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‘They’re not alone in this’: Hundreds in Anchorage walk for suicide awareness

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: May 12, 2018
  • Published May 12, 2018

Participants in the Out of Darkness Community Walk make their way down N Street on Saturday at Delaney Park. Organizers with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention said hundreds of people participated in the eighth annual walk. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Hundreds of people gathered on the west end of the Delaney Park Strip on Saturday morning for a walk to raise awareness of suicide and support those who have been affected by it.

It was Anchorage's eighth annual Out of the Darkness Community Walk, organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

On one patch of the Park Strip was a "memorial garden" for the event, an area scattered with rose petals where dozens of signs staked into the ground bore the names and photos of people lost to suicide. Pairs of boots lining the perimeter of the memorial garden signified suicides of veterans or active-duty military.

Members of one group who showed up to walk together wore matching T-shirts that read "Casey's Crusaders," for Casey Shade, who died by suicide in September 2016 when he was 29 years old.

"(The walk) is a way of giving people hope and also part of the grieving process, I think," said Carmell Engebretson, Shade's sister.

AFSP organizes these walks all around the U.S. But the issue hits particularly close to home in Alaska, which had the second-highest suicide death rate in the country in 2016 after Montana, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide rates are even higher for Alaska Natives.

That's one reason Engebretson thinks it's especially important to be involved in the Out of the Darkness walk. Her family is Yup'ik Eskimo.

"I just hope people aren't afraid to talk about suicide, especially those that are struggling," she said.

The walk raised at least about $57,000, according to preliminary numbers Saturday afternoon, said Dennis Lasley, board chairman for the Alaska chapter of AFSP. That money goes toward research, education and awareness programs, suicide prevention training and more.

Lasley started volunteering with the organization because he lost his best friend to suicide in 2008. On Saturday, he wore a sticker that read "I'm walking for Sean Ferguson" on his shirt.

Participants in the Out of Darkness Community Walk hold up beads Saturday on the Delaney Park Strip to remember loved ones lost to suicide. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

People at the event wore what AFSP calls "honor beads" — bead necklaces of different colors, each signifying a different type of connection to the issue of suicide.

Before attendees set off on the walk toward Westchester Lagoon and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, organizers on a stage asked people to hold up the necklaces, one by one, as a public showing of suicide's impact — white beads for those who've lost a child, gold for those who've lost a parent, green for people who struggle with mental illness themselves, and so on.

"It's not the typical fundraiser, I think, where you just go to support the cause," Lasley said. "It's one where you've been impacted, so that's why you come."

Katy Haulbrook was one of the people volunteering at the event. She struggled with mental health issues as a teenager and into adulthood, and she attempted suicide when she was 16. She's found that learning to talk with family and friends about those issues has been the biggest help.

"There's a lot of people in my family who struggle, and it's a huge problem in the state of Alaska," she said, "so it means a lot to me to make sure people know that they're not alone in this."

There have also been Out of the Darkness walks in Fairbanks and Palmer. In August, Kodiak will have its first one. Another will happen in September in Kenai.

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