Stepping out of the darkness
Community Walk volunteers shed light on suicide prevention efforts, fundraising
Written by Emily Sparacino
Photos by Dawn Harrison
Mary Chandler and her brother Clay were more like best friends than simply siblings.
“We were very close,” Chandler, 30, said. “We spent a considerable amount of time together.”
Intelligent, athletic, outgoing and compassionate, Clay seemed to have everything going for him, Chandler said. He was a graduate of Gadsden State Community College’s Registered Nursing program, a UAB Green and Gold Scholarship recipient and a member of the ROTC.
“He was always such a good person,” Chandler said, “And so school-oriented, family-oriented.”
Then, in January 2013, Clay committed suicide at 24 years old, leaving Chandler and her family feeling devastated, helpless and confused about how such an outgoing, intelligent and motivated person could have wrestled with internal issues powerful enough to convince him to end his life.
“It just really threw us,” Chandler said. “We were completely shocked by it. It happened so fast.”
As she and her family waded through their grief, Chandler decided to volunteer for a cause dedicated to suicide prevention and education and support for those affected by it. She got involved with the Birmingham Out of the Darkness Community Walk, an annual fundraising event benefiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“I was not super empathetic to depression or someone having thoughts of suicide,” Chandler said. “Now, I have seen a softer side of myself. (There) is no shame in seeking help for depression or mental illness. It can happen to anyone. It can affect you no matter where you are in life.”
The 11th Annual Birmingham Out of the Darkness Walk will be held Sunday, Nov. 6 at Heardmont Park. Check-in and registration is at 1 p.m., and the walk will take place from 2:30-4 p.m.
This year’s fundraising goal is $150,000, Birmingham Walk chairwoman Marissa Grayson said.
Like Chandler, Grayson has dealt with the aftermath of a loved one’s suicide.
“I lost my dad to suicide in 2005,” Grayson said. “My first Walk was in 2008, and I’ve chaired the (Birmingham) Walk for six years.”
Grayson said helping with the Walk has helped her to foster relationships with others coping with similar circumstances.
“The Walk in 2008 was eerily comforting,” Grayson said. “There was something really comforting about being with so many people who had had a similar experience and understood that there’s not really an explanation for why those things happen. I think it also reminds people that we can hopefully get rid of this stigma.”
According to Chandler, AFSP utilizes proceeds from fundraisers like the Out of the Darkness Walk for More Than Sad, a program implemented in schools across the country to equip educators to recognize signs students have depression or mental health issues that could lead to suicide, and to get them help.
“Suicide prevention is one of least-funded health issues we face,” Chandler said. “Lives lost to suicide continue to rise. The money to fund research and prevention is not there.
“There is help out there,” she added. “AFSP is a great place to start.”
More than 360 Out of the Darkness Community Walks are slated for this fall, and likely will draw nearly 200,000 participants, Chandler wrote in an email. Last year, the walks about $14 million for local and national suicide prevention programs, and the Birmingham Walk ranked 21st in the nation with more than 1,400 walkers and about $140,000 raised.
In 2014, the Walk raised about $180,000.
“It’s really grown,” Chandler said of the Walk, which she described as a “hopeful” event. “It’s what you can do to remember and try to make sure nobody else feels that way.”
To register for the Birmingham Out of the Darkness Community Walk, visit Afsp.org/birmingham.
“I miss Clay every day, and working with AFSP gives me a way to remember him and honor him by trying to insure other families never lose someone they love to suicide,” Chandler said.