On Sunday, Sept. 22, Brookfield resident Alyssa Relyea laced up her walking shoes and joined forces with hundreds of others from throughout the Chicago area who have been impacted by suicide. Sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Out of the Darkness walks across the nation join together hundreds of thousands of people to raise awareness and funds that allow AFSP to invest in research, create educational programs, advocate for public policy, and support survivors of suicide loss. AFSP has set a goal to reduce the annual suicide rate by 20 percent by 2025.
Relyea who has served as both a volunteer and board member at AFSP points to sobering statistics on suicide in Illinois. On average, one person dies by suicide every six hours in the state. Suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death in Illinois, where more people die by suicide than homicide every year.
For Relyea, the interest in joining AFSP’s efforts began as it does for so many: with personal tragedy. She lost her twin brother Andrew to suicide 21 years ago. At 20 years old, Andrew, who was a firefighter and an EMT, struggled at times but did not have an official diagnosis. Relyea says, “Back then people didn’t know the warning signs. It was traumatizing when it happened. It was difficult to imagine life without him in it.”
In her grief, she left the western suburbs where the two had grown up and took some time to learn how to live her life. When she returned, she heard about the Out of the Darkness walks and joined one in 2005. Eventually, her work fundraising through the walks led her to reach out to AFSP and join their efforts, first as a volunteer and later as a board member.
The experience has been enriching and healing on multiple levels. Relyea says she benefits from meeting others who have lost a loved one to suicide, and says “it’s more helpful to know I’m helping others. The knowledge that you’re helping others and hopefully preventing this from touching more families is a big part of this.”
AFSP was founded in 1987 by a group of families who had lost children to suicide. Relyea says the immediate emphasis of the group was on research. “Parents really wanted to answer the question: ‘Why: Why my son or daughter? Why now?’ The focus was on research because those of us who have been effected don’t want anyone else to have to experience this.”
AFSP also reaches out to the community through educational programs in three main areas aimed at different audiences. The high school program called More than Sad has three prongs. The first aims to train educators on the different kinds of mental illness and what it looks like. The second, aimed at students, focuses on mental health and gives kids help with ideal conflict resolution and ideal coping mechanisms. A parent program focuses on suicide prevention. When needed, AFSP can provide “post-vention” kits for schools in the wake of a suicide of a student.
For college-aged participants, a program called It’s Real involves an AFSP volunteer or mental health professional meeting with local college groups about mental health with discussion, a DVD viewing and a pizza party. A general program called Talk Saves Lives informs the public about the scope of suicide and provides information on warning signs and what to do in a crisis.
Relyea says that all of these programs are provided free of charge. The Out of the Darkness walks are an important way to not only increase community awareness about suicide, but to gather those effected by suicide. Relyea says that many of the participants are family members or friends of victims, 10 to 20 percent are mental health practitioners and others are people with “lived experiences” who have made attempts at suicide themselves.
As Relyea walks each year with family and friends who knew her brother Andrew, she says that more education helps lessen the stigma of suicide. “We walk to raise money, to raise awareness and to bring people together who have been effected by suicide. You don’t have to raise money to participate. The purpose is to be a part of the group because suicide can be a very isolating experience.”