September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Since 2002, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walks have brought friends, neighbors, family members and colleagues together to walk through their communities to raise public awareness and funds to support suicide prevention. The following is one of a series of interviews conducted with Walkers about their own connection to the cause, and what the Out of the Darkness Walks mean to them.
Together, let’s walk.
Do you have a personal connection to suicide?
When I was in high school, a classmate’s mother died by suicide. Conversation about her death was whispered and mostly limited to the fact that she died. I don’t remember how I found out that she died, let alone how she died. I wanted to say something to my classmate but felt like I wasn’t supposed to talk about it, and I said nothing.
Not feeling comfortable talking about suicide when it comes up puts people at risk. We also need to feel comfortable talking about who we are, and whatever it is we’re going through.
As a gay man who grew up in the 1980s, I didn’t know anyone like me in my community. The rare gay character on TV or in the movies was typically written as troubled or as comic relief. I was in my twenties when I realized that I could live the life that I wanted to live and be gay. Although this has changed for the better over time, many young adults still struggle to reconcile their LGBTQ+ identity with their overall sense of who they are. This struggle is isolating and is one of the reasons the LGBTQ+ community is at a higher risk for suicide than the general population.
We all need to feel more open in talking about mental health. Children who grow up with the (often indirect) message that suicide isn’t something we talk about, grow up to be adults who don’t know how to respond when a child (or anyone else, for that matter) mentions suicide.
As a clinician, I work almost exclusively with suicidal adolescents. Years ago, I had a client who told me she was thinking about killing herself. Adults in her life told me she wanted “attention.” This was the first time I had heard that word connected to suicide. The use of the word “attention” was and is an attempt to make sense of something we aren’t prepared to deal with.
How do you talk to an adult about how they talk to their own child or student, and not come across as blaming? Every adolescent I’ve worked with has had at least one adult in their life who cared for them. I’ve chosen to focus on that and let the conversation go from there.
What does it mean to you to walk together toward a world without suicide?
AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Walks are an incredible way to raise awareness and get these important conversations started. As the co-chair of the Lake Charles Out of the Darkness Walk in Louisiana, the day of the Walk is busy from the moment I wake up until well after the event is over. But each year I take moments throughout the day to step back and observe. It’s in these moments that I know what it means to walk together toward a world without suicide.
The first person who ever reached out to me when I became the co-chair of our Walk is there every year. She reached out because my participation in the Walk sent her the message that she could open up to me about this. She now Walks together with her family, and they wear the same t-shirt each year in remembrance of their brother and uncle they lost to suicide. They have lives outside of this Walk and outside of suicide prevention. They contribute to the cause of suicide prevention in their own way the remainder of the year. But on this one day every year, we all come together for a common purpose. We come together to raise awareness about suicide prevention, to educate the community, and to remember those who have died by suicide and to support those who struggle. Every year there are more moments like these when I take a step back and realize the impact these events have.
What do you think is special about the Out of the Darkness Walks?
Stigma surrounding suicide impedes the open discussion of challenges that contribute to suicidal thought and behavior, so those suffering often think they are alone. To my knowledge, the Out of the Darkness Walks are the only national, recurring community event with suicide prevention as a focus. These Walks provide an opportunity to discuss suicide and mental health, in general.
As a gay man, I appreciate that many Walk materials are visible indicators that AFSP and the Out of the Darkness Walks support the LGBTQ+ community. Every year our Walks feature AFSP buttons, flyers, and this year, rainbow Honor Beads, as clear indicators of support for the LGBTQ+ community. Our Walkers know this, and many create their own t-shirts that show support. Whether someone is out or not yet ready to be out, our Walks are an environment of inclusion.
Everyone is welcome at the Out of the Darkness Walks. No one is alone on Walk Day.