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Suicide Prevention Brings Community Together for Out of the Darkness Walk

by on April 23, 2014 6:55 AM

Every 13.7 minutes, somebody in the United States dies by suicide. Every sixty seconds, a person in this country attempts to end their own life, with close to one million people attempting suicide each year.

It's not just the victims. Suicide also takes a painful toll on families and loved ones.

Brenda Witt, chair of the Central Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), has felt the sting of losing someone to suicide firsthand.

"I lost a college friend in the 80's to suicide and at that time, there just was no discussion about suicide," says Witt. "It was all hush hush."

Now playing a prominent role with the AFSP, Witt has helped bring the discussion to the attention of millions of Americans. Tasked with helping coordinate the "Out of the Darkness" community walk in Centre County, she's played an important role in one of several thousand walks nationwide aimed at spreading awareness and putting an end to suicide.

The annual community walk generates funding for AFSP and has become a national symbol of support for those dealing with the loss of a loved one to suicide.

Money raised through the event helps fight suicide through educational programs, scientific research, and by providing resources to survivors, people at risk, and their families. To date, AFSP has granted more than $20 million to researchers, families, and communities to put a stop to the tragedy that claims 38,000 lives each year.

Eight years ago, after suffering the loss of her brother to suicide, area resident Susan Kennedy sought help from the community. Along with friend Mary Anne Neal, who endured the loss of her mother, Kennedy found a startling lack of local support and resources for those affected by suicide. Determined not to let anyone else feel alone in a time of need, the two organized a community walk in Centre County.

Central PA's 8th Annual Out of the Darkness Walk will be held on Sunday, April 27 at 1 p.m. at Sidney Friedman Park in State College. Over the years the event has raised $350,000 for AFSP. More importantly, half of the money that's raised goes to suicide prevention and awareness programs in our area.

According to Witt, local funds help host programs at schools, senior centers, campus, and in churches, as well as provide care baskets to those suffering from loss. Educational material is also provided to local libraries, and first responders are trained to deal with any potential suicide crisis they may encounter.

"Suicide can be prevented and I think those that walk find camaraderie from other survivors, celebration of the memory of their loss and the desire to destigmatize mental illness and suicide to bring this issue out of the dark and into the light," says Witt.

Support for the event comes from Penn State's Panhellenic Council, The Meadows Psychiatric Hospital, and the Jana Marie Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps young people, especially young women, combat depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

After a full year of planning, Witt says she is looking forward to seeing volunteers come out and support one another, and help put a stop to one of the country's most pressing social and health issues.

"The most important take away as you look across the sea of T-shirts is that you are not alone," says Witt. "This third leading cause of death for some age groups is rivaling heart disease yet receives very little funding, and I think walkers deeply feel that they can and are making a difference."

Participating in the walk, Witt has seen the power of the community's support, and witnessed the healing strength of friendship and a helping hand during a difficult time.

"I am always touched by the opportunity to see a group of walkers with tears as they share memories of a loss, but standing next to another group of walkers with smiles as they celebrate making a difference," she says. "Today and throughout the year, people will attend these walks all over the country to make sure their voice is heard."

"I am in awe every year as though I have never experienced the walk before," she continues. "The people are amazing."

The registration deadline for Sunday's event is midnight on Friday, April 25. If you are interested in more information on how to register or donate, visit the event's homepage by clicking here.

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C.J. Doon is a frequent contributor to Onward State and is a former intern. A Long Island native, Doon is studying print journalism at Penn State.
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