The darkness is staggering: More than 42,700 Americans complete suicide each year, making it the country’s 10th leading cause of death.
But there’s hope for people who struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, and that’s the message that Forrest Owens ’18 wants to convey at William & Mary’s first Out of the Darkness Campus Walk on April 2.
“I would love this walk to be a point of brightness on campus and have people realize that there are people who care about them,” said Owens.
The event, which is open to members of the campus community as well as the public, will begin at 9 a.m. outside of the university’s Student Recreation Center, with on-site registration starting at 8 a.m. Participants may also register in advance online. Although walkers may choose to raise money for suicide prevention, it is not required to participate, Owens said.
The walk is being organized by Owens’ fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega, in conjunction with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or AFSP, which hosts hundreds of similar walks both on campuses and in communities throughout the year.
“I think it’s important for the campus to have its own walk because we have the Virginia Beach walk, the Richmond and VCU walks, but the Peninsula is a large region to not have something of its own,” Owens said. “Especially with William & Mary being here and being a very important aspect of Williamsburg, I think it’s really important that students, instead of having to go somewhere ... we can look at this and say that it’s ours. It’s by us and for us; we don’t have to rely on anyone else. This is for the good of the school and the community.”
Ryan Newcomb, the regional director for AFSP, will speak at the event, along with W&M President Taylor Reveley and Kelly Crace, associate vice president for health and wellness. Counselors from the W&M Counseling Center will be on hand, as will representatives from student organization Active Minds and honors fraternity Phi Sigma Pi along with dozens of other volunteers from across campus.
Participants will be able to select bead necklaces of different colors to signify their connection to suicide and depression, whether they’ve struggled with the issues themselves or lost someone to them.
Signs will be set up along the walking route, which will be between two and three miles, in an effort to take participants on an emotional journey, Owens said.
“We were thinking about it and the title is ‘Out of the Darkness Walk,’ and we want the walk to be, at the beginning, OK, here are the numbers – here’s the bad, here’s the darkness,” he said. “And then it progresses so that once you’ve thought about the bad that’s happened, what can we do to fix this? What can we do to be better ourselves? And by the end have a very optimistic, hopeful message.”
Owens, who currently serves as the historian for Alpha Tau Omega, was the community outreach chair for the fraternity last year when he came up with the idea for the walk. Spurred by news of several student deaths at W&M, Owens set out to find a way that the campus community could address the issue, he said. When he reached out to AFSP, he found that the national organization had been looking to bring a campus walk to W&M for several years and was enthusiastically supportive of his efforts. Owens found similar enthusiasm among his fellow students, and, in the fall, attended an Out of the Darkness Walk in Virginia Beach. That experience gave Owens and his fellow organizers a chance to see the logistics of the walk, but more importantly, experience the emotion of such an event.
“Being there in the moment and feeling how it was, it was very helpful,” said Owens.
Helping to organize the event and hearing people’s stories have made the issues personal for Owens, he said. Though the numbers are sobering, Owens, who described himself as an optimistic person, said that he has actually become more optimistic.
“It’s made me always reach out to people, so if I know a friend has a couple of tests, I’ll be like, ‘I know you’ll do great this week,’ or, ‘No worries, just a few more days. We’ll have Friday and Saturday, and it will be great,’” he said. “It’s just kind of changed my outlook on life in general and made me more optimistic, like, ‘Hey, don’t worry, it’s going to be OK. There are people who care about you.’”
In the long run, Owens hopes the walk will become an annual event, but, for its inaugural year, success will be about more than just the number of people who participate, Owen said. It will be “seeing those people leave the walk changed … [so that] they think about suicide prevention and mental health in a different way, and reach out to their friends, their friends reach out to their friends, etcetera, etcetera, and have it be a chain reaction.”Find more about the event on the walk’s Facebook page.