Mourning walk: Families gather to raise awareness of suicide prevention
If you go
What: Out of the Darkness Walk to Prevent Suicide
When: 10 a.m. today
Where: Heart River Retreat on West Broadway, Dickinson
When Karen Frank thinks about her son, Nevin, she remembers him being full of life.
"If someone was having a bad day, he was the first one to give them a pick-me-up," Frank said. "Everybody liked him. He didn't segregate people -- he accepted everyone for who they are."
On Aug. 4, 2006, Nevin took his life with a gunshot wound to his chest, leaving shocked family members and friends to cope with the grief that ripples on after a loved one is lost to suicide.
Beginning at 10 a.m. today, the Heart River Retreat on West Broadway in Dickinson will be the site of the community's inaugural Out of the Darkness Walk to Prevent Suicide, one of close to 300 such walks put on by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Though Frank knows the pain from losing her son will never completely go away, she said support from family, friends and others who have lost loved ones to suicide has helped her cope in the years since Nevin's death.
"Support from the faith family, friends and the community was very important following Nevin's death," Frank said. "We started going to the walk in Bismarck and we've gone for five years. The support and listening to others tell their stories, you can find comfort in that. If someone is struggling, you can offer your support. Every walk I go to, I try to meet three new people who have lost a child to not only possibly help them, but to help myself as well."
In 2010, 38,364 suicides were reported nationwide in the U.S., making suicide the 10th-leading cause of death for Americans, according to statistics compiled by the AFSP. Breaking those numbers down further, one American life is claimed by suicide every 15 minutes and one life is claimed in North Dakota every four days.
A tricky cause of death to get a true read on, AFSP executive director Robert Gebbia said the suicide rate nationwide has been creeping slightly up in recent years, a trend that could be tied to American veterans returning from foreign wars and the recent economic downturn, which was spurred by the Great Recession of 2008.
"For every person who dies, there are so many more people who are affected in terms of trying to understand what happened and why it happened," Gebbia said. "The good news is that suicide is something that can be prevented, but we need to do more as a society. We haven't focused on that enough."
Gebbia said most walks occur in the fall, partly to coincide with National Suicide Prevention Week, which was Sept. 5-11. Money raised from the events goes toward research and assorted programs related to suicide prevention.
"Those that come out to walk really do help raise more awareness about the problem," Gebbia said. "It's slow, but I think we're moving in the right direction. Twenty years ago, nobody even talked about (suicide). Some think it must be a bigger problem in bigger cities, but that's generally not true.
"In many of the rural areas, there's a lack of treatment and a lack of avenues to take if you are battling depression. There is also more isolation in rural areas and, especially in the western half of the country, more firearms, which is the most lethal method."
Frank said opening up and talking about loss is not always easy, but she said it is important for survivors to let their feelings out.
"There are a lot of family and friends that blame themselves after a suicide," Frank said. "We can't blame anyone. The first year (after Nevin's death), I was pretty numb. I think the second year was the hardest. I don't think it had a chance to set in during that first year. As much as I love him and want to hug and squeeze and kiss and smell him, knowing how much pain he was in, I wouldn't want him back living in that pain. But it's still hard for me to understand how someone who loved life as much as he did could take such drastic measures."
After losing friends in recent years to suicide, Dickinson resident Wilson McLaughlin took it upon himself to start a committee to bring an Out of the Darkness walk to southwest North Dakota. McLaughlin said he expects anywhere from 150 to 200 people at the Dickinson event.
"Some of the other cities, like Fargo and Grand Forks, have a walk and we thought that we needed one here," McLaughlin said. "Yes, this is a fundraiser, but it's more about raising awareness in this area about suicide and suicide prevention. It's something that touches a lot of lives."
Frank, who serves on the committee that brought the Dickinson walk together, said anyone who is struggling with suicide or mental illness, or knows someone who is, should come to the Heart River Retreat and participate in the walk.
"Sometimes people don't want to talk to someone who has lost a loved one for fear that they'll upset them," Frank said. "But that's a good thing. Even if you don't know what to say, give them a hug and don't be afraid to bring up memories because we don't want our loved ones forgotten. The more you talk about them, the better it is. I don't want people to forget Nevin, his beautiful smile or the fact that he loved life."