Local suicide prevention walk aims to reduce stigma


Art by Rochita Ghosh / Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Rochita Ghosh

The prevalence of mental illness and suicide does not go unnoticed in today’s society. As of April 2016, the suicide rate in the United States increased 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, with approximately 117 people dying by suicide every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To combat these statistics, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) organizes events called Out of the Darkness Walks across the United States, meant to raise awareness about mental health issues. Columbia counts itself among the hundreds of cities participating, and will host its second annual Out of the Darkness Walk Sunday, Oct. 9.
In order to participate in the walk, one must register on Columbia’s event page on the AFSP website. Rebecca Pamperl, the event organizer and board member of the AFSP Greater Mid-Missouri Chapter, felt inspired to start the event in Columbia when she attended her first Out of the Darkness Walk at Fulton, Mo. in 2013 for her brother.
“I walked because I lost my brother to suicide, and it was very scary going because losing him was hard, but telling people was even harder,” Pamperl said. “But, it moved me. It really touched me to know that there were people that have been through the same type of loss, experience and pain that I have felt. I definitely wanted to share that with others and get a lot more people involved.”
The Out of the Darkness Walk also raises funds that would pay for people’s treatment and enable the start of various programs related to mental health care and awareness.
“We would get 50 percent back of what we raise at the walk and put it back into the community. The chair [of the AFSP chapter] and I decide on what programs we want in the community,” Pamperl said. “For instance, we have done some mental health first aid training. That’s just to educate everybody. The training costs money, but we provide it for free. We provide them supper, we provide the place, we’ll even provide lunch. We can provide all of that for free with that funding.”
Sophomore and HOPE Club leader Kayla West shares the same motivation as Pamperl, as she too became involved in AFSP and suicide prevention after a family member, her mother, died by suicide three years ago. She started a team for RBHS on the Columbia Out of the Darkness Walk page, aided by outreach counselor Lesley Thalhuber.
“At first, I joined the board committee [the AFSP Greater Mid-Missouri Chapter] for the walk, and when school started, I paired with Thalhuber to start HOPE Club, which focuses on mental health awareness and substance use prevention and all that,” West said. “We started brainstorming [about what we could do] and I came up with the idea to start a RBHS page and have people join.”
Thalhuber said that HOPE Club’s main purpose is to educate the school about suicide prevention and raise awareness about mental health issues, hoping to connect members of the community who may have had similar feelings and experiences with suicide.
“I lost a friend to suicide right before my freshman year of high school. That particular type of loss certainly makes a deep and lasting impact,” Thalhuber said. “My job as a counselor also involves working with students who have sometimes had or are currently experiencing suicidal thoughts. This issue is one that keeps me up at night and I feel better becoming actively involved with suicide prevention and awareness efforts that can make a difference in addition to the work that I do with students.”
West and Thalhuber are among the countless number of people who have had experiences with suicide, yet Pamperl says that the stigma surrounding mental health issues and suicide has hushed their voices.
“Suicide was something that was never discussed,” Pamperl said. “When we [found out about my brother], nobody — not even my friends — knew what to say, and I don’t want it to be like that anymore. I want people to know that if somebody’s hurting really bad, we’ll try to get them help. If someone lost someone to suicide, that it’s not their fault and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
West stresses the same, saying that she is grateful for the good that the walk accomplishes in regards to suicide prevention and mental health awareness.
“It’s just a really neat experience to meet other people who are going through the same things you are,” West said. “Also, I feel like since it’s a community event, people who normally wouldn’t even have interest in this topic might come and become more aware, which can help reduce the stigma.”