At Out of the Darkness Walk, message clear: 'You are not alone'

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GREAT BARRINGTON — They are members of Team Coty, Team Tuuka, Team Betty and Team Tristan. They are the Stockbridge Stompers, Kadie's Warriors and Annie's Angels.

They are the hundreds of adults, teens and children who turned out under sunny skies Saturday morning for the third Out of the Darkness Berkshire County Walk.

As of Saturday morning, the online campaign for the local walk raised $45,651 of its $60,000 goal, from 252 pre-registered participants, including 40 teams. But support was still pouring in during walk-up registration.

One volunteer said registrars exhausted the extra stacks of registration forms and collection envelopes they brought with them, and resorted to continuing sign-ups on scrap paper.

Under sunshine with gentle fall breezes rustling through the trees, event co-chair Bertha Connelley told participants during the opening ceremony: "It feels like someone is looking down on us today, a lot of people, probably."

The Out of the Darkness community walks series is a public suicide awareness, prevention and community support campaign convened nationwide by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which estimates that 123 Americans take their life each day, with thousands more trying to do so.

"Behind those numbers are people impacted," Connelley said.

Typically and historically, suicide attempts and deaths have been shunned subjects in society. "So today, let's not be silent," she said, to cheers and clapping from the crowd.

Survivor Jessica Bourassa, who has lost loved ones to suicide, shared — through tears, at times — her ongoing struggles with thoughts of suicide. Growing up with depression, she said, "I just thought I was damaged, different, a complete outcast."

She found that turning to alcohol made matters worse. She then discovered the health benefits of running and social benefits of Recovery Learning Communities where, she said, "they encourage you to come as you are and there's no pressure to feel happy if you're not."

For the past three years, she has worked in a role she loves, as a peer support worker for The Brien Center. One criterion of the job is that you have to have lived through a crisis.

"You are not alone; you have the power to transform," she said.

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Walkers on Saturday wore ribbons and beaded necklaces with colors corresponding to a particular issue: blue in solidarity of suicide prevention, gold for the loss of a parent, silver for the loss of a first responder or veteran and so on.

Haridas Bankert told attendees that, along with blue, he also wore green in support of himself, as someone who struggles.

"Suicide's a thought, but it's just a thought," he said. "There are ways to change those thoughts and we don't have to act on them."

He said he now focuses on helping neighbors and others, particularly through a men's group he is a part of where, he said, "you can talk about your struggles with relatives or work or whatever. Having that support is so powerful, it's so healthy."

For people who never have experienced one, the Out of the Darkness walks are far from somber, silent events. They are filled with movement and laughter and love. The Great Barrington program included music, performances by Roger the Jester; kindness rock painting, ribbon weaving and sidewalk chalk art projects led by local students and with lots of camaraderie.

Walk co-chair Jill Fleming greeted everyone she met with a smile and a hug.

This was her first walk.

"I feel so blessed to be here," she said. "I've arrived at a place where I feel I can tell my story."

Fleming lost her mother, father and an uncle to suicide, which devastated her growing up.

"I was ashamed. I felt like a freak," she said. "I don't want you to feel bad for me. I just wanted to make it through."

On Saturday, she remembered her mother, the namesake of Team Betty, with reverence, as someone "energetic, loving and fun, except when she wasn't," due to the behavior-altering effects of a diagnosed mental illness.

Today, Fleming chooses to embrace the positives of her mother's spirit by focusing on her passion for her children, being outdoors, swimming, circus arts and friends.

"Now that you know my secret," she told participants, "I encourage you to tell yours."


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