By Heather Wanner
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Green beads hang around her neck, glistening in the sun, as Sophie Haire prepares to walk 2.4 miles with her team.The beads represent her personal struggle with mental health.
Haire, a 21-year-old UMBC student and suicide attempt survivor, was one of more than 600 people to participate in the Out of the Darkness Walk at Patterson Park this past Saturday.
The walk, organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, helps to raise awareness and funds to contribute to new research, educational programs, advocacy for public policy, and support for survivors of suicide loss.
“Us being able to have a fundraising team has been a way for us to share our stories of suicide and has helped to break the walls of stigma surrounding suicide and mental health,” Haire said of the UMBC walk team she created.
Katie O’Neill, co- chair of the AFSP Baltimore Chapter, has noticed a growth in participants and supporters since her first walk eight years ago.
“Last year, the Baltimore walk had over 1,000 participants,” O’Neill said. “The more awareness we get out there, the more people will come support.”
Participants dressed themselves in honor beads varying in colors to represent their loss. They could choose as many as they felt represent them, ranging from the loss of a family member or friend to beads that reflected their own personal struggle.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the nation, leading the AFSP’s mission to reduce the annual suicide rate through hosting these walks.
“I think it is important to make the public aware of a topic that isn’t thought about on a regular basis, because there are so many lives that have been lost that could have been saved,” said Monica Daniels, a 28-year-old graduate student at Johns Hopkins.
Baltimore is just one out of many stops for the AFSP events. The group hosts events in all 50 states around the country, including walks, bike rides and hikes for suicide awareness.
“I think Baltimore is a wonderful melting pot of all different type of people,” O’Neill said. “We all come from different areas, work different jobs, do different things but one thing we all do have in common is our mental health. Whether it’s good or bad, everyone has mental health.”
The walk raised more than $64,000 for the AFSP, slightly under its goal of $100,000. The AFSP does not plan to stop these events any time soon.
“We want to end suicide and end the stigma of mental health,” O’Neill said. “We want our presence known. We are here, you are not alone.”
Haire gathered with her team before participating in her first of many walks to come.
“Everyone should be able to talk about suicide and mental illness in a way that allows them to not be judged,” she said.
— Samantha Brookhart contributed to this report.