Chicagoland suicide prevention walk largest of its kind

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Austin resident Toni Owens said she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to take his or her own life, until she thought to end her own.

“One day I woke up and just felt like this battle is not worth fighting anymore,” she said.

Owens, 41, said she began having suicidal thoughts after a series of events rocked her life. Her mother passed away in December 2010; she separated from her husband eight months later.

At the time, she was pursuing a master’s degree in organizational Leadership at Dominican University in River Forest. School bills and other financial burdens forced her and her son, now 21, to move back to the Austin home where she grew up.

“You just feel like, ‘When do I get a break?’” she said.

Ironically, Owens was, and still is, involved in a women’s outreach group. She said she could “smile and help others” but found it difficult to confide in anyone about her “silent killer:” depression.

Now, nearly eight months later, Owens said she will be attending her first suicide prevention walk, Out of the Darkness, Sept. 29.

The walk is the largest of its kind put on by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said April Jervis, the group’s Illinois-area director.

While a “handful” of participants attended the first walk in 2004, last year’s event had 2,500 registered walkers, Jervis said. Almost 3,000 participants have registered for this year’s walk, which will be held at Independence Grove in Libertyville.

“One of the most important goals is to raise awareness of not only suicide but to reduce the stigma of mental health, so that more people feel more comfortable reaching out,” Jervis said.

Suicides among African-Americans, who account for about 90 percent of Austin’s population, according to census data, are traditionally the lowest compared to other racial groups, Jervis said.

In 2009, 2,084 African-Americans committed suicide in the United States, or 5.1 percent of the black population, according to data collected by the foundation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide claimed 13.5 percent of whites that same year.

But this relatively small percentage represents a recent, rapid rise of suicide among African-Americans, Jervis said.

Rates of suicide are particularly high among African-American and white males ages 15-24, said Donna H. Barnes, director of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide.

She said the current increase in suicides among African-Americans could be attributed to high-risk behavior.

“I can’t tell you how many young kids know they’re going to get killed hanging around in the streets in gangs,” Barnes said. “To some of these kids, life has no value.”

Barnes cited unemployment, relationship discord and discrimination as contributing factors to depression and, perhaps, suicidal thoughts, among African-Americans.

But Barnes added that suicidal behavior can also depend on the individual. Like Owens, someone may develop depression or suicidal thoughts because of personal circumstances.

Owens has visited a therapist since March after being diagnosed with depression. She said she hopes Saturday’s walk will be encouraging, just as her therapy sessions have been.

“I would want to meet other women who have struggled like me and see how they have thrived,” she said.

People who have dealt with mental health problems are invited to share their stories and assure others that they, too, can fight back, Jervis said.

Volunteer Megan Graf, 26, said she’s walking because of her lifelong struggle with anxiety.

Graf, who is on the walk’s planning committee, said she first joined as a volunteer to “make something good” from her struggles.

Owens now has her master’s degree and wants to pursue her doctorate. She said she still struggles with depression but found that confiding in a neutral source has helped her come a long way since that one morning early this year.

“Sometimes just having someone figure out what’s in you helps the process a little bit more,” she said. It’s more helpful and believable when somebody who knows absolutely nothing about you can say, ‘It’s going to be OK.’”

The three-hour walk is planned to begin at 9 a.m. Sept. 29. You can register to participate here until 11 a.m. Sept. 28.

Call the national crisis hot line for 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

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