TRAVERSE CITY — More than a thousand people are expected near the waters of Grand Traverse Bay on Saturday with one goal in mind — end the scourge of suicides that has plagued their communities, their state and their country.
They will gather at the Open Space as part of the second annual Out of the Darkness community walk in northern Michigan.
The walks are part of a national effort that raises awareness and funds research, educational programs and advocacy for the American Federation for Suicide Prevention. Fifty percent of the proceeds also fund local programs.
Janeen Wardie, whose son Zechariah died by suicide nearly four years ago, organized last year’s inaugural event as well as Saturday’s.
Wardie expected last year that they would only have 200-300 people and raise between $20,000-$30,000. More than 1,100 showed up to walk, and more than $90,000 was raised.
“It speaks volumes about how much it’s needed, how much this conversation is needed, and how much people with lived experience with suicide have a desire to be with other people with lived experience,” Wardie said.
Registration for the walk begins at 9 a.m. with the walk starting at 11 a.m. and ending at 2 p.m. Volunteers had raised nearly $84,000 of the $100,000 goal as of Wednesday.
The goal of the AFSP is to reduce the annual suicide rate, which the organization states is 129 per day on average, by 20 percent by 2025.
Local proceeds from last year’s event funded the Talk Saves Lives program for educators at Kingsley Area Schools, which saw three student suicides in eight months. It provided classes for students and parents in Kingsley and Kalkaska Public Schools as well.
Wardie said the goal after this year’s walk is to “knock on the doors of every school district we can talk to about our programs.”
Mental health issues are a growing problem in schools, as roughly 32 percent of adolescents now have an anxiety disorder, and 12 percent of students ages 12-17 have experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to Education Week.
The suicide rate for boys ages 15-19 has gone up 30 percent since 2007, and the suicide rate for girls has doubled since then, Education Week reports.
“The more we talk about it, the more we normalize it, the more we say the word ‘suicide,’ the more we educate and the more awareness we create — the more lives we’re going to save,” Wardie said.
School districts are also addressing the issue in other ways.
The Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District trains its staff and the staff of its 16 districts how to prevent and respond to crisis in a curriculum developed by the National Association of School Psychologists.
Carol Greilick, TBAISD assistant superintendent, said the crisis response team coaches other district staff on how to prepare, anticipate, be ready and create a culture that minimizes the effect of a crisis when it happens.
“The issues that schools are faced with today are much different than even a few years ago,” Greilick said. “Educators everywhere are doing their best to give teachers the skills to respond to students and to know how to identify behaviors that put children at risk.”
Although speaking with the students is also an important aspect to prevention, Greilick said it is best to address suicide with them carefully.
“It’s certainly important to recognize it, but at the same time they should not be bearing the responsibility of preventing a suicide. That’s not their responsibility, but we want them to have the awareness to know when to seek out an adult to intervene,” she said.
Hannah Barraw, one of TBAISD’s 11 school psychologists and a crisis response curriculum trainer, brought SafeTALK — a suicide prevention training program for educators — to schools in Antrim County.
“It’s incredibly important for the well-being of students for school districts to have a plan in place to help with these kind of issues,” Barraw said. “The burden doesn’t fully fall on school districts, but we have to have parents aware of how to support their children at home and in a larger community as well.”
Wardie is in favor of many of the steps school districts are taking, but she knows much more work is left to be done.
“We go into schools and we talk about every other illness and we teach about every other illness, but when it comes to our brain — which completely controls every part of our body — we don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “We need to get to the point where we talk about our mental health as normally as we talk about our physical health.”