Suicide awareness walk aims to erase stigma, encourage healing
Stunned by the combined loss of five students to suicide in the past year, Eagle River and Chugiak high schools are teaming up to bring the subject of suicide into the light. Hundreds are expected to gather the morning of Saturday, April 21, at Town Square Park for Eagle River’s first annual Out of the Darkness Walk to raise awareness, funds and hope for suicide prevention.
“Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to put light on it. We’ve tried for years to get the (Anchorage) School District connected,” said organizer Kim Hancox. “With this unfortunate string of suicides that we’ve had since April of last year, they’re listening. They’ve really taken it to heart.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, suicide was the leading cause of death in 2015 among Alaskans ages 10 to 24. Hancox, a board member of the Alaska chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the Anchorage School District has a well-established “post-vention” response to support students and staff after a suicide. Now the district is working with AFSP to implement a comprehensive suicide prevention plan, starting with challenging the stigma.
“When people lose someone to suicide, they think they’re alone and they feel so isolated,” Hancox said. “What you find (at the Out of the Darkness Walk) is that even though we don’t talk about it, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has not been affected.”
This Out of the Darkness Walk is the first to be sanctioned by a school district in Alaska. The superintendent’s office authorized Eagle River and Chugiak high schools to sponsor the event, and both schools’ principals will speak at Out of the Darkness starting ceremony.
“It’s a community collaboration. Two high schools that are rivals are coming together and walking as one, and hopefully raising awareness for others,” Hancox said.
While the schools aren’t financial sponsors, staff and students are promoting the cause with banners, posters and conversations in the schools. Signs in classrooms publicize teen-geared prevention resources, such as texting “TALK” to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor any time day or night.
“The teachers at Eagle River High School and Chugiak High School have done an amazing job to start breaking down these barriers and hopefully start to diminish the stigma,” Hancox said. “They are the trailblazers for this community.”
Hancox got involved with AFSP after her son’s friend, a student at Eagle River High School, committed suicide five years ago. Hancox, a nurse of 20 years, didn’t know how to address suicide.
“My son was devastated, and we needed resources,” she said.
Searching locally she met Dennis Lasley, a police dispatcher who founded the Alaska chapter of AFSP in 2011. Alaska’s inaugural Out of the Darkness Walk was held in Anchorage in 2013 and drew about 200 participants.
Since then annual walks have launched in Fairbanks, Palmer and Kenai, with Chugiak-Eagle River, Kodiak and the Lower Kuskokwim Delta joining the movement this year. Students in the Kuskokwim Delta will be walking in their villages April 21 in solidarity with their Eagle River and Chugiak peers.
According to a fact sheet provided by the AFSP, on average, one person dies by suicide every two days in Alaska. The Out of the Darkness campaign features memorial gardens displaying photos of loved ones lost to suicide.
The Eagle River event begins at 10 a.m with a bead ceremony. Supporters don beads of colors representing their personal connection. White beads represent the loss of child to suicide; red indicates the loss of a spouse or partner; gold signifies a parent; and orange represents a sibling, among other categories. Those wearing blue or teal beads support the cause of suicide prevention and/or a friend who struggles with suicidal thoughts.
“When you see these people who feel so alone look around and see 150 other people holding up their beads, there is something unbelievable that happens in that,” Hancox said. “It connects people in a way that no one can appreciate until they’re there.”
Proceeds fund research, educational programs, advocation for public policy and survivor support. To register or donate, go to www.afsp.org/asd, or register in person at Town Square Park starting at 9 a.m. Saturday. Walk donations will be accepted until June 30.