BANGOR, Maine — They came to remember their friends who have died of suicide in the past two years.
They marched and cried in the rain to honor and remember their classmates and their families.
They took part in the event so that teens who are hurting would know they aren’t alone and that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
Those are some of the reasons expressed Saturday at Bangor High School when nearly 800 people took part in the first Steps for Souls suicide awareness walk.
The 1½-mile walk was organized by a group of Bangor High students after their classmate Dont’e Izzo, 15, of Bangor died by suicide March 6. While they were planning the walk, Nicholas Tracy, a 17-year-old Brewer High School student, took his own life on April 15.
“We’re losing our kids to suicide,” Ginny MacMillan of Bangor said outside Peakes Auditorium before the crowd headed outside to start the walk. “We need to have a conversation about suicide in this community.”
Her son, Collin MacMillan, died by suicide on Jan. 15 at the age of 18. A graduate of Bangor High School, he was a freshman at the University of Maine at the time of his death.
“These girls [who organized the event] responded in a way that let people take action,” Ginny MacMillan said. “This community has to start taking action.”
According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the second leading cause of death among youth ages 15 to 24 in Maine and nationwide between 2010 and 2012, the most recent years for which data were available.
Forty-three teens between the ages of 13 and 18 died of suicide in Maine between 2011 and mid-2016, according to the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Sofia Wittmann, a 16-year-old sophomore at Bangor High who helped organize the event, wore a T-shirt Saturday that said “Supporting the fighters, admiring the survivors, mourning the taken and never giving up hope.”
Her reasons for taking part were twofold — to bring the families of those who have died recently together with the broader community and to complete her own journey as a survivor of a suicide attempt.
“I am doing things to make sure I stay safe and I’m helping do this to make sure the community stays safe,” Sofia said.
Bangor residents Katie Strout, 17, and Sarah Danby, the 15-year-old daughter of Bangor Daily News editorial cartoonist George Danby, also helped plan the walk. It appears to be the first time students, rather than teachers and administrators, have organized a suicide awareness event in Maine.
Katy Coffin, 23, of Brunswick, a graduate of Bangor High, attempted suicide five years ago. The founder of One More Day, Coffin has talked openly for two years about suicide prevention and her own experience with depression.
Coffin said that the death of Bryce Pelkey, whom she never knew, inspired her to tell her story. He died by suicide on Jan. 28, 2015, while a senior at Bangor High. His family took part in Saturday’s walk.
“I had to learn something very important and that is self-care,” Coffin told participants before the walk began. “What you have to realize is that your self-care may not be the same as someone else’s. I love Ben & Jerry’s. That’s my self-care.”
Coffin urges students contemplating suicide to give life one more day and to seek out help from crisis specialists.
Missy Stetson, 15, of Brewer said just before the walk started that she came to the event for her friend Nick Tracy, who died just three weeks ago.
“I want people to be aware that if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask,” Stetson said.
The event also honored the memory of Henry Patten, a 2016 graduate of Hermon High School. He died Feb. 6 while a student at Eastern Maine Community College.
To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.