Drawing from experience, Algonquin woman gives hope to others in crisis

It took Gabi Vargas more than a year to tell her parents that she'd been so depressed she tried to kill herself.

The turning point came when a relative of hers took his life and Vargas saw firsthand how devastating it is for loved ones.

“After seeing the pain that my family went through, I realized I needed help,” the 31-year-old Algonquin woman said.

Vargas now is a trained volunteer for the Chicago-based nonprofit Hope For The Day, and she led the effort to organize a suicide prevention event Sunday — a day before World Suicide Prevention Day — at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, where she works as a bilingual interpreter.

The event embodies many of the things — yoga, walking, nature — that helped her get through her depression, she said. Last year, before she joined the nonprofit, she organized a suicide prevention walk on her own, also at the hospital. She made flyers, spread the word and was excited to see 40 people show up. This year, she's hoping for at least 100.

“Everyone came up to me and said, 'I lost a daughter,' 'I lost a cousin,' 'I lost a husband,'” she said. “It was like I opened a can of worms and it was like, 'Definitely, I am not the only one.'”

Suicide rates in the United States have climbed nearly 30 percent since 1999, with the largest increase among adults ages 45 to 64, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were nearly 45,000 suicides, or 123 per day, in 2016, when it was the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34.

Vargas is among two dozen or so active “surrogate” volunteers, and the only one in the Elgin area, who are trained by Hope For The Day to provide suicide prevention training for schools, businesses and community groups, said Carl Evans, the group's director of programs and operations. “We consider her one of our 'rock star' surrogates,” he said.

Mental health is a health issue, just like high cholesterol or blood pressure, Evans said. It's important to pay attention and recognize when something is amiss before people get to the crisis mode of suicidal ideation, he said.

“The biggest obstacle to effective prevention is stigma, and the silence of stigma,” he said.

Vargas said some of her own struggles came from feeling like she had let down her parents and her church for being a single mom. Now, she talks openly about mental health with her children, ages 7 and 13, because she wants them to know that — in the mantra of Hope For The Day — “it's OK not to be OK.”

“They go with me everywhere, to all my volunteer events. For me to be able to show my kids the reality of life ... I love it,” she said. “My son even spoke up about his friend cutting himself at school. The principal reached out to me, commending (him) for knowing this.”

One way to help is to ask 'what,' instead of 'why,' questions, Vargas said.

“People will ask, 'Why are you cutting yourself?' and now the child feels bad about it. When we change that to the question 'What's making you do this?', you are changing the answer as to the emotions and the feelings that you are dealing with,” she said.

Hope For The Day believes in encouraging conversation and education, much like the health community has done for diseases like breast and prostate cancer, whose rates in turn have dropped thanks to early screenings, Evans said. Employers need to be proactive and let their employees know it's OK to access mental health benefits, he said.

It's also OK to ask people if they are thinking of killing themselves, Vargas said. “Don't be afraid,” she said. “If you have that gut feeling, it's better to ask it than to regret it tomorrow.”

  Gabi Vargas wears a wristband that says "It's OK not to be OK," the mantra of Hope For The Day, the suicide prevention nonprofit where she volunteers. Elena Ferrarin/

Suicide prevention event in Elgin

What: “Sherman Gives Hope” is a new, free community event honoring World Suicide Prevention Day, which falls on Monday.

When: 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. Sunday

Where: Advocate Sherman Hospital, 1425 N. Randall Road, Elgin.

What: 6 a.m. sunrise yoga, lived experience speaking, educational programming and a one-mile walk around the hospital's geothermal lake. Reservations are encouraged at

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