Article - Office of College Advancement

Walk aims to raise awareness, erase stigma of mental illness and suicide

By Shannon Barry, Milpitas Post.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011—Reprinted from Mercury News.

An Out of the Darkness Campus Walks banner is held between two walk participants.A move is afoot to bring awareness to a world afraid to talk about the universal issues of suicide, depression and mental illness.

The Greater San Francisco Bay Area Chapter for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention sponsored Ohlone College's inaugural Out of the Darkness Campus Walk April 19, held in honor of Stewart Dawson, a security guard from Ohlone's Fremont campus for the past six years and an alumnus who attended school there to attain an associate's degree in Administration of Justice. He was connected to the Fremont, Newark, Union City and Oakland police departments. But this was all before he took his life Dec. 28, 2010.

Approximately 156 faculty, staff, students and community members from Ohlone College were taking steps, putting one foot in front of the other, to shed light and bring healing to those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Participants raised almost $2,500 for the 3.2-mile walk, surpassing the initial fund-raising goal of $1,000, to benefit the foundation, the largest non-profit organization that addresses suicide prevention. It is completely volunteer-driven with nearly 83 cents of every dollar donated going directly to research, education, advocacy programs and survivor services, according to Valerie Kovacovich, Northern California area director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Shirley Kaminsky, board co-chair of the Greater San Francisco Bay Area Chapter for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, opened the ceremony following the walk by asking people to join hands with others nearby, "so you are connected with someone on your right and on your left."

"I stand here today in honor and remembrance of my son David who took his life 23 years ago at the age of 18," she said. "There wasn't much available back then in the way of resources. That is changing and we are gaining momentum exponentially."

Kaminsky, a retired nurse has been involved with suicide prevention and support for more than a decade. She is co-founder of the Tri-Valley Survivors of Suicide support group in addition to serving on the foundation.

"You are not alone in this journey," Kaminsky continued. "We are all working toward the same thing. To bring hope to those struggling with suicidal thoughts and depression. To bring healing to those who have lost a loved one. ... To do something bold, something big for a cause that has been in the darkness for much, much too long."

Suicide statistics

There are a number of statistics centered around suicide.

The issue will affect approximately 20 percent of the population in their own lifetimes, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Man in colorful shirt.Gordon Doughty, board co-chair of the Greater San Francisco Bay Area Chapter for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, lost his 18-year-old daughter Amanda to suicide in 2004.. —Photos by Kseniya Bulavko.

Gordon Doughty, board co-chair of the Greater San Francisco Bay Area Chapter for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said with all of the overwhelming statistics out there it is surprising communities don't hear more about it.

For example, he said, each day on the news there are reports on homicides. However, nearly twice as many people die by suicide in the United States annually than by homicide, citing it as the 11th leading cause of death within the United States but the third leading cause of death among those ages 15 to 24.

To put things in perspective, he said, an American dies by suicide every 16 minutes. After a nearly hour-long interview with Doughty, he said to think about those lives lost just in the time we talked.

"It is a bigger problem than what you think," he said.

But like many issues, it is also preventable.

More than 90 percent of all people who die by suicide suffer from a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric illness such as bi-polar disorder or major depression.

Many may not like the idea of taking bi-polar medication long term to stay healthy but Doughty, like others, agrees that taking medication for mental illness is similar to a diabetic needing to take insulin in order to stay healthy.

When asked why there is still a stigma in doing so, Doughty stated simply: "I think the stigma is all about being flawed."

At Ohlone College specifically, 25 percent of students have received mental health services from a counselor and 8 percent of students were diagnosed within the previous 12 months with depression, according to a March 2010 Ohlone College National College Health Assessment Survey.

In addition, 21 percent of Ohlone students have considered suicide, 5.5 percent within the previous 12 months, and 2.3 percent attempted.

"We are all here for different reasons ... but if you look around again you will see we are all here for the same thing," Sally Bratton, director of the Ohlone College Student Health Center, said at the event.

Student Beatrice Davila, 20, said she decided to participate with a few of her friends after hearing about the walk through a health class. She was interested in supporting the cause because one of her friends lost a mom to suicide and she has a sister struggling with depression.

"She's not gonna be alone," Davila said of her ongoing support for her sister. "Life is too valuable just to lose."

In the quad area following the walk there were others around Davila with resources available at different booths for pick up, including wallet-fitting suicide warning signs with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number on it for a worse-case scenario.

In one area there was a rack of different colored "honor" beads available for people to pick up with each color signifying what they have been through.

Humanizing statistics

Doughty wears strands of blue and white beads.

The blue beads represent his support of the cause while the white beads are worn to honor Amanda, his 18-year-old daughter he lost to suicide in 2004. Amanda was on and off therapy and medication for years, since being diagnosed as clinically depressed at age 10.

"For all of us, Amanda's always with us," he said of his wife Janis and son Kenneth. "She'll always be 18."

Doughty can still recall the vivid events of the day she died. After coming home from work that evening to his wife, they sat down and Doughty asked Janis to think about whether there was anything she would have done differently to help Amanda, asking himself the same thing.

"We wouldn't do a thing," he said, explaining they did everything they could do to help Amanda through the struggle.

From then on they decided they would not blame themselves, which began the first big step in what Doughty called their healing.

"I worried about Amanda's death destroying the family," he said. "One of the first things we realized is we all healed differently."

Janis began searching for something to do to help grieve. She came across many things but she alongside Gordon participated in an Out of the Darkness Walk in San Francisco that changed their lives.

"We found such comfort being around hundreds of people like us," Doughty recalled.

Doughty's involvement in suicide awareness has since grown to include five Out of the Darkness walks, participating in countless health fairs reaching a cross section of people including teenagers and hosting a regular booth at the Pleasant Hill Farmers' Market, near where they live.

In reaching out to different people and getting information out, Doughty hopes, above all else, he is making a difference. He said there is still work to be done before the stigma is erased.

For many passersby at his booth at the farmers' market, Doughty said they look at a picture of his daughter Amanda on display but quickly look away or down upon reading the information is about suicide, and the many lives like his daughter it has claimed.

"We are making a difference by being here today and we are changing our society's view of suicide and mental illness," Kaminsky said in closing the walk. "Let us all go forward today knowing that we are breaking the silence and erasing the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness. Let us bring hope to those suffering from depression and support them in coming out of the darkness and into the light."

For more information about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, visit afsp.org.

Contact Shannon Barry at sbarry@themilpitaspost.com or 408-262-2454.

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