Each year, 44,193 Americans die by suicide. And for every one that occurs, there are 25 attempts with many more suspected to go unreported due to the stigma surrounding suicide. However, William & Mary students and community members are working to fight that stigma and open up the conversation about depression and suicide.
On Saturday, 239 students and community members gathered at the William & Mary Recreation Center for the second annual Out of the Darkness Walk for suicide awareness.
“The walk is all about suicide prevention and creating a conversation about what suicide is, what we can do as students, faculty and as a community to really help with that, too,” said Danny McNeil ’19, a member of Alpha Tau Omega and one of the chairs for the walk along with Zack Thornburg ’18.
W&M’s Out of the Darkness Walk was organized by numerous clubs and organizations, including Alpha Tau Omega, Phi Sigma Pi, Public Health Club, Student Assembly, Active Minds, Health Outreach Peer Educators (HOPE) and the Office of Health & Wellness. The organizations partnered with the Virginia chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in order to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention, support positive mental health and create a campus and community conversation about depression.
According to McNeil, the walk is not meant to be a somber event but instead a chance to celebrate the lives of those who have been lost or are suffering. The name Out of the Darkness represents the act of taking the issue of suicide out of the darkness and bringing it into the light, he added.
“It’s about something that might be repressed or might not be seen as OK to talk about and then making it seem like it’s normal,” he said. “That it’s something that’s OK to get treatment for.”
W&M has increasingly been working toward being that light in the darkness, according to McNeil. Among those efforts is the construction of the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, expected to be completed in 2018, which will include the student health center, counseling center, health promotion activities, recreational and wellness programs and the new Center for Mindfulness and Authentic Excellence.
“I think we recognize the importance and the magnitude of what we can do to support positive mental health among the students,” said McNeil. “I think we have a way to go, but we’re leading the charge in some ways.”
And leading the charge was exactly what participants did early Saturday morning. Before the walk began, they had the opportunity to visit two different tables, one with informational materials about suicide and another with beaded necklaces in nine different colors.
The beads served as a way for participants to quietly identify personal reasons for walking. Each color represented losses to suicide, support for someone struggling with depression or a personal struggle.
Although the event was free, donations were welcomed and the event still managed to raise $8,812 to go toward the AFSP for suicide awareness, well-surpassing the goal of $8,000.
In the moments before the walk commenced, W&M President Taylor Reveley and Kelly Crace, associate vice president for health and wellness, addressed the crowd with a few words about the importance of treatment and support in combating depression and preventing suicide.
Crace challenged the attendees to show, not just tell, the people in their lives how much they are admired and loved.
“So, I don’t want today to be somber,” he said. “I want it to be a celebration of those we miss, those we mourn, a celebration of those people who are doing the courageous and hard work of treatment. We must never let them forget how important their lives are to us and the gifts they bring because they’re here.”
Reveley elaborated on this sentiment, encouraging participants to step up and step out to be that support system for someone in their own lives.
“If you see a friend struggling or you’re worried about a friend, get over the shyness that all of us feel about saying to them, ‘Hey are you okay? Do you need to talk to somebody?’” Reveley said. “Take a chance, go ahead and do it, because they may need it.”
For many participants like Michaela Streep ’20, the cause is one that hits very close to home. Streep has both experienced depression herself and felt the effects of suicide in her home community when one of her friends took her life in only the eighth grade. She described the impact this had on her community and what simply being a positive presence can mean to those suffering — in her case, for her friend’s mother after the tragedy.
“Whenever I’d see her, I’d make sure to make her day a lot better. That’s why I’m here,” Streep said. “It shows that people care. It shows that people understand that it’s an issue. That it’s not a spur-of-the-moment event, that it has deeper roots.”
Organizers hope that participants will use the event to open up the conversation about suicide and depression and aim to be the ever-present and positive light in what can seem to be impenetrable darkness.“It’s okay to talk about it and to get help,” said McNeil.