounding mental health and suicide. We’ve even changed the verbiage, because words do matter. We don’t say commit suicide any more, because of the negativity of the word ‘commit.’ You commit murder, crime, adultery. We prefer to say ‘someone took their own life’ or ‘died by suicide.’

Education is the biggest key to improving our mental health system. If someone has a heart attack, people respond with care, understanding and compassion, but someone’s thoughts of suicide aren’t as easily received. A person’s mental health should be treated like any health ailment; your mind is just as important as your heart or lungs. You wouldn’t tell someone in the middle of a heart attack to ‘get over it’ or to ‘stop overreacting.’ Through education, we can learn about available resources and how to help each other learn how to cope.

WACOAN: What are some common misconceptions about suicide?

Warnick: One of the biggest is that there’s a single reason to take your own life. It’s just the opposite, typically a series of things piled on top of each other. My mom struggled with mental health issues all of her life, but in her last six months, had three major traumatic life events. There’s no easy fix that will make you happy or make those thoughts magically disappear. Another misconception is that it can’t happen to you or your family. Mental health issues don’t discriminate. They don’t care about the color of your skin, your religion or beliefs, your ethnicity or your gender.

WACOAN: How did you get involved with AFSP?

Warnick: I moved to Austin a year after my mom died. I walked in my first AFSP Out of the Darkness Community Walk there in 2012, and the experience forever changed my life. In 2013, I participated in the Dallas walk with several family members and friends, and vowed to bring a walk to Waco by the fall of 2014. The walks create a community of hope for those who have lost someone to suicide or who struggle with suicide ideation themselves. We can laugh together one minute and cry together the next, and we share our own stories of loss and what we’ve done to cope with the pain. Our first community walk in Waco in 2014 had 168 walkers and quickly grew, with pre-pandemic 2019 being our best year; there were 1,200 registered walkers and we raised about $68,000, far over our goal of $40,000.

WACOAN: How has your involvement with AFSP expanded over the past decade-plus?

Warnick: In 2015, I joined AFSP’s Central Texas board, which sponsors community walks in Waco, Austin and Greater Bell County [Harker Heights]; there are a total [of] five chapters in Texas representing all 254 counties. The next year, I became a field advocate. I’ve attended six AFSP advocacy forums; they’re a great way to learn about current legislation or laws we want to push for, meet other volunteer field advocates across the nation, and discover what has or hasn’t worked for everyone in their own districts. In 2022, I started volunteering for our Healing Conversations peer-to-peer support outreach program.

WACOAN: How does the AFSP of Central Texas chapter fit into the national organization and how does it interface with the local community?

Warnick: From the money raised in our local walk, 50% stays in Waco to fund educational resources such as handouts, videos, pamphlets, volunteer training and presentations. The other half goes to the national organization to fund research needed to better understand mental health, which we have to provide because mental health in general doesn’t receive much government funding. Our role here in Waco is to be an educational hub of information and resources. 

I personally don’t have all the answers, but an AFSP volunteer like myself can help you find the resources you need. We always need volunteers to help with providing these types of resources to our community. We’ve been in Waco for 10 years, and so many people still don’t know we’re here. We need a new Waco walk chair to assume full responsibility in 2025, as well as board and committee members to help grow awareness and spread hope in our community.

WACOAN: In your opinion, what are the biggest gaps in our system for mental healthcare?

Warnick: By far, staffing and funding for resources and education. The new 988 crisis line has been approved by legislation but still needs a lot of funding to fully support it with staff and resources. Right now, there aren’t enough beds for patients who are dealing with a mental health crisis, which puts a strain on the mental health system, hospitals, jails and families who are seeking help for their loved ones.

If we can help an individual during their crisis window, we most likely can save their life. Research helps us understand the numbers, but prevention plays a very important role. 90% of suicides have underlying, treatable mental health conditions that if the person had gotten help, more than likely they could gone on to live a manageable life. You don’t just need tools; you need to know how to use them — that’s why educating yourself and our community is so important.

WACOAN: What are some of the specific programs that AFSP offers and what other organizations does it collaborate with?

Warnick: On a national level, we partner with organizations like Aetna CVS Health, the American College of Emergency Physicians, the American School Counselor Association and the American Society for Clinical Pathology to provide understanding of what mental health is and ultimately how to prevent suicide. AFSP offers different programs such as Talk Saves Lives, a presentation that presents suicide’s causes, signs and symptoms; More Than Sad, a video that has taught millions of students and educators how to be smarter about mental health; and It’s Real, a documentary video of six college students from across the country telling their stories.

AFSP also offers Healing Conversations peer counseling, Out of the Darkness Community Walks and an International Survivor of Suicide Loss Day support group, held annually on the Saturday before Thanksgiving to help cope with the holidays. We’ve collaborated with several local organizations like the VA, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Veterans One Stop, Cedar Crest, Run Project and many more to present a more unified front on getting local resources and situational awareness to surrounding communities.

WACOAN: As a veteran yourself, what’s important to tell those who serve or who have served in our armed forces?

Warnick: It’s very important to me to know that AFSP supports legislation that makes suicide prevention a priority for veterans like me, active service members and their families. Twenty-two veterans die by suicide in the country each day; 14 of those never seek mental health treatment. The military trains you to ‘suck it up,’ and silent struggles are often ignored. That doesn’t go away when you transition back into the civilian world. No one understands what you have witnessed, felt or were subjected to. It’s hard to explain to your loved ones, and it’s even harder for them to understand how to help you when you’re trapped in your own mental turmoil. Knowing that AFSP is fighting for me and my fellow service members and our families gives me hope that change will come, and more veterans will see that asking for help is the exact opposite of weakness. It’s actually a strength.

WACOAN: Even though you’re a full-time volunteer for AFSP, what about your career outside of it? 

Warnick: I grew up in Wills Point in northeast Texas, and joined the Army right out of high school as a supply specialist. I was an E-5 Sergeant in the military for five years as a stock control clerk, maintaining stock items as large as Bradley engines to the smallest bolt. After traveling around several bases in the U.S., serving time at Camp Casey, Korea [12 miles from the DMZ] and in Operation Iraqi Freedom in Kuwait, I decided to leave military life and focus on my young family. I’ve worked as a dispatcher for Mississippi Baking — they make the breadsticks for Olive Garden and McDonalds in the south — a fuel dispatcher for Brookshire Grocery Co., and a quality control technician in the construction industry. In 2023, I marked 10 years with TxDOT [Texas Department of Transportation] as a quality assurance inspector and records auditor in its Materials and Test Division in Waco. I love what I do because every day is different. It’s challenging but rewarding, and the people I work with have become a second family to me.

WACOAN: What gives you hope in battling the fight against mental health issues that can lead to suicide?

Warnick: It brings peace to my heart knowing that someone cares enough to fight this battle with me and that I’m not alone on this journey I didn’t ask to be on. Knowing that my voice matters, I’m able to be a voice for people like my mom who no longer have a voice. At the end of the day, if all I do is help one person, it’s worth every minute of the fight. Hand-in-hand, step-by-step, and mile-by-mile, we can create change together.

WACOAN: Tell me about your own family and support system, and how they fit into the mental health fight.

Warnick: My husband Chris has held me up and encouraged me when times seemed unbearable by reminding me that change doesn’t happen overnight and to never give up. We have three beautiful daughters: Kayla, 23, who’s studying to be a paralegal at Tyler Community College; Madison, 19, studying to be a teacher at MCC; and Chayan, 14, who attends Gatesville High School and aspires to be a midwife. My brother Aaron, my only sibling, lives in Waco. Our family is part of Trinity Fellowship Church in McGregor.

I’ve been open with my daughters since day one of losing my mom, their ‘Nanna Di.’ I have shown them compassion and empathy through my involvement with AFSP, taught them the warning signs, and let them know that it’s OK not to be OK. I brought my two older daughters along with me to meetings on the Hill during past Advocacy Forums. Throughout my journey, they have witnessed how impactful just one voice can be. They know their voice is powerful. If our representatives see the need, they will listen. Every voice is loud, but together we are louder! 

My husband, my daughters, my extended family and friends, as well as many volunteers and community sponsors, have given me the fire and the passion to keep going when my tank is beyond depleted. I hate the circumstances that have brought us together, but I’m grateful that I’ve worked alongside each and every one of these beautiful souls. 

WACOAN: What keeps you going?

Warnick: Knowing that it’s OK to ask for help encourages me to continue educating our community in the fight to raise awareness and break through the stigma surrounding suicide. I pray that I can provide a sense of hope to those like my mom who suffered in silence, to be a beacon of hope for families so that they know someone out there is fighting for them and their loved ones. Until my dying breath, I’ll do everything in my power to continue to fight for better mental health care and for a better tomorrow so others don’t feel alone and hopeless like my mom did. There is hope.

For more information on local AFSP resources, to register for the Waco community walk, or to ask about volunteer opportunities in Waco, call Jennifer Warnick at 512-661-9335 or email centraltx@afsp.org.


Places to Get Help for Mental Health Issues

Heart of Texas Behavioral Health Network: New Youth Resources

New resources are available for local youth with mental health crises through the Heart of Texas Behavioral Health Network (HOTBHN), which has been awarded an $850,0000 Health and Human Services grant to fund its Youth Crisis Outreach Team (YCOT). Essential functions include triage and screening; assessment, de-escalation and resolution; peer and family partner support; coordination with medical and behavioral health services; and crisis planning and follow-up.

“This should result in fewer psychiatric hospitalizations and ER visits, as the goal of the (YCOT) program is to stabilize crises and connect children and youth to ongoing behavioral health support,” said Ron Kimbell, Director of Klaras Center for Families, HOTBHN’s child and adolescent behavioral health services provider. “(We) provide nurturing, relational and trauma-informed services to children and youth struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts and other emotional and mental health issues. There are multiple life adjustments during childhood and adolescence, so ‘growing up’ is challenging in the best of circumstances.”

HOTBHN has also recently been awarded a $60,000 grant by the Aspen Institute Pilot Program for Opportunity Youth, a program for young people ages 16 to 24 to enter employment and education pathways, including mentoring, a trauma-informed approach and wraparound support. “The newly awarded grant will allow (us and our) many community partners to enhance employment, education, and mental health support to youth and young adults in our community,” said Kimbell.

Klaras Center for Families serves the six-county region of McLennan, Bosque, Falls, Freestone, Hill and Limestone counties. For more information, call 254-752-7889 or visit hotbhn.org. A Diversion Center opened in October at 6400 Imperial Drive, Suite 107 as a new-and-improved hub for those facing mental health concerns and is partnered with various groups in the community. Find all Waco HOTBHN services and contact information at hotbhn.org/about/waco-facilities. The crisis hotline is 1-866-752-3451.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Founded in 1987, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is a volunteer-driven health organization dedicated to saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide. AFSP engages in funding scientific research; educating the public; advocating for public policies; and supporting survivors of suicide loss and those affected by suicide. In 2021, suicide was the eleventh leading cause of death in the U.S., with 48,183 Americans taking their own lives that year. AFSP has local chapters in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

For more information on local AFSP resources, to register for the Waco community walk, or to ask about volunteer opportunities in Waco, call Jennifer Warnick at 512-661-9335 or email centraltx@afsp.org.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There’s also a new 988 emergency hotline similar to 911, a crisis line for people who are contemplating suicide but also for their family members or loved ones to call. It’s free and staffed by trained counselors 24/7. You can also text TALK to 741741 to talk to someone who can guide you through the crisis window.

Find a full list of AFSP community programs at afsp.org/community-programs; and programs geared for students elementary age through college at afsp.org/education. Visit afsp.org/advocacy to learn how volunteer advocates are helping to change public policy and afsp.org/get-help to find support resources. AFSP’s goal is to reduce the annual suicide rate by 20% by the year 2025; find out more at afsp.org/project2025.

National and Local Suicide Statistics
• In 2021 there were an estimated 1.70 million suicide attempts (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)
• In 2021, 22% of high school students in the U.S. seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year (Youth Risk Behavior Survey)
• In 2021, 18% of U.S. high school students made a suicide plan during the past year (Youth Risk Behavior Survey)
• From 2011-2021, the percentage of female students who made a suicide plan increased from 15% to 24% (Youth Risk Behavior Survey)
• In 2021, 10% of high school students attempted suicide one or more times during the past year (Youth Risk Behavior Survey)
• In 2021, 3% of high school students made a suicide attempt that resulted in an injury, poisoning or overdose that had to be treated by a doctor or nurse during that year (Youth Risk Behavior Survey) ] • From 2011-2021 the percentage of female and male students who experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased from 36%-57%. (Youth Risk Behavior Survey)
• In Waco, an estimated 21.5% of adults reported frequent mental distress in 2021, compared to an average of 16.3%. (City Health Dashboard)