TC Takes on the Talk

The escalation of suicide and mental illness over the past few years has brought on efforts to increase the conversation and awareness of the issue both nationally and locally.

September first of every year brings on the dawn of Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month. As a contribution to this, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) hosts walks around the country where individuals or teams can walk and raise money in the name of suicide awareness and come together on a designated day. Janeen Wardie, a field advocate for the ASFP, is the mastermind behind both Out of the Darkness Community Walks that have occurred in Traverse City between 2018 and 2019. These events draw the attention and participation of hundreds of locals and visitors all from different backgrounds where the participants collectively attempt to make a massive improvement in the fight of raising awareness about suicide. Saturday, September 14 marked the second annual walk in Traverse City, where roughly 1,300 people joined together in the two-mile loop from the Open Space down Front Street to Wellington, up State Street to Division and back to the Open Space. 

Before the commencement of the walk, participants were welcomed to registration and were free to circulate and talk to other participants. Bonds were seemingly formed instantaneously as strangers came to the realization that every single person they were surrounded by in that moment was going through or had already gone through something similar to what they have. This walk helped people cope with and remember their past or current struggles, and it also helped encourage them to seek the love and support from the community. People walked holding signs that depicted loved ones they lost or signs that revealed their own internal demons while others walked hand in hand with those supporting them without signs. As the streets of downtown blurred with hundreds of cascading bodies, there was an abundance of emotions displayed on the participants’ faces; Christina “Tina” Wells-Dohm, an experienced volunteer and participant, stated that she was expecting there to be “happiness, sadness, hope, love, growth, and awareness” amidst the people that participated in the event. According to Wardie, the goal of the AFSP Out of the Darkness Community Walks is “to show those that are in that darkness that is okay to reach out for help. We want them to hold on to hope, we want them to feel loved and validated in their struggles.” 

The population of people “in the darkness” was not just limited to adults and grieving family members; many children and teenagers were present at the walk to honor their past struggles with mental illness too. The National Alliance on Mental Illness disclosed in 2016 that 16.5 percent (7.7 million individuals) of adolescents aged 6-17 years old in America have displayed a lifetime or longtime prevalence of some sort of diagnosable mental illness, whether it be anxiety, depression, eating disorders, thought disorders, or personality disorders. Within Central High School’s own walls, administrators, counseling staff, and teachers “have noticed, over the years, a drastic increase in the anxiety,” according to General Ed School Social Worker Diane Burden. She acknowledged that all students are affected by highs and lows in their mental health due to the lack of full completion of brain development as a part of growing up. Some students, however, tend to show these signs for a period of time that is longer or more frequent, an issue that stems from much deeper roots—mental illnesses or disorders. Wardie stated that part of the issue with students and people in general suffering from mental illnesses is that “[people] talk openly about and bring awareness to every other organ in [the] body being ill. But when it comes to [the] brain being ill, [people] have been taught not to talk about it.” 

There is a stigma centered around mental illnesses and suicide that makes it almost inappropriate to talk about normally, but this only pushes people further into the darkness rather than pulling them out and providing them with the help and assistance they need. The passing of Traverse City local Jake Heller in early 2019 brought his closest friends, family, and co-workers together to participate in the Out of the Darkness walk in his name as Team We Walk for Jake. Tricia Adams, a participant of Team We Walk for Jake, spoke out about the goal of the team and of the overall event, saying that suicide was never really talked about in the past, but “it doesn’t have to be a hush-hush conversation anymore, and we need to encourage people to talk about it, and be aware of it, and understand that [suicide and mental illness] seems to be an increasing problem.” 

Anyone—no matter their personal backgrounds, genetic make-up, family life, or friend association—is susceptible to the gruesome effects of the inexpressible pain that mental illness causes. Burden states that the administrators and staff of CHS try to make the school as welcoming and as safe a space for students as they possibly can and that “every adult in this building is here because of kids.” In addition to the measures taken in school to aid students in coping with their mental illnesses or even the highs and lows adolescents experience, events outside of school such as the AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Community Walk serve as opportunities for people of all ages to receive support from other people who may be going through something similar to themselves. Despite the dark and twisted reason for joining people together, there is optimism and unity among them. Wardie endorses this by explaining the goal of the AFSP and other suicide/mental disorder awareness-promoting events through her eyes: “They are not alone. There are people who understand.”