Out of the Darkness Community Walk to raise awareness about suicide


LANESBOROUGH — Local advocates are looking to bring a dark issue into the light this Saturday.

Held last year at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, this year's Berkshire County Out of the Darkness Community Walk for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will be held at 10:30 on Saturday morning, along the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, starting at the southern entrance of the Berkshire Mall.

This year's event coincides with the International Association for Suicide Prevention's World Suicide Prevention Day, held on the 10th day of September.

"We wanted to be some place where people can see us and ask 'why are you walking?' " said Bertha Connelley, director of human resources for the Austen Riggs Center for psychiatric care in Stockbridge. She is co-chairing this year's walk with her colleague, Lee Watroba, the program and community outreach manager for the center's Erickson Institute for Education and Research.

Suicide is a prevalent issue in Berkshire County, which had the highest rate of reported suicides in the commonwealth — 17.7 suicide deaths for every 100,000 residents — with 24 people dying by suicide, according to the most recent statistics for the reporting year of 2013. Massachusetts overall, however has one of the lowest suicide rates in the nation, due to, according to experts, the availability of medical care and support and gun control laws.

Still, for every man, woman and child who dies from this cause, loved ones are left behind, bereft, and wondering what could have been done or what they can do now.

"Last year's event was a little somber because you see so many survivors thinking about loved ones, but it's also a hopeful happening," Watroba said. "There's something about moving yourself through a space that's cathartic."

The organizers expect some 350 people to attend the walk. Already, online donations have reached $25,499 toward a $30,000 goal to support research, outreach and education. Last year's walk brought in $23,000 and nearly 300 participants.

"After last year's walk, I was amazed at how many people have a personal connection to suicide," Watroba said.

Suicide relates to a person's mental health, and the event will include representatives from the Brien Center, AFSP, Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention and other agencies to offer materials to support individuals and families and to connect with local, state and national mental health and suicide prevention agencies.

Brien Center CEO Christine Macbeth will serve as the keynote speaker for the event, and walkers will be given beaded necklaces to wear, with different colors representing a person's different connection to suicide. Participants will also be invited to help create a display of remembrance.

"It takes a whole community to be involved to make a difference," said Peggy Morse, co-chair of the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention.

"The resources are here [in Berkshire County] but it isn't perfect and the response isn't always immediate," said Connelley.

"Which is why an informed public is helpful," Watroba said, noting that most of the talk about prevention and one's risk for suicide happens outside of a clinician's office.

Local agencies are now working together to improve prevention, education and responses around suicide and mental health.

Watroba said AFSP, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other mental health agencies are working to connect local law enforcement departments with crisis intervention training, and can even provide grants to help pay for staff coverage while other officers attend the training. The goal of this is to help familiarize officers and first responders with what a person in crisis might be going through and how to diffuse a confusing or highly emotional episode.

In terms of prevention, AFSP has also worked to present a program called "More Than Sad" in some local schools, which educates high school students, teachers and parents about teen depression, warning signs and ways to help kids who may be at risk for attempting suicide. Between 2004 and 2008, the Berkshire County youth suicide rate was 6.8 per 100,000 children and teens.

Another program currently being introduced to Berkshire clinicians and community members is called Mental Health First Aid. The eight-hour course that teaches people how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorder since people tend not to ask for help.

Said Morse, "When the community starts looking at [the causes of suicide] as a public health matter, not just an individual struggling ... they may be more likely to take a more active role in prevention."

If you go ...

What: "Out of the Darkness Community Walks" for suicide awareness and prevention.

When and where: Saturday. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. at the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough. Walk begins at 10:30 at the southern mall entrance to the DCR Ashuwillticook Rail Trail.

Additionally, a "Dining to Donate" event to support the cause will take place at Arizona Pizza Company on Sunday, during regular business hours. Mention the Berkshire County of the Out of the Darkness walk and the restaurant will donate 20 percent of your bill proceeds to the local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Info: Email hwhite@afsp.org or visit afsp.org/BerkshireCounty

If you or a loved one needs help ...

These options are available 24/7

For an emergency: Call 911

Berkshire County Crisis Team: 413-499-0412

Lifeline for Suicide Prevention: 800-273-TALK (8255)

Samaritan Helpline: 877-870-HOPE (4673)

Text a Crisis Counselor: 741741

For veterans in crisis: 1-800-273-8255 and press "1" or text to 838255


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