At Lake Merritt, families and survivors walk to support suicide prevention
on October 7, 2015
Before sunrise on October 17, survivors of suicide and those who have lost loved ones to suicide will gather on the shores of Oakland’s Lake Merritt for a three-mile walk to share solace and raise awareness of mental health needs that cost 41,000 American lives a year.
The 7th Annual Out of the Darkness Community Walk at Lake Merritt, a fundraiser for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, will begin in somber predawn shadows and conclude in the glow of a new day for Teresa Ferguson, David Shaffer, Kimberleyrenee Gamboa—and hundreds of fellow participants who are expected to join them. Last year, the event drew a crowd of more than 700.
A survey by the foundation, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention suggests that while social stigma subsists, the shame and guilt acting as roadblocks to suicide awareness are waning as Americans become more knowledgeable about mental health.
But uncertainty about resources and how to communicate contribute to suicide’s prevalence, experts say. Even as awareness increases about the effects of co-existing mental health issues, barriers to seeking help remain. “People don’t necessarily know how to get help,” said Dr. Doryn Chervin, Executive Secretary of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.
But that is where the walk comes in.
Oakland’s walk began in 2009 with a handful of families seeking to comfort each other and commemorate those they lost. Teresa Ferguson was there to remember her daughter Ginny. The previous October, the Berkeley mother had hurried home after her daughter didn’t show up for her yoga class, despite plans to meet after work. Ferguson ran outside to the deck to search. There she found Ginny had hanged herself. Ginny had been suffering from a pre-existing mental illness, bipolar disorder type II, which according to the National Institute of Mental Health website is characterized by episodes of depression with mild manic interludes. Ginny had also struggled with her medication and insurance coverage, according to her mother.
Seven years after her daughter’s death, Ferguson co-chairs the walk. What started as a gathering of 50 people—many of whom were affected by Ginny’s death—has grown to have “a life of its own,” Ferguson said. “It’s impacting so many people.”
Also joining the walk is David Shaffer of Lafayette, who four years ago attempted suicide during a bout of severe depression with feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Shaffer, who spoke at last year’s walk and looks forward to this year’s event, owns an insurance agency, has two children, and had always thought of himself as an upbeat, happy guy until he plummeted into depression in 2011. It was his first struggle with mental health, he said.
“Maybe white middle-aged men like myself are supposed to be successful,” Shaffer said. Despite outward success, “you’re falling apart inside,” he said. “It’s hard to tell people and admit that.”
Jeff Weil, a friend of Shaffer’s for over 30 years, said in an interview that Shaffer began exhibiting atypical behavior during the height of difficulties that included a divorce and a stressful work environment. “There would be times I would call him and couldn’t get an answer,” Weil said, adding he “just wasn’t sure” if Schaffer would make it. Weil said he is grateful to have his friend around today.
Although stigmas about suicide persist, experts say some people troubled by suicidal thoughts are more encouraged by friends and family to communicate about their mental health. But not all cases fit into a predictable pattern of symptoms that would enable a health intervention.
Kimberleyrenee Gamboa of Sacramento is a survivor with an unusual story. Her son Kyle jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2013, although his mother said he had shown no signs of mental illness or sadness. Gamboa said the 18-year-old seemed happy. The devastation she and her family have faced since losing Kyle is exacerbated by the fact that he never expressed suicidal thoughts, his mother said.
After Kyle’s death, Gamboa has dedicated her life to preventing suicide. She copes with the loss of her son through her commitment to sharing her story, raising awareness about mental health, and supporting survivors. Gamboa plans to attend Oakland’s walk in hopes of fostering dialogue about suicide and reducing its stigma. “We are still here,” Gamboa said. “We are getting through and trying to prevent this from happening to anybody else.”
Out of the Darkness will take place at Lake Merritt October 17. Interested participants should pre-register free of charge online. Participants should arrive at the event at 6:00 am for sign-in. People should also dress for a three-mile walk, lasting about 45 minutes. Donations are welcome. The course is accessible to people with handicaps. Participants are asked to bring a photograph of a loved one lost to suicide.
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