Bella McLain celebrated her 18th birthday by walking with her friend Gabriella Getz in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention “Out of the Darkness” walk. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Shining a light in the darkness

Annual fundraising walk spreads awareness and hope for suicide prevention

Bella McLain joined her friend Gabriella Getz and celebrated her 18th birthday by lacing-up her tennis shoes and walking with around 150 people as part of the “Out of the Darkness” Bozeman experience with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). The group donned brightly colored beads, and left hand painted rocks with messages of hope around Bozeman. Teams and individuals are fundraising to assist the organization’s bold goal to reduce the national suicide rate 20% by 2025.

According to the AFSP website, each year, suicide claims more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined. However, suicide prevention doesn't receive anywhere near the funding as other leading causes of death.

McLain and Getz have both lost people they care about and already have a thorough understanding of the complexities of suicide - including societal stigmas around mental health.

“I’m here for a man named James who passed away last year due to suicide. He was a really dear family friend, so I came to walk with all of his family. I came to walk for him last year, too,” Getz said.

McLain believes there are misconceptions around mental illness in general.

“We are trying to normalize getting help and normalize that this does affect a lot of people – especially in Montana,” Getz said, referring to Montana’s dire distinction of being ranked third in the nation for the highest suicide rate. “I think once we are okay with that I think we can help prevent it more and make sure people know it is a big deal and we should be talking about it.”

They walk in solidarity, in community, in support. It is important to show up for all those impacted, they said.

Scott Hamburg will be donating money to the organization and walking to honor his beloved nephew. Five years ago his nephew dropped him off at Bozeman International Airport and died the next day. The two were incredibly close, so the loss haunts him. The guilt has thus far been unshakable.

“Awareness is the biggest thing – if people were aware of how prevalent it actually is and how people feel about themselves, we would be in much better shape,” he said. “It perplexes me that mental illness is such a taboo still, that people don’t want to delve into it. You get a cold, you go get a Zpack, when you have mental illness who do you reach out to? The awareness should be on us – to see the signs, which I missed. I’m still dealing with that.”

Such is the complex nature of suicide – the myriad causes, the warning signs that go unnoticed, the tough conversations that need to happen and sometimes do not. The endless what-ifs for people left to mourn.

Karen Macklin, who was part of the Big Sky contingent participating in the walk, said she believes the community has lost about one person to suicide per year for the last couple of decades. A Big Sky local tragically died recently.

“Holding on to the memory of those dear to us, hoping to share light with those that feel there’s no light. [It was a] wonderful day remembering those we know and those we didn’t, that touched so many people,” she wrote on Facebook.

The walk is usually done as a huge group – winding through town – in an act of solidarity and a message of hope for those who are hurting. COVID–19 changed things this year. The one big walk could not happen – groups were more focused. Smaller journeys were taken by family and friend groups, but love still radiated.

“More people should come out next year. Don’t feel scared about coming. It’s a really good day and it’s really nice to see the people and support them and show them there are other people who have been affected by this, too,” Getz said.

Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky CEO Candace Carr Strauss has lost two family members to suicide.

“Everyone battles demons, but to what extent we may never know. So, be kind and be willing to provide help and hope. Lend an ear, give a ride or maybe even a reason to wake up the next day.

“Hope is a lifeline, something that each of us has the ability to give someone who is struggling,” she said.

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