UMaine walk to support suicide prevention

Posted Sept. 21, 2010, at 8:05 p.m.

For Angel Matson of Old Town, being part of the Out of the Darkness Community Walk at the University of Maine is not only a personal commitment but also a personal, daily struggle to remain in the light.

Organized by UMaine’s Counseling Center, the annual suicide and depression awareness walk benefits the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Angel hopes you will join her for this event, beginning with registration at 1 p.m. and the 5K walk at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 26, on the mall in front of UMaine’s Fogler Library.

To register to walk or to make a donation, visit http://afsp.donordrive.com or register the day of the event. There is no registration, pledge or entry fee, but all donations are welcome.

Angel, a married mother of two employed by United Way of Eastern Maine and active in many community organizations, is a member of the walk’s organizing committee.

Wanda Cunningham of the UMaine Counseling Center told me the committee wanted to include a community member to help spread the word in the Bangor area.

Angel’s name was suggested when they found out she participated in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Boston, one of several AFSP overnight walks held throughout the country.

The 18-mile Out of the Darkness Overnight Boston Walk was “dusk ’til dawn June 26 and 27,” Angel said.

It began and ended at Boston’s City Hall Plaza, taking her “through places I normally wouldn’t see,” she said of such sights as “Chinatown and Newbury Street in the middle of the night.

“We saw historic Boston in a whole new way, and to see it at night was cool.”

Unlike the UMaine walk, for which donations are welcome but not required, Angel had to raise $1,000 to participate in the Boston walk and, with assistance from generous friends, she was able to surpass that amount.

She also came back with an idea that the UMaine event will emulate: participants wearing a string of colored beads.

“You wear a different set of beads depending on how suicide affected you,” Angel explained.

When I asked why she was involved with the walk, Angel was amazingly forthright.

“I have lost a lot of friends, relatives, co-workers and classmates,” she said, “and I have my own personal struggles with mental illness.”

Angel believes it is extremely important for people who are known and respected in their communities to be leaders in helping eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness, depression and suicide.

“I have a problem and I am being treated with medication, and I’ve done things not to get myself to that hopeless point again,” she said.

Angel has great “hope for all the work that is being done locally to eliminate the stigma” associated with suicide, which not only affects the person who dies but the family as well, she said.

“Nobody wants to talk about what happened,” she said. “They say they died unexpectedly. Well, no, they didn’t. They had a disease: a disease of mental illness” which, she believes, if treated, might not have led to a suicide.

She sees events such as these as another piece of the puzzle in helping people understand that suicide is a result of a mental illness that “pushes someone to a hopeless point” because his or her treatment might not be working properly.

“They are not in control, and everything else takes over,” she said. “They lose control and think the only way out is suicide.”

Having had those feelings herself, Angel said she wants to help change the perception that suicide is a cowardly act.

“Someone who commits suicide is not a coward,” she said.

“Some people try and try, again and again, to make it work” but are unable to do so, she believes, because “the right combination for whatever their situation is” wasn’t realized.

For Angel and others with a mental illness, “every day is a struggle,” she said.

Angel recently became a field advocate for AFSP and will be available to meet with people in the community as well as work with local legislators on advocacy issues.

She is looking forward to the coming walk, which takes participants from UMaine to downtown Orono and back.

“I’m so excited that UMaine has taken this on again, because I was prepared to come back and start it again myself,” she said.

From the online registrations to date, Wanda told me it looks like this walk may surpass the 200 entries of last year.

“We’re close to that now, and a lot of people don’t sign up until they get there,” she said.

Both women stressed that while some people have been collecting pledges for this walk, a financial contribution is not mandatory.

Reflecting on “recent suicide activity in local communities in the past year,” Wanda noted that any suicide “impacts a lot of people” and that participating in an Out of the Darkness Walk is a way “to talk about it and support” the work of AFSP.

Joni Averill, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402; javerill@bangordailynews.com; 990-8288.

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