CITY HALL — Sarah Sly will never forget the day she walked into her backyard four years ago. On Dec. 11, 2006, she found her stepfather’s body lying in a pool of his own blood. He had shot himself the night before.
“That whole day was kind of utter chaos. We didn’t really know what to do. We couldn’t make sense of anything,” said Sly, who was 22 at the time. “It destroyed our whole family. We’re still in recovery.”
Although she continues to mourn for her stepfather’s death, Sly has found a new way to cope. Alongside about 665 other people affected by suicide, Sly participated in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s sixth annual Out of the Darkness Walk on Oct. 23.
The walk, which raises money for the AFSP’s research, conferences and other advocacy programs, began at 9 a.m. in front of City Hall.
“The idea is to not only raise money, but to raise awareness,” said Laura Levinsky, AFSP’s area director. “To see a thousand people walking down the street of your community, proudly saying they were affected by mental illness and suicide, and to have them admit that in public, is a huge thing.”
The walk took place after a recent rash of suicides among gay youth due to bullying. According to a 2009 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
“What’s the point of making someone feel bad so you feel better about yourself. I’m sorry you don’t feel good about yourself, but picking on some kid is not the way to do it,” Levinsky said.
Missy Lavie, 24, volunteered with her roller derby league, Angel City Derby Girls, to skate the walk and encourage participants.
“I know a lot of people who were bullied because they were gay … and felt really depressed at times, and wanted to end it,” Lavie said. “I think that I hopefully helped my friends pull through that, and [I] would like other people to pull through that as well.”
For Lizette Becerra, 26, the walk is about more than raising money for an important cause. Wearing a sticker with the words “Today, I’m walking for Junior,” on the back of her T-shirt, Becerra signed up to commemorate the death of a family friend.
“[We were] very, very surprised. He was someone that was smiling everyday, and the thought never crossed any of our minds because he was so happy and outgoing,” said Becerra, who hopes the walk will help others recognize the signs of suicide.
According to the ASFP, a person dies by suicide every 16 minutes. About 33,000 people die each year, making it the fourth leading cause of deaths for adults between the ages of 18 and 65.
“Part of the problem is that nobody wants to admit a suicide in their community. They don’t want to talk about mental illness. They don’t want to talk about bad things. This [event] brings it front and center. We put it out in front of them. They can’t deny it,” said Levinsky, who hopes to raise $100,000 by the end of the year.
With no registration fee, the walk fundraises entirely through donations. So far, ASFP has raised about $70,000.
Elizabeth Cruz, who was commemorating the 10-year anniversary of her sister’s death, raised about $1,500 with her friends and family.
“[AFSP’s] whole mission is intervention and prevention, so we’re hoping to raise enough funds to educate and really help instill hope in a lot of families and individuals who see suicide as a way out,” Cruz said. “It’s important that they reach out and get resources that are available, because a lot of this is preventable.”
Sly, who heard about the walk through a friend also affected by suicide and raised $500 in one month, hopes her contributions will reduce the fear associated with talking about suicide.
“If we can make one person recognize the signs of depression, and help their friends to get the appropriate help, I think that’s enough,” Sly said. “One of the reasons why I support this type of activity is because it isn’t just throwing money at depressed people, it’s throwing money at educating people in knowing the kinds of depression so that they can get help.”
For more information about suicide prevention, visit afsp.org.