Josh Graham was an artist whose work will never be seen in any gallery, whose drawings won’t be on display in any museum or sell out a show.
Josh died by suicide at 17 before he even graduated from high school.
“He’d been seen [by mental health professionals] several times, but it’s so difficult to diagnose in a young person,” said his mother, Debra Graham. “There wasn’t enough time for him to get a true diagnosis.”
In the weeks and months after his death, Graham sought answers and a way to channel her grief into something positive. She found the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, with which she is now actively involved, and the Out of Darkness Walks, which seek to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide prevention.
“One day, I got a brochure in the mail, and I thought it was just junk mail,” Graham said. “I went to toss it out but the word ‘suicide’ caught my eye. It was telling me about the first Out of Darkness Walk in Long Island, and the date was significant – it was held on Josh’s 19th birthday.”
It felt like fate was directing Graham to the walk.
“I felt I needed to go for several reasons,” she said. “I could celebrate Josh’s birthday and see what it was all about. It was very empowering. There were about 600 people there, carrying pictures of their loved ones. I’d had no idea this many people were impacted by suicide. It was a wonderful way to memorialize loved ones. I felt like I needed to bring it to the Syracuse community.”
Graham and Mary Jean Coleman, executive director of the local chapter of the AFSP, organized the first Syracuse Out of Darkness Walk in 2006.
“We held the first walk six years ago,” Graham said. “About 65 to 68 people attended, which was more than I was expecting. We raised a little over $8,000. This year, 800 people attended, and we’ve raised $50,000 so far. We’re still taking donations.”
Graham said she is heartened to see how much the event has grown over the years.
“We’ve made huge strides,” she said. “We’re providing a safe and comforting environment for survivors, and we’re bringing mental illness out of the darkness. It’s okay to talk about it.”
The walk is just one event locally that strives to raise awareness about suicide prevention and to erase the stigma associated with talking about suicide and mental illness. This Saturday, Nov. 19, there will be a conference for those who have lost a loved one to suicide, referred to as suicide survivors. The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Northside Baptist Church in Liverpool.
“Northside is phenomenal,” Graham said. “This is a non-religious event. They’ve been very supportive of our work and very supportive of survivors. We have various educational trainings at the church. They have such a warm and welcoming environment. It’s the perfect venue. It’s easily accessible from 81 and 481. There’s plenty of free parking. It’s a nice area. We’re very fortunate that they’re allowing us to use the space.”
Saturday’s event is one of many around the world that’s part of International Survivors of Suicide Day, which is always held the third Saturday in November. It began in 1999 with an act of Congress introduced by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who lost his father to suicide.
The event will include breakout groups by type of loss (parent, child, friend, etc.), watching a national broadcast of the Survivors of Suicide Day events and a memory quilt. There will also be a panel of local survivors sharing their experiences. Graham said this is the most important part for many survivors.
“It’s important for survivors to share their stories,” she said. “It helps them through the journey of grief. They need to know that the pain can and will lessen. Those who have had time to heal become inspirational role models and provide them with a beacon of hope. They also lessen the stigma of suicide and mental illness, and dispel the myth that suicide can’t be discussed or is shameful. We need to educate people on what we know based on research, to educate the community and let them know suicide is preventable by recognizing the risk factors and warning signs. Lives can be saved through diagnosis and treatment.”
To register for the conference, contact Debra Graham at 664-0346 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.