In Pursuit of More Birthdays

Today, August 1st,would’ve been my friend Malaya’s 24th birthday. She never even saw her 14th birthday. On March 29th, 2006, just over a decade ago, she died by suicide. We were months away from graduating middle school. She never found out what New York City high school she would go to the next year and she never got to attend Vassar like she dreamed.

I could list off a thousand things (maybe a million) that Malaya missed when she died at 13 years old. But there’s also a lot she has inspired. She inspired me to get involved in the fight to stop suicide. In 2007, just a year after she died, she inspired my friend and me, along with our moms (because we were still just 14); to participate in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk. This past June, I walked in my tenth Overnight Walk.

Malaya has inspired me to raise more than $10,000 over the past decade for these walks. $50 raised for AFSP brings “Truth about Suicide” to a college campus. $100 places AFSP’s “More than Sad” program in a high school. $1000 sponsors a State Advocacy Day where AFSP Field Advocates meet with state legislators about suicide prevention. In my young friend’s memory, AFSP can reach 200 more college campuses, 100 more high schools or 10 more state capitols. That’s a big deal.

Malaya inspired me to push for legislation that will educate teachers about suicide. When she died, our teachers were blindsided. They refused any mention of her in the yearbook or at graduation but we needed to remember our friend. This created a combative relationship between us and them in a moment when we should’ve come together. Of course, since then, I’ve realized they were terrified and experiencing their own grief and guilt. It was not their fault. We do not educate our teachers about how to prevent suicide or how to cope when the worst happens. AFSP has resources for both. But we need laws that require these trainings for our educators. Last year, I went to my high school, where I stood in the hallway on the first anniversary of Malaya’s death and held a crying friend, and gave AFSP’s Talk Saves Live presentation to my former teachers.

In 2014, Malaya inspired me to dive into suicide prevention full time. In my job managing social media for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, I get to interact with hundreds of thousands of people every day through AFSP’s posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. People like me who have been affected by suicide in some way, not just loss survivors but those who live with mental health conditions, those who have survived suicide attempts and more. Suicide is incredibly isolating so I know that every time we can share a personal story, one of our followers says “I thought I was the only one” and thousands of others say “me too.”

All of these efforts are too late for Malaya. It’s too late for the more than 40,000 people we lost last year. But we keep up our efforts because we want to mark birthdays with celebrations of a life to come, that “and many more” people so often add, rather than a life that was. Everything we do at AFSP is in pursuit of more birthdays, and I am so glad to play my small part in memory of Malaya. Together, with our devoted volunteers, walkers, and followers, we are changing the conversation around mental health and someday we will stop suicide.

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