BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — This week is National Suicide Prevention Week – a time to erase the stigma around seeking treatment for mental health issues and bring support to those who have lost loved ones.
Based on provisional data from the CDC, nearly 50,000 were lost to suicide in the U.S. just last year. For those left in the wake, support is crucial.
People like Paula Hardin know this firsthand.
Hardin lost her mom to suicide on April 1, 2011. Now, 12 years later, Hardin has led groups and given speeches to help give hope to others who have experienced the same tragedy. Yet, the road to recovery was not an easy one.
After her mom’s death, one of Hardin’s friends recommended a Survivors of Suicide (SOS) group in Tuscaloosa to her.
“It was a place to feel normal in an abnormal situation,” Hardin said of her early days with the group.
During that time, the group would often move around, but now meets consistently at the Tuscaloosa Public Library at 6:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month. Hardin said the group was, and is, for anyone who has been affected by someone taking their own life.
Right before her mom’s death, Hardin said she started going back to church. She said she knows that Jesus is not a part of everyone’s recovery story, but he played a part in hers that she wouldn’t let be dismissed.
“Had that not happened … I don’t know where I would be,” Hardin said.
Last year, Hardin wrote a curriculum called “Life After Suicide” that she went through with a small group that met at her house. Hardin planned the time to study the curriculum for the fall, done purposely as it precedes the holidays, a time where a missing family member becomes the most noticeable.
“No matter how many people you’re surrounded by, there’s an empty chair,” Hardin said.
For Hardin, sharing her story and her curriculum is a way to inspire hope to those who are sitting in the same feelings of isolation that Hardin herself once felt.
“Walking through this alone is not an option,” Hardin said. “I could not have walked through this alone. And it will make you feel alone; it will make you feel isolated.”
For many survivors, Hardin said the primary question that enters their mind is, “Why?”, which can be a heavy question to try to answer. Hardin said she has accepted, over a decade after her mother’s death, that she will never know why, she can only help others who are recovering.
Tuscaloosa’s SOS group does just that.
“When someone else has walked through what you’ve walked through, there’s power in the words, ‘me, too,’” Hardin said.
Marissa Grayson is another survivor of suicide loss. In 2005, she lost her dad to suicide. Three years later, she found herself at a walk.
Throughout the year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) hosts “Out of the Darkness” walks around the county to bring a sense of community and solidarity to those grieving. Grayson found herself at one of those walks in 2008.
She said that the walk was “eerily comforting” and that the people there got the things that simply “aren’t gettable.”
In 2010, Grayson helped organize a walk and has been chair or co-chair of a walk every year – except one – since. She said coming back to the walk year after year is a way to grieve her father, while providing her children and others with the proper resources to address mental health issues.
With the walks, Grayson said the hope is to remove the stigma around getting help. At the Birmingham walk, on November 5, Grayson said there will be resource tables all around Veterans Park with mental health organizations set up at them.
For the walks, there is no cost to participate and no fundraising minimum. Grayson said they want the walk to be accessible to everyone.
Grayson said it will be a day of commemoration and a day of hope.
“It’s really about bringing people together,” she said.
There will also be a remembrance area at the walk where attendees can write notes to their loved ones, bring pictures and connect with others who have experienced the same situation.
At the walk, Honor Beads will be available on-site – a color-coded system to identify what each walker has experienced and why they are united to the cause.
At 2:30 p.m. at the Birmingham walk, there will be an opening ceremony where people wearing their beads will be honored and stories will be shared.
After over a decade of walks, it’s the familial aspect that keeps Grayson coming back.
“I really feel like there’s a family that is created or a community that is created and that returns year to year,” she said. “We find support from one another … Being able to be around other people who aren’t judging someone who is struggling and who really want each individual person to know they matter is really special.”
But for Grayson, what the organization does with its funds is just as important as the event itself.
“Part of why I keep coming back is that I believe in the work that the organization is doing,” Grayson said. “ASFP is the leading private funder of suicide prevention research. But we also do work in areas of education, advocacy and providing support for those who’ve lost ones to suicide.”
According to its website, ASFP uses donations to:
- Fund research for suicide prevention
- Create and distribute education programs
- Advocate for public policy
- Support Survivors of Suicide Loss (SOS).
AFSP’s goal, according to their website, is to reduce the annual suicide rate by 20% by 2025.
A walk will also be held in Tuscaloosa at the UA Student Center Plaza at 6 p.m. on Sunday, September 24. Hardin said the Tuscaloosa SOS group will have a table set up at the event.
The Alabama Suicide Prevention and Resources Coalition (ASPRC) is another organization in Alabama working to provide support and education to its citizens. ASPRC has a vast number of resources on its website, including a support group directory and affirmations for those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the suicide hotline at 988, or emergency services at 911. Veterans can also call 988 and press 1 for the Veterans Crisis Line. The Trevor Lifeline, the national 24/7 lifeline for LGBTQ youth, can be reached at 1-866-488-7386.