The people gathered at the Willow Bay area of Onondaga Lake Park paid little attention to the pouring rain Saturday, focused only on the cause that drew them there. Perhaps the weather was suitable, given the nature of that cause: depression and suicide.
Those who came to the park on Aug. 19 did so to take part in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk, one of 70 such walks to be held nationwide between now and October. The three-kilometer walk (or run, for those who so desired), the first of its kind in the Syracuse area, was held to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention and depression treatment programs. Organized nationally by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the local event was chaired by Debra Graham.
“It’s a combination of things,” Graham said of the walk’s purpose. “It’s to bring people out of the darkness who suffer from mental illness. People with depression feel so ostracized It’s [also] to diminish the stigma associated with mental illness, because there is still a stigma attached that people with physical illnesses don’t face. Plus, the money raised goes to national and local programs that deal with research and education.”
The AFSP is the only nonprofit organization in the nation dedicated to suicide prevention and education, and these walks are their main source of funding. So far, the group has raised over $100,000 to be funneled into advocacy and research projects dedicated to breaking the silence surrounding suicide.
It’s a silence Graham knows all too well; her 17-year-old son, Justin, took his own life three years ago. Searching for a place to channel her grief, Graham discovered the AFSP and its Out of the Darkness walks. The first walk in the state was held in Long Island in on Justin’s birthday in 2004.
“It seemed like such a wonderful way to celebrate his birthday that year,” she said.
This year, Graham was approached by the director of the Central New York chapter of the AFSP, who asked her if she would be interested in setting up a community walk here in Onondaga County.
“I was very happy to do so,” Graham said. “My goal is to hold a walk every year.”
Graham hopes the walks will raise community awareness not only of suicide prevention but of the organization itself.
“We’re a new organization,” she said. “Not too many people are aware of it. We’re hoping to get the name out there and make people aware of the programs the AFSP offers.”
A true community walk
Despite the weather, the turnout for the event was excellent; Willow Bay’s parking lot was packed, and runners and walkers crowded the paths provided for them. In addition to individuals, many community organizations, including Ophelia’s Place, Family Tapestry, Onondaga Case Management and the CNY Depression and Bipolar Disorder Support Group, took part in the event.
The event was largely made possible by corporate sponsors, including Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Fleet Feet Sports, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Huhtamaki Paper Products, among others. A banner in the registration tent thanked those sponsors for their support.
Also in the registration tent hung stark reminders of the reasons for the walk. Memory quilts featuring pictures of those who had been lost to suicide, favorite quotes and messages from families lined the interior and exterior of the tent, as did posters featuring Graham’s son and another young boy whose life ended too soon.
In March of 2001, Timothy O’Clair, 12, hung himself in his bedroom closet. Timothy and his family had battled his mental illness for five years. His parents, though covered by health insurance, couldn’t afford proper treatment for him because of limits on the insurance coverage provided for those with mental problems.
Timothy’s father, Tom O’Clair, was invited to act as the keynote speaker at the walk at Onondaga Lake Park this weekend. O’Clair and his wife have spent the five years since their son’s death fighting for parity between physical and mental health insurance with a proposal called Timothy’s Law. The law goes beyond the Federal Mental Health Act of 1996 to eliminate discrimination against those with a diagnosis of mental illness.
According to timothyslaw.org, a website run by the O’Clairs and their associates fighting for adequate coverage for mental diseases, insurance policies in New York state “limit the amount of inpatient and outpatient coverage provided for mental health and substance abuse services and require additional co-payments for insurance and discriminate in the coverage provided based upon a diagnosis of a mental illness or substance abuse disorder.”
Meanwhile, Timothy’s Law “mandates that insurance providers covering any health care services must also provide coverage for mental health and substance abuse services and that coverage and cost must be ‘on par’ with all other health care services covered under such policy.”
The O’Clairs have been fighting for the law in the New York state legislature for several years. They finally experienced a partial victory last June, when the state Senate and Assembly reached an agreement requiring policies sold in New York state to cover at least 30 days of inpatient therapy and 20 outpatient visits for mental health treatment. The agreement also ordered co-payments for mental health services to be equalized with co-payments for services dealing with physical health. However, it failed to include provisions for substance abuse treatment.
The O’Clairs and others who took part in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk last weekend hope the law will pass in the legislature this session. They hope the law and the better treatment it affords those with mental illness will change some of these statistics: one million Americans will attempt suicide each year and 300,000 succeed. That means that someone commits suicide in the U.S. every 18 minutes. The leading cause of suicide is depression, which affects more than 20 million people every year. The AFSP will continue to hold Out of the Darkness walks in the hope that people will realize that one suicide in the community is too many.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.