SUICIDE IS the tenth leading cause of death for Americans, the third for those ages 10 to 24. It has recently become the number one cause of death for veterans—surpassing combat, heart disease and car accidents.
The statistics suggest that everyone will know someone affected by suicide at some point, yet the stigma surrounding it endures. Surviving loved ones often experience guilt and a sense of dismissal from society, where mental illness is still discussed in hushed tones.
“This kind of death is different in that it’s not of the body but of the mind,” says Marie Lewis, who lost her mother to suicide in 1997.
“It’s hard to understand that someone would take their own life voluntarily.”
Lewis struggled with the ambiguity over her mother’s death, unable to fully process her grief and wrestling with her own depression. A sense of closure came several years later when her aunt called to invite her to something called the Out of the Darkness Walk in Hampton, VA, hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“She told me she was walking in memory of my mother, so I went with my husband and daughter. There were hundreds of people who had experienced the same kind of loss,” she recalls.
“For the first time, it wasn’t about the shame. It was a celebration of their lives. To hear my mom’s name called out was so emotional for me, even though it had been so long.”
She and her family returned to Hampton the following year and then began attending Out of the Darkness events in Richmond, a little closer to home. The family moved to Savannah a few years ago, and Lewis, now the mother of two, saw the need for a local walk. She co-chaired the area’s first walk last year and has organized this year’s AFSP Out of the Darkness Walk on Saturday morning, September 17 at Lake Mayer.
“We had 233 participants last year and raised more than twelve thousand dollars,” she says of walkers’ efforts to rally sponsors and donations. “That was certainly enough to want to do it again.”
AFSP holds more than 300 walks a year with at least one in every state. Though the topic may be somber, Lewis promises a positive, family-friendly atmosphere with food trucks, a local DJ and plenty of opportunity to connect with other survivors. Registration is free, though walkers are encouraged to raise dollars for the cause.
The money goes directly to AFSP, which funds research on suicide risk assessment and education. The four-star ranked Charity Navigator recipient also advocates for mental health legislation and policy reform in Congress and recently helped introduce the SPRINT Act to designate federal funding for mental health research. The non-profit’s Loss & Bereavement Department provides services for those who have lost loved ones to suicide, including the facilitation of support groups. The Georgia chapter recently partnered with the Georgia Dept. of Education to bring its More Than Sad program to public schools.
“I really believe it’s important to get it out in the open, to talk about suicide and get the stigma out of the way,” says Lewis. “There are so many things that can trigger it—bullying, drug abuse, PTSD, domestic violence, financial troubles, even just a really bad day. If we can talk about it, we can help prevent it.”
She doesn’t hide her mother’s death from her own children, though she does couch it in terms they can understand.
“The way I describe it to my seven year-old is that their grandmother had some problems with being really sad. ‘You know how you get sick in your tummy sometimes? She had something like that in her head and she couldn’t get better,’” says the advocate, who encourages families to attend Saturday’s event.
“Now my daughter wants to wear the bracelets and tells people about the walk. She’s very sensitive and wants to help.”
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness month, accompanied by many activities from local mental health organizations to promote better understanding of warning signs and more open conversations.
Lewis would ultimately like to establish a full-time Savannah chapter of AFSP, which requires three successful walks as well as more fundraising. Saturday’s event is another major step in that direction, and in the meantime, she continues to network within the community to bring together those affected by suicide.
“We’re not going to stop doing this. It’s too important.”