CU Out of the Darkness Walk aids suicide prevention

By Sarah Foster

Melissa Sutherland’s eyes shifted between a sea of faces and a folded sheet of white paper. She stood on the plank of a park bench in Crystal Lake Park and twisted blue and green beads between her fingers. She continued to look at the crowd.

Some of these faces she recognized. Her parents, closest friends and Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity members made up a portion. Though she never knew the rest, they would soon be hearing one of the darkest parts of her past. 

She took a deep breath.

She didn’t care. It was time to bring her story out of the darkness. 

“A few short months ago, I went through a stage in my life so bad that I thought suicide was the only way out,” Sutherland began.

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Sutherland, currently a graduate student in Business, read from the folded sheet of paper to the attendees of Champaign-Urbana’s annual Out of the Darkness Walk, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) at Crystal Lake Park in Champaign. Sutherland was the top fundraiser for the Champaign-Urbana walk, raising $1,735 as part of the $11,784.26 total. A total of 95 people participated in this year’s walk, which began at 11 a.m.

Sutherland’s speech at the event was about her recent diagnosis of major depressive disorder and general anxiety and her struggle to deal with her illness.

But most importantly, Sutherland stood above the crowd — whose members most likely have been affected by depression and suicide in some way — to remind them of something they don’t often see. 

“I used to think that depression made me weak, but with the help of this walk, I know it has made me strong,” Sutherland said. “You can come out of something really terrible on the other side. It is possible.”

Applause erupted. Members of the audience wiped their eyes. Sutherland knew she had done her job. But looking back on her journey, Sutherland said finding the courage to stand up on that park bench was far from easy.

“Depression is something people don’t talk about,” Sutherland said. “We treat it like it’s hidden away in the shadows. People are embarrassed. The only time things like suicide are really glamorized are when it happens. People don’t talk about people overcoming (it).”

According to Angela Cummings, associate area director of AFSP, society’s lack of understanding of depression as an illness leads to a negative stigma.

“Many of us grow up with the belief that people who take their own lives are crazy, selfish or have some kind of a moral defect,” Cummings said. “As they understand that suicidal thinking and behavior is the result of a treatable medical condition, people become less fearful and more able to listen to a person in distress with empathy and without judgment.”

That’s when Sutherland knew what she had to do.

“(I wanted) something positive to come out of what I had to go through,” Sutherland said. “I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I didn’t want to have that label on me. But I finally decided that we need to start talking about it and having a conversation about things like this, so people aren’t afraid to tell their story.”

She began to research ways she could use her story to help others. Along the way, she discovered AFSP and the annual walk they sponsor.

AFSP seeks to reduce suicide and suicide attempts by developing approaches to suicide prevention, like education and prevention programs for teens and young adults, community programs and programs for educators and mental health professionals. It is a leading nonprofit supporter of suicide research in the U.S.

“Without AFSP, I probably wouldn’t have shared my own story and impacted the lives that I did. I posted (my story) on the website,” Sutherland said. “Before then, only my immediate family and best friend knew. We kind of kept it under wraps on purpose because we didn’t know how people would react to it. Once I wrote my story on there, I was absolutely terrified.”

When Sutherland hit the submit button on AFSP’s website, her parents were stunned.

“It shocked us that she put it out there and made it so public so fast,” said Scott Sutherland, Melissa’s father. “All of a sudden, she was ready, and she let everybody know. She took the lead. I wasn’t sure how people were going to react to it.”

Immediately, however, Sutherland received an influx of kind and supportive responses. 

Though her willingness was enough to shock her parents at first, it later turned into an inspiration.

“I was amazed at her courage and strength to do that. She is amazing because she came so far in such short of a time period,” Joann Sutherland said. “She shared her story with everyone else, not only to help herself, but to help the society as a whole. We’re very proud of her.”

Through AFSP, Sutherland found a way to use her hurtful past as a medicine for others.

“AFSP gave me a purpose. I found this walk and immediately felt like it was something I had to do,” said Sutherland. “It feels good knowing that if I can help one person, (going through that) was all worth it. Putting a face to a statistic means a lot more.”

Cummings said being able to recognize the signs of depression and determine that it’s not just a sad feeling is necessary if people are to get the help they need. Some signs include intense anxiety, panic attacks, desperation, hopelessness, feeling that one is a burden, loss of interest and pleasure and delusional thinking, she said. 

When Sutherland finally felt brave enough to get the help she needed, her entire life turned around.

“Seeking help is the most important because we can actually prevent this from happening. You can’t do it all by yourself,” Sutherland said.

For those who need support, Cummings recommends a number of options. In emergency situation, she said to contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline, a psychiatric hospital walk-in clinic or a hospital emergency room. On campus, students should seek the Counseling Center or Health Center.

But Sutherland explains that the most important way a person can improve lies within herself.   

“It takes time,” said Sutherland. “We can’t control the way we feel, but we can always control our thoughts. It never really truly goes away, but it gets better. It’s about having your good days and bad days. If you have one bad day, who knows how tomorrow will be? You can’t expect yourself to be happy all the time. You have to have realistic expectations for yourself, and you have to accept that sometimes you just want to be sad, and that’s okay.”

Although the walk is now over, Cummings said that it still isn’t too late to get involved with AFSP’s cause. Donations will be accepted for Champaign-Urbana’s walk until January 2015. 

Although the attendees at the walk all had their own stories, lessons and reasons for attending, each walked with a newfound confidence behind each stride.

“Today, I walk for my mom and my dad, who saved my life. Today, I walk for my best friend, Michelle, who saw me at my worst and never left my side. Today, I walk to erase the stigma of depression and mental illness. Today, I walk for myself to prove that you are not defined by a mental illness or society’s perceptions,” Sutherland said. “But most importantly, I walk to save lives.”

Sarah can be reached at [email protected].