Brought together by tragedy, metro moms join forces to help reduce stigma of mental illness

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Two Johnson County mothers bonded by tragedy are now coming together to help others.

Karen Arkin and Allie Doss both lost children to suicide last year and have now made it their mission to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness to help prevent suicide in other families.

Arkin lost her son, Jason, last May to suicide. At the time, he was 20 years old and studying electrical engineering at Northwestern University.

“Jason was a real perfectionist,” Arkin said. “He was really, really hard on himself.”

Arkin said Jason was a smart, driven young man, who under the surface struggled much of his life with depression and anxiety.

“He would say that he was a perfectionist to try to make the world a better place,” Arkin said. “He described it as the soul of his being, even though he knew it was his worst enemy.”

It was an enemy that, despite medication and treatment, never weakened for Jason – leading him to take his own life right before college finals.

“I don't blame him,” Arkin said. “I've never been angry at him. But I blame this terrible disease of depression. I blame the stigma because he didn’t feel comfortable reaching out.”

“He felt weak. He felt very internally flawed and so many people suffer this way, and so many young people are dying and their beauty and their potential is lost to the world forever.”

It’s a pain that's all too familiar to Doss, who lost her sweet 16-year-old daughter, Sara, to suicide just two months after Jason died.

“She was also a perfectionist from when she was really, really little,” Doss said. “Top of her class, she ended with a 4.7 GPA. She spoke multiple languages…”

But unlike Arkin, Doss never saw it coming.

“Complete and total shock,” Doss said. “No note, no indication, no pre-warning. We didn`t have the ability to get her into therapy because we didn`t know that she was struggling.”

The two devastating tragedies have brought these two moms together.

“She made me feel like I wasn`t alone,” Doss said of meeting Arkin. “And so from that moment on, we were just kind of kindred spirits in the fight to save others.”

Arkin and Doss have joined forces to create the Speak Up Foundation, which is short for Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids United as Partners Foundation.

“Our hope is that Speak Up will provide education and awareness in our community bridging the gaps between community, schools and parents,” the moms said.

“We want to encourage open conversations with our children and educate our community about the different signs of children who may be at risk.”

If they can save just one person’s life, the mothers believe their efforts are worth it.

“That`s why we talk about it,” Arkin said. “Not just to keep their memory alive, but to let other parents know it can happen to anyone.”

Added Doss, “I had many conversations with Sara. We talked about boys. We talked about feelings. We talked about drugs. We talked about bullying. What conversation I didn’t have with her was about her mental health.”

“What I would give to be able to have that conversation with Sara. It would be amazing. Do I think it would’ve changed the outcome? I don’t even allow myself to speculate. But I would love to give that ability to another parent or to educate the parent to have that conversation.”

Arkin and Doss plan to honor their children this Sunday at a fundraiser for their foundation called the Speak Up Walk.

The walk will be Sunday, Oct. 9 at 9 a.m. at Ironwoods Park, 14701 Mission Road in Leawood, Kan.

All money raised will go to programs in local high schools aimed at teaching teens about mental illness and the resources available to them.

For more information or to register for the walk, click here.