Our Chapter’s Blog

A Volunteer’s 4-Year Journey After Suicide Loss

(November 26, 2018)

by Bridget Yeager, volunteer for AFSP Western PA chapter

On Saturday, November 17, 2018, I went to the Survivors of Suicide Loss Day conference in Pittsburgh. It was my fourth time attending this event, but it was my first time as a volunteer.

As I helped people sign in, the range of how long it had been for people’s losses really struck me. The longest it had been since a loss was from about seventeen years to within one to two months.

I remember being part of this latter category; back in 2014 I had come with two friends seven weeks after my boyfriend died by suicide. The three of us were in such despair, reaching out to this one thing that sounded like sense in a world gone mad. Ours had been the freshest loss that year and though it was difficult to be there, people went out of their way to be kind to us and tell us how glad they were that we had come.

Four years later I understand even more how those people must have felt for us, as I catch snippets of conversation of those who had lost their loved ones only a handful of months prior. I know them without knowing them, their trembling voices and tears all too familiar to me.

We began with A Daughter’s Journey, a documentary following a young woman named Sarah who had lost her father at a young age and how she both copes with and honors his death. Attendees expressed feelings of wondering what to do with significant events, such as a school event or a graduation without their loved one.

The discussions were continued further when family therapist Rogna Jurecko was showcased to talk about the different, often conflicting, always confusing emotions that people suffering from a suicide loss may experience. She also discussed how loved ones and acquaintances will sometimes say things that, while very well intentioned, can make a survivor of a suicide loss feel worse. Phrases such as, “Well you still have your children” and “He’s in a better place” are meant to be comforting but they ignore the very real sting of a death. I can relate; though I’ve never felt anger towards those who meant to comfort me with these words, I had heard “You’ll find love again” far too many times.

We also discussed the ways in which people cope and how different things work for different people. For instance, Rogna related a story where two different women had each lost a husband to suicide. One couldn’t bear to take off her wedding rings because she felt close to her husband through them. The other was completely unable to keep her wedding rings on because it made the pain of her husband’s death worse. Rogna emphasized that we should all find healthy means to cope that work best for us, even if others do not understand.

We heard more survivor stories from volunteers Shari Novalis and Colleen Sybert, who had each lost a sibling to suicide before we split up into our discussion groups. Each group was categorized by the type of loss, loss of a parent, loss of a sibling, etc. I was the group facilitator for the loss of a friend group and it was my first time. I was extremely nervous beforehand, afraid that even I, a fellow loss survivor, might say or do the wrong thing. However, everyone in the group had things that they needed to say and expressed feeling comforted by some of the feelings that were shared. I only wish we could have had more time for this part of the conference because even if some of the group participants don’t have much to say, they can still gain much from simply listening.

In the end, when I try to think of a way to encapsulate why going to the Survivor Day is so worth it to me and so many others, I think to our discussion on A Daughter’s Journey. Our audience was asked if there was anything comforting that they took away from Sarah’s story.

A woman raised her hand to share her thought: “…She’s okay.”

All of the people in that room were full of heartache for the ones who are no longer beside us. However, amidst the stories and hurt in that room, we were all okay for those few hours because we were together. And it gave hope to those with fresher losses that one day the fog of their grief might begin to clear.

When I think back to the first time that I ever went to a Survivor Day, I remember thinking that things would never be alright again. There are still times where I feel the pain very strongly… but now, I am okay.

I’m okay.

“It’s Time for My Next Chapter” – Departing Words from Our Western PA Area Director

(November 12, 2018)

by Jennifer Sikora

When my sister Chrissy died by suicide in 2001, it changed the trajectory of my life. It took me awhile to process her death and get to an emotional and intellectual place where I had perspective and steadiness about the tragedy. Eventually, I found my way to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to explore how I could channel some of the energy spent on my grief into how I could help in Chrissy’s memory.

Eight years ago, I slowly waded in to getting involved with AFSP’s Western PA chapter. I started as a walk volunteer, then became the walk chair, then the chapter’s chairperson, and then in July 2016 hired as our chapter’s first-ever staff person. I wasn’t always perfect, as no human is, but I had true passion for this. I remember before I was staff and still in a volunteer role, when I would come home from work, I was so motivated to work on things for AFSP in the evenings that my days would often turn into 12-14 hours of total work.

Friends and family would sometimes wonder aloud to me, “I don’t know how you can do that suicide prevention work, it must be so hard.” To outsiders not impacted by suicide, the topic is usually one to be avoided unless necessary – not one to be embraced. But this work for AFSP (for me) has never been about the dark side of suicide, about which I knew all too well. It’s about hope. The hope that somehow, some way, my little life can help do something, anything, that can help. Even if one life was saved. Or comforted. It was all worth it to me.

Not to say it was always easy. When working in the prevention of anything, it’s hard to measure what didn’t happen. Especially when you can’t control other influencing factors. But to keep myself motivated, I focused on every positive that I could. That could be a conversation, after giving a presentation, where an attendee shared with me that our talk just inspired them to reach out to someone they are worried about, or someone who said our program reminded them to take better care of themselves, or someone impacted by suicide loss who said that they no longer feel as alone and stigmatized. If I count up all those little things that happened over the past eight years, I have to believe all that work has helped for the better.

Me with AFSP Western PA Board Members

What I will miss the most about serving with the AFSP Western PA chapter is the people I have met. That includes our amazing volunteers, many of whom I now count as my friends and whose paths I probably would not have crossed if not for our shared purpose and experiences. It also includes all of our partners in the community who helped bring our educational programs to more attendees year over year, or who sponsored or tabled at one of our walks, or who contributed to us through their own fundraising efforts. And of course our constituents: Those impacted by suicide losses and those with lived experience, as they align themselves with AFSP to help elevate awareness of this issue with every step they take, every social media post they publish, and every $1 they raise.

November 27, 2018 will be my last day with the AFSP Western PA chapter, as I will be relocating to North Carolina with my husband for his work. I carry with me some amazing memories from these past eight years with the chapter: Presenting inside state prison walls; watching high school students race around during their own fundraiser for us; conducting back-to-back meetings at the state capitol complex with a sprained ankle; becoming an expert on applying temporary tattoos; memorizing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number (it’s 1-800-273-8255 by the way); begging the local news media to follow responsible reporting practices; and waking up at 4:30 AM on Pittsburgh walk day. And to report a good estimate on how many people I have personally trained on suicide prevention content over those eight years, it’s been at least 3,000 people. I feel very proud of that, not to mention the stellar presentation skills that all of those at-bats have given me! The memories are endless.

At my last AFSP Western PA volunteers meeting, Nov. 2018

I extend to the AFSP Western PA chapter and its constituents (i.e. YOU!) all my best wishes as you continue to do the important business of suicide prevention education and advocacy. The chapter is in good hands with a strong local board of directors, solid year-round volunteer base, and experienced Walk organizers. And the new staff person who will replace me will no doubt bring new energy and ideas to bear on this chapter’s work for its 20-county territory. I also encourage new volunteers to get involved with the chapter – if you feel you are emotionally ready and want to make a difference, please fill out our volunteer application that can be found here: www.afsp.org/westernpa

My next chapter is not yet written, but AFSP and the people I have met over the past eight years will never be far from my thoughts. Whatever the future holds, my work with AFSP has reminded me of the incredible power of human connection and how we can support each other. And that gives me HOPE for what the future holds.


Media Alert: 14th Annual Out of the Darkness Walk in Pittsburgh to Bring 2,000 Together for Suicide Prevention on Saturday, August 25

Event will also honor three Educator Award recipients from across Western PA: Chatham University; Gateway School District; and Belinda Lambie of Purchase Line Junior/Senior High School
(August 7, 2018)

PITTSBURGH, PA – The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), which is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization focused on saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide loss, will hold its 14th annual Out of the Darkness Walk for the greater Pittsburgh area on Saturday morning, August 25 at Highmark Stadium in Station Square. The event is organized by AFSP’s Western PA chapter and is expected to draw more than 2,000 attendees with a goal to raise $250,000 for suicide prevention education, research and advocacy work.

“This walk is different because it brings together so many people in an environment where they don’t feel stigma or shame about such a critical and devastating health issue facing all types of Americans,” said Jennifer Sikora, AFSP’s Western PA area director and event chair. “The Out of the Darkness Walk gives our attendees support but also hope – hope that with each person, each step and each dollar donated, we can raise awareness, educate and make a difference that can save lives in the future.”

Suicide is the #11 leading cause of death in Pennsylvania, where someone dies by suicide on average every 4 hours.

More about the Out of the Darkness Walk in Pittsburgh:

  • The event opens at 9:00 AM and features a community resource fair of 20+ supportive regional services organizations.
  • A variety of pre-walk activities are available for attendees of all ages to honor loved ones.
  • The event is inclusive for those who have lost someone to suicide, those with a past or current struggle, and those who support and care about the issue.
  • The opening ceremony starts at 10:30 AM and concludes with a white dove release.
  • Three recipients will receive a suicide prevention Educator Award during the ceremony: Chatham University, Gateway School District, and Purchase Line Junior/Senior High School, who combined have used AFSP’s programs to train over 500 people so far in suicide prevention basics.

Media contact for pre-event coverage, images/photos/video and on-site interview coverage:
Jennifer Sikora, AFSP Area Director for Western PA and walk chair
Phone: 412-510-9514 Email: [email protected]

The Making of an AFSP Advocate…

(July 18, 2018)
by Debbie Meledandri, AFSP Western PA Chapter volunteer


PA State Advocacy - Debbie M. Vignette

Early in 2018, at one of our AFSP Western PA Chapter meetings, I heard that April 17 would be the date when volunteers would attend the State Capitol Day in Harrisburg to meet with legislators, discuss AFSP’s work, and ask for their support on pending legislation. But the idea of doing such a thing was so incredibly far from what volunteer tasks I believed I could comfortably handle that I immediately thought “that’s not for me!” and quickly dismissed it from my mind.

At the next chapter meeting, it was again discussed, with a request for volunteers from various additional counties, to better spread our representation as constituents. I thought, “Hmmm, my county (Westmoreland) needs representation, but I wouldn’t know how to do this, and I would be so nervous!” Our Chapter Director went on to explain that AFSP would provide all the training, preparation, and information that would be needed for this State Capitol Day, and that it is a very interesting and rewarding experience. A few other volunteers spoke up and said that it is not as difficult as it may sound, and that we would be working with a partner for all of our appointments. I realized that I should at least give this opportunity a bit more consideration.

“Take a step, go forward, do something, reach out, try it even when it looks hard” – these are words I tell myself every day since losing my amazing son Anthony to suicide in March 2016, at the age of 29. His death was like a tsunami that cleared the landscape of our family’s earlier life and left each of us struggling to find new paths to take. Everything is different now, and each time I try to do something I’ve never done, something new, difficult, scary, I have discovered a wellspring of courage that I did not have before, to carry me through. Learning about the incredible work that AFSP does, and volunteering with our Western PA Chapter, has helped me to focus my energy in a wide array of new challenges. Therefore, I decided to try this new opportunity as a state advocate.

Volunteer advocates from around the state met in Harrisburg the evening of April 16 to share dinner, and receive additional training and preparation for the next day’s appointments. We assembled packets of information about AFSP and the important pending legislation to share with all the Senators and Representatives at the Capitol, and we received a map of all their offices. We were well prepared!

Because of my minimal knowledge about the legislative process, I had done a lot of personal research and study, prior to this event. Still, I was very nervous! The next morning, as we met for breakfast, two Representatives came to speak to our group and encourage us in our advocacy work. By 8:30 am, teams began to set out for their appointments and volunteers went to staff the AFSP resource table in the Capitol Rotunda. During the day, my partner and I attended five appointments with Senators and Representatives or their staff. My courage increased as the day proceeded and we experienced very respectful attention from them. We shared our personal stories about how suicide has deeply touched our lives, and explained why the five pending legislative bills are so important for helping others who are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. We talked about the powerful impact AFSP is making in our communities, and offered our services as volunteers in their legislative districts.

Not only did this experience teach me about the pending legislation that AFSP is supporting and the process it must go through to be passed, but I personally grew in courage and self-confidence. It felt so good to accomplish something which I had earlier thought was too difficult for me.

As we shared our personal stories with the legislators and/or their staff, we also connected these experiences to the pending bills and explained how their passage could make a tremendous difference in many ways, particularly in providing mental health screening, and suicide prevention programs, at the very vulnerable ages of adolescence and early adulthood.

It was only by actually participating in this State Capitol Day that I experienced firsthand how our advocacy can make a difference. Three days later, I found out that one of the Representatives we met with had added his name as a sponsor to several of the bills we had discussed with him. This, to me, was a rewarding sign of the importance of our advocacy work. We can make a difference, one step at a time.

You can help us try to shape public policy too: Sign up to be an AFSP Field Advocate today!

Why I Walk: It’s Good for Mental Health!

(May 15, 2018)
By Emily Shimko, MS, CSCS, ACSM-EP-C (Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach, Certified Exercise Physiologist), Assistant Professor of Health Sciences, La Roche College, and AFSP Western PA chapter volunteer and walk committee member (pictured below running in the Disney marathon for team AFSP)

The warmer weather has finally arrived (for Pennsylvania, anyway) and it’s a great time to get outside and walk!

The physical-health benefits of walking are rather well-known: walking improves heart health, can decrease excess weight, and improves bone and muscle health. But did you know that walking (and exercise in general) can also be good for your mental health? At the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we are about making mental health a priority, so I am sharing another way to improve mental health and cope with the stresses of everyday life and then some.

Research has shown that being physically active can lower feelings of depression and anxiety. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2018) state that both acute and regular participation in physical activity can reduce state and trait anxiety in adults. There is also strong evidence that physical activity reduces the risk of developing depression or the symptoms of depression. A brisk walk for 30-60 minutes can improve your mood and overall quality of being. The great thing about walking as a mode of physical activity is that you can do it just about anywhere: outside, inside (no treadmill? Find a mall or shopping center), and you can walk alone or with friends and family. Walking with others comes with benefits of increased socialization (also good for mental health), motivation and accountability, safety, and it can be more fun and a good time to catch up with others.

For suicide loss survivors, there is emerging research on the use of walking as a method to cope with grief (Derksen, 2016). Even though the evidence is inconclusive, I see walking as a promising coping mechanism. Walking has little risk of harm in many individuals; and may be worth a try if you are grieving or wanting to promote your own mental health. However, if you are experiencing severe depressive symptoms or having difficulty managing your own grief from loss, the assistance of a mental health professional should be sought.

All of this means that participating in one of AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Walks makes sense, to advocate for mental wellness literally one step at a time. Not up for the usual 5K length of each walk? The good news is you can start now and walk your way up to the distance. Try 10 minutes at a time to start and keep adding more. You can reap some of the physical health benefits in these smaller bouts and build your endurance in a safe manner.

Not able to walk? Many Out of the Darkness Walks also offer options for those with disabilities who cannot walk so that you can participate and cheer on the other walkers; please check with your walk’s event chair to learn more.

Lace up those shoes and get walking: your body and mind will thank you!!

Find an AFSP Out of the Darkness Walk near you: www.afsp.org/walks

Note: If you are in crisis, please call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 911. Or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Derksen, A. (2016). The efficacy of physical activity after the death of a loved one: Walking and grief an intervention study. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1906672641).
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2018). Brain health. In Physical Activity Guidelines Scientific Report (chapter 3). Retrieved from https://health.gov.paguidelines/second-edition/report.asp

Graduation Was Also a Milestone for My Mental Health

(April 25, 2018)
by Alexa B., AFSP Western PA volunteer

I told everyone I cried at my high school graduation because it really hit me then that it was over.

And it’s true – it did hit me that the whole high school experience was over when the principal handed the last student his diploma. But I only told people the first half of this thought.

It really hit me then that it was over – and that I got to see it happen.

I don’t mean I was ever worried about graduating from an academic perspective: I had always been an “A” student. I thought I might never see graduation because my depression would get the better of me before then.

Several years later, it’s still hard for me to talk and write about my experience with depression, but it’s important for me to say: I often had suicidal thoughts, sometimes telling myself not to try so hard in school because I probably wasn’t going to make it to see graduation. I would have a bad day and decide I was done with everything.

I reached out to my doctor during the winter of my sophomore year of high school to be treated for depression, and soon began taking an antidepressant and going to therapy. As sophomore year turned into junior year, my mental health improved as I continued treatment and made changes in my life.

I would be lying if I said I haven’t hit some very low points since high school. But as the years have gone on, I’ve gotten better about knowing when I need to reach out to someone as well as managing my depression and its symptoms. I’ve learned more about what resources are available and that there’s nothing wrong with using them. Though I still find it difficult to share my experiences at times, it has gotten easier for me to talk about my depression.

After high school graduation, I went to the University of Pittsburgh to study writing, where I continued to work on my mental health. I graduated from Pitt last spring (photo above) and have never been happier to prove my 15 and 16-year-old self so wrong.

I first heard about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention a few years ago while I was covering an AFSP presentation as a staff writer for Pitt’s student-run newspaper The Pitt News. The presentation stayed in the back of my mind, and I began volunteering for my local chapter of AFSP (Western PA) in May of 2017 after graduating from college. Currently, I help manage my chapter’s social media accounts and table at community events like Pittsburgh Pride Fest. I am also promoting our Pittsburgh Out of the Darkness walk and will serve as captain for the chapter’s LGBTQ+ walk team.

I joined AFSP because I want to help those who struggle with mental illness and/or suicidal thoughts like myself to reach out to someone and get help— even when it’s hard for them to just say that they’re struggling. I want to help people learn how to reach out to someone they think is struggling and be better prepared to have those conversations. I want people to not only be aware of resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK), but to also use them if they need to and tell others about them.

I want to end the stigma against mental illness to make it easier to talk about mental health. I want to help others who are affected by mental illnesses and suicide find hope.

I want people to see days they thought they wouldn’t.

The AFSP Western PA chapter applauds Alexa for sharing her personal lived experience story and we hope that it inspires other young people to speak up, seek help, and stick with treatment — so that they can also live well even with a mental health issue like depression or anxiety.


New AFSP Western PA Board Member Announced

(April 9, 2018)

Please welcome Diane Dahm as a newly-elected member to our Western PA chapter’s board of directors! Diane will serve a two-year term as our board’s mental health advisor.

Diane was instrumental in helping us bring an annual Out of the Darkness Campus Walk to Robert Morris University in 2017, starting to work with us shortly after she joined RMU as their crisis counselor and outreach specialist in May 2016. She has been the faculty/admin chair of that walk in 2017 and 2018. She has also been key to having AFSP deliver a number of suicide prevention programs at RMU using the walk fundraising, including training for their athletics staff, student group leaders, residence life, and a special campus-wise program this past fall. She also helped staff our AFSP tent at Pittsburgh Pride Fest last summer.

Diane spent 8 years as the Director of Prevention Education and Outreach for Center for Victims in Pittsburgh, PA, as well as working with their therapy department as a clinician and previously coordinating their volunteers. Other prior roles include a field placement at Mon Yough Community Services in their outpatient mental health department, Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and a certified trainer for the former GLSEN Pittsburgh chapter (the gay lesbian straight education network), Diane is also a certified foster parent for Persad Center and hopes to provide respite care for LGBTQ+ youth in need of safe and secure homes.

She holds a Masters of Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh and is currently a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

We are so excited to have Diane join the chapter team and hope you agree that her background is a tremendous asset for us. You will no doubt see her at some upcoming meetings, and she is joining as a co-presenter on Sunday, April 22 when we present our college program at St. Joseph Parish in Fox Chapel.

Welcome aboard Diane!!!

Closing Thoughts From Our Out-Going Chapter Chairperson: How Baby Steps as an AFSP Volunteer Grew to the Courage to Embark on a New Life’s Journey

(December 30, 2017)

by the Western PA Chapter’s chairperson, Jenna Heberle, who ends her term tomorrow (12/31/2017)

A new year…. the end of one thing, the beginning of another. The nostalgia for days gone by and the hope for the days ahead.

As the final days of 2017 come to a close, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on the highs and lows, triumphs and challenges in my role as the chapter chairperson for AFSP Western PA. There have been plenty of all the above. I am also looking forward to 2018 and the journey ahead.

As of January 1, 2018, I will be ending my term as chapter chairperson for the Western PA chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Instead, I am returning to school to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. The demands of school and family will leave me little time to devote to the duties of chapter chairperson, so I made the difficult decision to step down. The decision became easier when Katelyn Lamm was unanimously elected to the chapter chairperson position as my replacement. I have been working with Katelyn for years, and she was an active volunteer for AFSP prior to my joining. Katelyn, along with our Area Director Jennifer Sikora, will lead the Western PA chapter and their many dedicated volunteers into 2018. The chapter is in excellent hands.

Pictured below: Jenna Heberle (center) at the IUP campus with the AFSP Western PA area director, Jennifer Sikora (left), and in-coming Western PA chapter chairperson Katelyn Lamm (right).

So, what makes a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother of four decide to return to school to obtain a nursing degree when her fellow students are half her age? When her own children are in college? When she had her years in college and her career 25 years ago?

What makes me think I can, or even should, do this?

The answer to that is all of you. Yes, all of you.

The last several years my volunteerism with AFSP has brought me out to meet many of you. I’ve listened to you. I’ve cried with you. I’ve met you at your offices, your churches, your schools and any place that would have us come out to talk. I’ve taught you, and you’ve taught me.

I’ve sat in rooms where people told me of their biggest regrets. The things we all wish we’d said to our loved ones before they died. The “could’ve, should’ve and would’ve” mantra that burdens most of the suicide loss survivors I’ve met. It has burdened me as well. I have had to face my own regrets, not only in what I could have done for my brother before he took his own life, but regrets in my own path.

Was I doing everything I wanted to do? Was I taking advantage of the life I had, that my brother no longer had? What would I be doing if I weren’t afraid to do it? Was I courageous enough to do those things? Did I deserve to do them? For a long time, I did not know the answers. For a long time, I was stuck. Until I met all of you.

The courage I have witnessed in so many of you gave me the courage to do hard things. To make hard decisions. The big moments of courage when you would speak in front of a group and lay bare your pain… or the small moments of courage when you simply walked into a room you didn’t think you could walk into. When you came to the Out of the Darkness Walks with your pictures of your loved ones on your shirts. When you came up to me after my classes to share private pain. When you came to a volunteer meeting even though you were scared. The moments, during the long 8-hour Mental Health First Aid classes I taught, where it would click, and I could see that you understood. The times you told me that what you learned from our training helped you save a life. Those moments, when you were afraid, and you did it anyway. I learned courage from all of you. And I thank you for allowing me into little glimpses of your lives and your daily courage.

Pictured below: Jenna Heberle presents “Talk Saves Lives” to a group of University of Pittsburgh students in October 2016.

As all of you begin a new year, I encourage you to look around you and see the courage in others. Big or small. And look within, and see the courage within you. It’s there, I promise. You can do hard things. We are all already doing doing hard things when we wake up, breathe and put one foot in front of the other without our loved ones.

As you venture out into 2018, resolve to find your courage. Take baby steps to get there. If you, like I did, feel stuck, not knowing which direction to go, or if you even deserve to take steps towards your happiness – take baby steps anyway to get un-stuck, to live a life that is full.

Maybe a baby step is attending an AFSP event. Or maybe it’s joining our volunteer base to reach others, or joining a support group. Maybe it’s simply going outside and breathing… really breathing. Maybe it’s adopting a puppy to bring joy into your life. Maybe it’s giving to others. Maybe it’s starting a new career. Whatever it is, it’s out there for you.

The moment I began to get un-stuck was the very first day I walked into an AFSP volunteer meeting. That was my moment. The moment that I decided I was ready to live fully, that I deserved it and that I could do it, was a few months ago — 11 years after my brother’s death — standing in front of nearly 2000 of you at our Out of the Darkness Walk in Pittsburgh. Experiencing your immense courage, tenderness and love was life changing for me. Between that first AFSP volunteer meeting where I knew no one and the moment at the Out of the Darkness Walk – all baby steps. Don’t be ashamed of baby steps. They get you to the finish line. These were my moments…find yours.

Pictured below: Jenna Heberle (right) reads the “We Remember Them” poem in front of Out of the Darkness Walkers in Pittsburgh in 2017.

With sincere thanks, and wishes for the very best in 2018 and beyond,

Jenna Heberle

Special note: The Western PA chapter and AFSP greatly thank Jenna for her major contributions as a volunteer board chairperson over the past two years, and we look forward to continuing to work with her as a volunteer as her time permits. We wish her all the best success in her pursuit of her life-long dream to be a nurse. We have witnessed her compassion first hand, time and time again, and know she’ll be great!

Making Sure Suicide Prevention Work Isn’t Just Negatively Motivated. 

(October 26, 2017)

by our Western PA Chapter Area Director, Jennifer Sikora

Working in the field of suicide prevention has a unique set of challenges. Many of our staff and volunteers get involved with AFSP because of our passion to make a difference, to save lives and “change the world.” We get excited about our Out of the Darkness Walks that bring people together and about delivering our education programs to our communities, as a few examples. What we hear most often from loss survivors who want to join our movement is: “I lost someone, and I want to help make sure this doesn’t happen to someone else.”

Those are emotional motivations. The tremendous pain felt from a loss can get channeled into a need to prevent such future losses. Or recovering from a suicide attempt may drive the need to help others see that there is hope and to share that story.

In the case of our work at AFSP, we need to keep up the fight against suicide and ultimately save lives, and to do this, our staff and volunteers want to stay motivated and enthusiastic about our mission and goals. That work can be motivated by negative emotions (“that pains me”) and/or positive emotions (“that pleases me”).

As someone who started volunteering with AFSP in 2010, and is now on staff as AFSP’s Western PA area director, I am on a daily basis faced with the harsh reality that suicide deaths continue to occur and devastate those left behind. I hear about another tragic loss or read some statistic, and that keeps driving my need to make a difference. I tell myself things like: “That means we need more research funding! We need to educate more people! We need to spread more messages of hope on social media!” You get the idea.

It can be challenging on some days to see beyond those negative motivators. We hear about the deaths but rarely, if ever, hear about the lives that are saved. For instance, we can go in and present an education program to a group of 50 people, and never directly hear back on the long-tail outcomes of that and whether it made a favorable difference in someone’s life. Those 50 people go their way, and we go ours. And then we get home and some terrible national headline smacks us in the face. On such days, finding positives can be hard, if not impossible.

But we must. The positives are there. And one of the things I have learned over the years is how to find those positive emotional motivators and give them equal, if not more, importance over the negative motivators. Feeling only negative motivators for too long can chip away at the motivation.

Here are two specific cases from our work in Western PA where positives were found. Earlier this year, a chapter board member presented our Talk Saves Lives education program to a small group of patients at a clinic. She called me afterwards, disappointed that more people didn’t attend and that some of the attendees asked some difficult questions. Overall, her initial impression was that it didn’t go well. But as we talked more about it, she admitted that several attendees approached her afterwards thanking her for the information and how they found it to be very helpful, and one even told her that “you saved a life today.” At first, she was only focusing on the negatives until we talked it out to bring those positives into the foreground.

In the second example, we did Mental Health First Aid training for the athletics staff at a university, and the training was spread across two days. On the second day of the training, one of the attendees told our instructor that later on the same day as the first half of the training, she encountered a student in crisis and was immediately able to apply those new skills to get that student calmed down and get the student to help. As the faculty member told our instructor, without that training, she likely would not have known how to handle the situation. Had we done the full training all in one day, we may have never known about that result, because we wouldn’t have had an opportunity to see that faculty attendee again.

And those are just two cases, but every AFSP staff member and volunteer can find many positive motivations in their work. Here are some examples of techniques I use to keep myself positively motivated:

  • Focus on the good feedback we receive from our presentations and events. Look at how many people say they are now better equipped to recognize risk factors and warnings signs, and how to start a conversation. Take in the negative or constructive feedback, but don’t obsess over it. Good reviews suggest that good things will result from the work, whether you ultimately hear about those results or not.
  • Hit “replay” on positive conversations, such as when someone comes up and personally thanks you for the work you have done. Play it over and over in your mind afterwards, reminding yourself that if one person felt that way, there are likely many others who felt similarly but just didn’t approach you to share those sentiments.
  • Celebrate others who are doing good work in this area. Positive feelings will come from making others feel valued and recognized. It can be good to make others feel good.
  • Acknowledge that baby steps are still steps, even if you have many miles left to walk. Each small step should be seen as an accomplishment. A step can even be a single person attending one event or one person quietly grabbing a few brochures from our table and then walking away. Yes, that counts.
  • Cherish the human connection of the work and learn from every interaction.

I personally keep a “positive testimonials and feedback file” – where I keep a record of some of those positive emotional motivators to turn to when I need to recharge. Collecting those positive inputs can be very helpful to mental wellness for many of us.

I also greatly limit my exposure to content in the news and social media concerning suicide losses. Not that I am sticking my head in the sand. I stay current on the news, but don’t dwell on it. That wouldn’t be good for my well-being, which would ultimately not be good for our Western PA chapter or AFSP.

My recommendation for anyone working in this field is to be sure to keep yourself in balance by emphasizing the positive inputs even more. It’s an important aspect to self care. We need to take good care of ourselves, so that we can take care of helping others with the work that we do.

When Does Grief “End” in the Loss of a Loved One to Suicide?

(September 19. 2017)

Written by Colleen Sybert, our AFSP Western PA Chapter’s Chair of Loss & Healing Programs and also co-facilitator of the Suicide Loss Support Group at St. Peter’s Reformed Church in Zelionople, PA. She is pictured below (right) with her sister Leanne (left) at Colleen’s wedding.

At times over the last 12.5 years, how I’ve wished I had a crystal ball that would have put a definitive date on this question … and yet, I’ve realized after losing my middle sister, Leanne Adele Duke to suicide 12.5 years ago, I don’t actually believe I want a ‘date’ for my grief to ‘end’ as I’ve found that my grief also helps to keep Leanne’s memory and legacy alive. I confess, however, that it has taken me a long while to come to this conclusion, with plenty of Faith and prayer along the way.

As Sheryl Sandburg, chief operating officer at Facebook and author, stated in an interview with Oprah Winfrey recently and in conjunction with her newest book Option B: “Death does not end a relationship” and “death does not end love.”

Words couldn’t have rung more true to me as I sat on the couch watching this interview several Sunday afternoons ago.  My relationship with my sister, Leanne, continues to this day and will for the remainder of my days on this earth as I work to keep her memory alive via working to help others either newer to their grief, and as I continue to share stories of Leanne to my two boys. Leanne served as Godmother to both boys and we speak of her very frequently – not necessarily about the manner in which she died but more about the manner in which she lived – the many good and positive things so many loved about Leanne.

I often wonder when I am doing a variety of things, and clearly over the last 12.5 years, there have been so many milestones in my life and the lives of my family, lives of my children, my marriage, that have come and gone and still I wonder:

“What would Leanne be doing if she were here?”

“Why isn’t Leanne here for this milestone?” and

“Damn it – Leanne SHOULD be here for this milestone!” 

Yet, I know in my heart that Leanne (who suffered from depression most of her adult life, and often chose not to properly treat her disease of depression, ultimately resulting in her untimely death in 2005) felt that choosing to end her pain and suffering in the manner in which she did was the only avenue she felt plausible at the time.

(Pictured below: Leanne (left) with their mother in 2003.)

I have learned on this journey that dealing with the death of a loved one to suicide is vastly different than losing a loved in any other manner; I know that due to the stigma that still exists with mental health, depression and suicide conversations. I know that due to the looks I have received on countless occasions when someone I am speaking with is made aware that I lost my middle sister to suicide; it can certainly be a conversation ‘stopper,’ an awkward silence often ensues and people generally just don’t know what to say so they often choose to say nothing at all. I have learned that grief doesn’t ‘end’ when losing someone to suicide and have learned that for me personally, speaking up about it and working to help others via education, research, advocacy and support has helped to heal me on my journey of loss. AFSP has taught me many of these invaluable lessons along my grief journey, and I am forever grateful.

With the recent passing of Leanne’s 49th birthday, August 18, 2017, I choose to honor Leanne’s memory and legacy by speaking out about mental illness, depression and suicide to keep that conversation going and to work to help others along my continuous journey of grief – because LIFE isn’t about avoiding suffering; LIFE is about finding meaning along your own journey.

Click here to learn more about the support group that Colleen co-facilitates.

PRESS RELEASE (August 22, 2017)

Two Pittsburgh Region Universities to Receive Suicide Prevention Education Awards During the 13th Annual “Out of the Darkness Walk”

Pittsburgh, PA, August 22, 2017 – Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in Pennsylvania. The Western Pennsylvania chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has announced that this coming Saturday, it will recognize two local university groups for their suicide prevention education efforts on their campuses: The University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing and Robert Morris University’s Counseling Center.

AFSP Western PA’s educator awards will be presented to representatives from both recipient groups during the annual Out of the Darkness Walk™’s opening ceremony, which starts at 10:30 AM on August 26 at Highmark Stadium. The event is the greater Pittsburgh region’s 13th annual Out of the Darkness Walk and expects to draw over 2,000 attendees who are raising awareness and funds for suicide prevention.

The two university groups were selected due to their partnership with the AFSP Western PA chapter for bringing mental health and suicide prevention training to students and faculty members. Money raised from the Out of the Darkness Walk has allowed the AFSP Western PA chapter to deliver those programs free of charge to those university partners.

“We are very heartened to have great partnerships with the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Nursing and Robert Morris University’s Counseling Center, who have both demonstrated eagerness and action in addressing mental healthcare and suicide prevention through education efforts,” said Jennifer Sikora, area director for AFSP in Western PA. “We look forward to continuing and growing these relationships to make positive impacts in our region.”

  • Robert Morris University’s Counseling Center hosted an AFSP Out of the Darkness Campus Walk in spring 2017, which raised over $10,000 for suicide prevention. They have also conducted training with AFSP Western PA this fall for faculty and student leaders in preparation for this coming school year, including AFSP’s “Talk Saves Lives™” prevention program and Mental Health First Aid. Additional education programs are planned with AFSP for later this fall.
  • University of Pittsburgh’s School of Nursing partnered with AFSP Western PA to train more than 110 nursing students in Mental Health First Aid. The University also brought AFSP Western PA on campus for several education and awareness programs during the 2016-2017 school year.


Media are invited to attend the Out of the Darkness Walk. Details about the walk can be found at: https://afsp.donordrive.com/event/Pittsburgh

Media contact:  Jennifer Sikora, AFSP Area Director for Western PA. Phone: 412-260-0789   Email: [email protected]


The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is dedicated to saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide. AFSP creates a culture that’s smart about mental health through education and community programs, develops suicide prevention through research and advocacy, and provides support for those affected by suicide. Led by CEO Robert Gebbia and headquartered in New York, AFSP has local chapters in all 50 states with programs and events nationwide. AFSP celebrates 30 years of service to the suicide prevention movement. Learn more about AFSP in its latest Annual Report, and join the conversation on suicide prevention by following AFSP on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube.



Mental Health Stigma is Still Very Real – Even Among Our Young.
A True Story from Western PA…

Jennifer Sikora(May 11, 2017)

by Jennifer Sikora, AFSP Western PA Associate Area Director

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and reminds us that we still have a long way to go to break the stigma about seeking help if you are struggling. After all, if raising your hand about having a mental health issue means you feel characterized in negative terms, you may opt to keep your hand down and not seek treatment. It may be easy and pleasant for us to think that the stigma is lessening and changing; we share posts on Facebook and other social media sites to show how “accepting” we are about the issue of mental health. But the truth is that the negative stereotypes of mental illness are not fading as rapidly and extensively as we would all like to believe. Our data shows that only 1 in 5 with a treatable condition will seek help.

I saw this stigma up close this week when presenting our “More Than Sad: Teen Depression” program to a class of 8th graders at a school in our Western PA 20-county region. The discussion was going great — we were talking about the signs and symptoms that were evident in 4 different portrayed stories and the class was very engaged. Until I asked the question: “Give me an example of an adult you would talk to if you were struggling.”


I continued to try to prompt an answer. Nothing. So I asked, “Okay, then can you tell me why you might not tell a parent if you needed help with depression?”

The students exchanged some looks, and finally, one male student sheepishly raised his hand and offered this in response: “Because your parents want you to do well, so I’d be ashamed to tell them.”

Wham! There it was. I asked the class if they agreed, and there was a lot of affirmative nodding. The stigma, in harsh relief among a class of 8th graders. Not only did they in general view mental health in a negative light, but on the whole they seemed to think their parents did too. I continued, “Would you be ashamed to tell them if you were having stomach pains every day for weeks on end?”

The class shook their heads no. “So why would you be ashamed to tell them if you were feeling not well from depression or anxiety?” They pondered this but were still silent. When we talked about peer support, they also said they would not tell someone if they were worried about a friend. So then we talked about how “tattle-telling” was not the same as getting help for someone you care about.

I wrapped up the session by giving them examples of specific things they could say to ask for help and examples of adults they could talk to.

As that real-world example illustrates, we still have a lot of work today as a society to get everyone to see that “mental health” is “health” so that people can live more comfortable, happier lives and ultimately so that we can change the course of the rising suicide rate in the U.S. It starts by removing the stigma, even among our youngest family and community members.

Our Chapter Trains Pitt Nursing Students in Mental Health First Aid. But, What is It?

(March 6, 2017)

Written by Jenna Heberle, chairperson of AFSP’s Western PA chapter and certified Mental Health First Aid instructor

If you’ve ever taken a high school health class, a Red Cross first aid class, or even just watched an episode of Greys Anatomy, you know that when someone is bleeding, you put pressure on the wound. This seems to be common knowledge that we all obtain sometime between childhood and adulthood.

But do we know what to do if someone we love says that they think about killing themselves? Or our roommate seems to be depressed? Or we encounter an agitated and apparently delusional person in the grocery store parking lot? Probably not. These are not things we are taught, despite the fact that 25% of US adults will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives. This is where Mental Health First Aid comes in.

Mental Health First Aid is defined as “The help offered to a person developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. The first aid is given until appropriate treatment and support are received or until the crisis resolves.” Just as medical first aid is used to render assistance and save lives until professional help arrives, the same is true for Mental Health First Aid (MHFA).

MHFA is an 8-hour class that leads to certification from the National Council for Behavioral Health. The class applies a practical action plan in the event you believe a person is suffering from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, psychosis, post traumatic stress, substance use disorders, non-suicidal self-injury or may be suicidal. In the general population, we often have no idea what to say, or what NOT to say, in these situations. We want to help, but we often have no idea where to start. Sometimes we aren’t even sure if the person is in crisis. Mental Health First Aid teaches the signs and symptoms of different mental illnesses and how to recognize a crisis situation.
Mental Health First Aid training activity

Photo above: Pitt Nursing students do an activity during the Mental Health First Aid training class in February 2017.

The class utilizes classroom lecture, videos, activities, role playing and plenty of interaction and practice time in order to allow each student to integrate the material. We openly discuss issues faced by those with mental health illnesses such as stigma, disability and other barriers that prevent a full life. We also discuss the many myths about mental illness. For example, did you know that only 4% of all crime in the United States is attributable to someone with a mental illness? Most think it’s a much higher percentage because many of the news reports for horrible crimes place blame on mental illness. Did you know that if you ask someone directly if they are thinking of killing themselves that that can save lives? Most think if you bring up suicide, you place the idea in their head. It is actually quite the opposite. Talking about it saves lives. There are plenty of other myths about people with mental illness. Debunking them goes a long way to lessening the stigma and fear people feel towards those with mental illnesses.

Everyone can benefit from Mental Health First Aid. Virtually every profession that deals with people has the potential to come across someone in a mental health crisis. And virtually every person that has friends and family can benefit as well from knowing the risk factors and warning signs within their own family and community. Some professions may have an increased likelihood for encountering someone in a mental health crisis. Nurses, police and first responders are often on the front lines of encounters with people in crisis. That is why I was exceptionally excited to be invited to the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing to teach Mental Health First Aid to their student nurses!

The directors of the nursing program at Pitt rightfully saw the ability to handle a mental health crisis as important knowledge for nursing students to have. The classes were held over a two-week period in February 2017 for 4 hours each day, culminating in 87 Pitt nursing students earning their Mental Health First Aid certification. These classes also counted towards 8 hours of their clinical instruction requirements. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Western PA chapter provided these classes to the University of Pittsburgh at no cost. This is a great example of where the fundraising dollars are spent!

The nursing students were either in their junior year, or they were in the accelerated degree second degree nursing program. All of the students were really wonderful and interactive. The feedback received from the class was terrific. The students expressed a stronger feeling of confidence in dealing with someone with a mental health crisis. Keep in mind, most of the students had already participated in psych nursing classes. However, clinical classes do not always teach you the right things to say or how to interact with someone who is suicidal. The Mental Health First Aid class gave these gifted students that practice.

Mental Health First Aid class

Photo above: One of the 4 Pitt Nursing student classes who became certified in Mental Health First Aid.

Eighty-seven more people are now certified in Mental Health First Aid in our region. That is 87 more people out in the world who know the proper language and crisis intervention practices to use. That is 87 people added to the already 700,000 people in the United States who have become certified. We are working towards 1 million certified in the U.S., and getting closer every day! Each additional person certified is one more voice in the world leading to more compassion and help for those suffering with mental illness. For more information on Mental Health First Aid you can go to http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org

To schedule a class for your organization at low or no cost, please contact Jenna Heberle at [email protected] or [email protected]

And big thanks to those who help us fundraise at the Out of the Darkness Walks to help make these programs possible!

Chapter of the Year in 2016 – WOW!

(February 22, 2017)

We are incredibly honored to have been named “2016 Chapter of the Year” in the mid-market category by the AFSP national organization during last month’s annual chapter leadership conference. This is possible thanks to the tremendous support from our chapter’s board of directors, ongoing volunteers, community supporters and sponsors, and event and program participants.

Just a few years ago, our chapter was small and delivering only a few programs in Western PA each year. But thanks to the growth in fundraising and sponsorship dollars through our Out of the Darkness Walks in Pittsburgh and Erie, we’ve been able to fund a fairly rapid expansion of key programs that meet the needs of our market.

But what made 2016 so special?

  • We doubled the number of education programs delivered, particularly our “Talk Saves Lives” general suicide prevention education talk and our “More Than Sad” program to train school leaders for grades 6-12.
  • We ramped up Advocacy work, by meeting with lawmakers in Harrisburg and Washington DC and developing a key relationship with locally based PA Rep. Dan Miller as he formulated proposed legislation for school-age depression screening.
  • We were more visible in the community, nearly tripling event appearances to raise awareness and distribute information.
  • We conducted more news media education and outreach than ever before, helping to shape the story about suicide and prevention.
  • We funded training for suicide loss support group facilitators, which has already resulted in the creation of two new AFSP-trained support groups in Western PA.

We continue to have a lot of work to do, and our chapter’s board of directors and base of volunteers remain highly motivated and hopeful about saving lives. We are already this spring looking forward to 3 Campus Walks (Duquesne University, Robert Morris University, Chatham University); the Active Minds conference at Gannon University; a night at PNC Park for suicide prevention; and a special event focused on Men’s Mental Health featuring a keynote from former NFL quarterback, Eric Hipple of the Detroit Lions.

We invited you to check out our 2016 Yearbook — which highlights a lot of the work we did last year as well as many of the faces of suicide prevention in Western PA.

And big thank you to Western PA, because without your support, none of this would be possible!