KALAHEO — More than 30,000 people in the United States alone die by suicide each year, but the stigma of depression and other mood disorders that often lead to suicide keep the issue in the shadows.
One local suicide “survivor” — a term referring to the family and friends left behind — joined with other concerned community members and took a step toward shedding light on suicide prevention yesterday.
Stefani Gee lost a loved one to suicide, and upon learning that family members back home in Utah were planning to participate in a suicide walk, she organized Kaua‘i’s first Out of the Darkness Community Walk.
Similar events are held across the country throughout the fall to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Gee said she organized the Kaua‘i walk specifically “to promote awareness of the issue and to create a network for a support system on the island.”
Gee, an education program coordinator at Kalaheo’s National Tropical Botanical Garden, which hosted the event, said the more than 30 walkers raised $1,600.
Kaua‘i resident Shana Seidenberg walked yesterday in memory of her brother, Paul, whom she lost to suicide.
Seidenberg said she struggled with the decision to publicly acknowledge this very personal fact, and is still not sure how those who know her, but not her full story, will react.
Seidenberg said joining other “survivors” yesterday was a symbolic decision to “step out of the darkness” of anonymity. And therein lies the freedom of letting go.
“It does free me a little bit, a lot,” she said.
Although Hawai‘i has one of the nation’s lower suicide rates, according to 2005 statistics available from the National Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Kaua‘i’s small community has been hit increasingly hard in recent years.
Kaua‘i Police Department records show that suicide counts, which were under five in any given year during the 1980s, jumped to double-digits four times in the last 10 years, including 10 in 2007. There have been six in the last six months of this year.
In total, there have been 179 suicides on Kaua‘i since 1980, with the ages of the deceased ranging from 12 to 96, according to records.
Suicide attempts on Kaua‘i have also been up in recent years, with 40 in 2002 and 42 in 2003.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, founded in 1987, has set a goal of creating a sustainable private source of support for the research and education needed to prevent suicide.
Yesterday, in addition to checking-in participants and accepting donations, volunteers also circulated a petition to extend mental health coverage for minors and passed around a sign-up sheet for a suicide survivor support group.
“Hopefully that’s something that will come of this event,” Gee said. “It was good just to connect with some people that I wouldn’t have known. We wouldn’t have come together without this.”
Participants entered the National Tropical Botanical Garden through the employees’ entrance and walked a 3.4-mile loop that spanned both the McBryde and Allerton Gardens and extended all the way down the Lawa‘i Valley to the beach, Gee said.
For walkers like Seidenberg, the event is a way to bring attention to the warning signs of suicide — threats to one’s health, talk of going away or giving up possessions. Unchecked mental illness and addiction can also contribute, as was the case for Paul.
In return for sharing her story, Seidenberg simply asks for compassion and hopes the burden she’s shouldered will become a little lighter.
• Michael Levine, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org