The emotional issue of suicide prevention had a light shone on it in more ways than one Saturday, Sept. 23, as more than 300 participants converged at Bainbridge High School to march in the Kitsap Peninsula Out of the Darkness Walk beneath an unseasonably bright blue, cloud-dotted sky that was more July than the first full day of fall.
The immediate interest and quickly swelling attendance had exceeded the expectations of the event’s primary organizer, and master of opening ceremonies, Pegeen Mulhern. She said more than 250 people had preregistered, but she wasn’t sure how many day-of walkers to expect.
It was a very pleasant surprise.
“I thought we’d have at least 200. I didn’t think we’d have 250 preregistered and more coming today and signing up,” she said.
“It’s a great day to be out here. It’s a difficult topic, but we’re erasing the stigma around mental health. It’s something we need to talk about,” Mulhern said.
Three hundred and forty-six participants raised $35,599 at the event, which saw attendees from across the county lace up their walking shoes. Many also donned homemade shirts bearing the names of specific friends and loved ones lost to suicide, in addition to the color-coded beads, which nearly every walker wore to signify who they were there to remember.
White beads signified a lost child; red, a spouse or partner; gold, a parent; orange, a sibling; purple, a friend or relative; silver, a first responder or military member; green was for personal struggles; blue for general support of the cause; and teal was for those who know a family member who is struggling.
The 2.4-mile Bainbridge walk — part of a larger program by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention — began and ended at BHS amidst a gaggle of informational display tables hosted by local businesses and nonprofit organizations. After opening remarks, and a quick warm-up stretching session, the walkers moved down Madison Avenue to Eagle Harbor Congregational Church, then east on Bejune Drive and north on Ericksen Avenue, before turning west on Wallace Way and moving back to the start point.
The walk, Mulhern said, was an excellent way to engage the community, which had been “impacted,” she said, by suicide “in so many ways.”
“We’re going to be bringing programs from AFSP back into the community — to the whole peninsula, we hope,” she said. “A lot of people are suffering from different mental illnesses and the main thrust of the walk and our program is to make sure people know that they’re not alone.
“It’s great having all these resources here for people,” she added.
BHS teacher and varsity wrestling team Head Coach Dan Pippinger spoke about his own adolescent struggles with suicidal thoughts in a frank, powerful pre-walk speech.
“It’s comforting to be together in the pain that we feel at the hands of suicide, and in being united in the desire to see that no one else has to feel that same pain,” he told the crowd. “I’m not a public speaker. I get nervous. I feel sweaty. I’m fearful that I’m going to mess this up. You might say that in a small way I’m going into my darkness by standing in front of you and speaking.”
Everyone has places and times and darkness, Pippinger told the crowd, before relating his own personal experiences.
“There was a time in my life when that darkness felt overwhelming,” Pippinger said. “I was a very shy and insecure kid. It was time when I did not feel at all normal or accepted. I was scared to talk to others and I was scared to lose at anything. I believed that no one else felt like I did and that no one could really understand me.
“As time went on and the fears grew in that early time in my life, I thought that suicide might be easier than struggling in the darkness,” the coach recalled.
It was eventually personal relationships, Pippinger said, which helped him walk out of his own dark place, establishing and fostering them with people who loved and supported him in turn.
“Most people here, and definitely most of the young people on this island and in this county, are considering, have considered or will consider suicide,” Pippinger said. “Let’s make it safe, acceptable and even normal to talk about. Let’s encourage more opportunities, and integrate into the opportunities that already exist — these conversations about fear, depression and suicidal thoughts.”
In addition to a heartfelt applause in response, official statistics bear out Pippinger’s claims, as well.
Nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24, according to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
In Washington state, an average of one person dies by suicide every eight hours, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
According to information compiled by the Kitsap County Coroner’s Office, Kitsap typically has about 30 annual deaths by suicide, though 2015 saw an alarming spike (52).
Visit www.afsp.donordrive.com to learn more about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.