Carter County Be Here Tomorrow will hold their second annual suicide prevention walk on Sept. 8, at Carter Caves State Resort Park, but the origins of the event stretch back a little further, to 2015.
"This actually came out of... a conversation with (Carter County Sheriff) Jeff May," explained organizer Jill York. "He had gone out to work the eighth suicide of the year."
York, who was a state representative at the time, said that they were discussing how that number was high for a county with Carter County's population, but that it probably didn't account for all the suicides in the county, as folks are often reluctant to report or even discuss suicide. Discussion, they decided, was necessary, no matter how uncomfortable the subject was.
So York talked to a friend who is a clinical psychologist, and she and May "decided to get the community together and start doing some educational stuff."
That led to training about how to address suicide and those who were expressing suicidal thoughts or symptoms. Though it's a difficult thing to address, especially with those who might already be in a depressed or hopeless state, York and May felt it was important.
"(You can't) tiptoe around it and give them an out," York said. "If you are concerned you have to show it. You have to ask, 'Are you having suicidal thoughts?'"
That's one of the things that the training helped folks learn to do. They did the training in a few area churches at first.
"What I found out, just by sitting there (in the training) is that you see folks that are touched by this," she said.
The suicide survivors, the loved ones that are left after someone takes their own life, "they are the fiercest advocates," York explained. They "want to grab everybody and shake them and wake them up."
Though it's hard to accept that a loved one may be considering an action like taking their own life, York said it's something that people need to accept if they are going to help.
"This (suicide) is a possibility... and we need to give people better choices," she said. "More hope."
It was during one of these training sessions that York decided the community needed to do more, both to prevent suicide and to be there for those who had lost loved ones to suicide.
"Myself, sitting there with family members (of suicide victims), decided to pull together the first walk, which was about this time last year," she said.
It's now in its second year, and it has already touched lives.
"The date is significant," she said. "September 8, on that Sunday afternoon, was chosen because it is the Sunday before World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10... and it is the Sunday of a national weekend of faith, hope and life."
She decided to use that serendipitous overlap in an effort to get the faith-based community involved and addressing issues that might lead to suicide and suicidal thoughts.
In addition to involving clergy and the faith community, York and her compatriots decided to incorporate a component used in other suicide prevention events that she said helps unite the survivors – colored beads that participants could wear to commemorate the loved ones they lost.
"That is a really touching features that the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention has as a component of their night time walks," she explained.
"What they have found is that it breaks down barriers and literally connects survivors of suicide together. (They) can look around at other walkers... and they have an immediate connection," she said.
It lets them know that they aren't alone, she said, and that there is someone else who understands what they are going through. Whether that be another person wearing red beads to signify the loss of a spouse or partner, white for the loss of a child, or gold for a parent. There are also colors for the loss of a sibling, relative or friend, first responders and military, a personal struggle or suicide attempt, and support of those who have struggled or attempted suicide.
"It enables you to have a connection to the person you miss... and show your connection to them," she said. "When you do that it also enables someone else to know you are on the same journey they are on."
It's an emotional component, York said, and she's seen it bring people together, but it isn't required.
"That's all there if people choose to participate. They don't have to if they don't want to," she said.
While it does enable those folks to connect with one another, whether with the simple acknowledgment of a head nod or through heartfelt discussion, she said, "every person's experience with losing a loved one to suicide is different."
Death from a suicide isn't always treated the same way as death by disease or accident, she continued, and because of that the survivors of suicide have unique needs.
"Events like this walk can be profound (for them)," she said.
She said it's heartwarming to see the support the community lends to others going through that struggle.
"We were very delighted with the turnout for the first one," she said, even with bad weather that required last minute changes to the walking route.
"But despite that (weather issue), there were still over 50 people that came. Local. From Morehead. From Huntington. From EKU."
This year again they will be working to put those attending the walks in contact with resources that can help them heal from their own wounds as survivors of a loved one's suicide and to be there for those considering suicide.
"We're blessed that there is help out there," York said. "We will have clinicians, (like) Dr. Melinda Moore, professor at EKU and a clinical psychologist. She works extensively with suicide and its repercussions."
They will also have Paula Rymer, from Marshall, a professor who York said, "also works diligently with training."
"They are always associated and good partners, as is Pathways," she said.
She said the clinicians try to put them in touch with resources to help them heal, or to help them talk to someone if they see that person is having a struggle, "or they themselves have a struggle."
"They can see a very open and welcoming and compassionate group that understand this issue and aren't afraid to talk about it... those who, if they don't know exactly what they are going through, have had a similar journey," she continued.
York said that this is all important to preventing further suicides, especially among young people who can be prone to committing suicides in groups.
"That was a concern Dr. Moore had when I started talking about the eight in Carter County, the eight that we knew about," York said. "She worried about clusters... (and wanted to know) 'How many of them were children? How many of them were teenagers?'"
All the reported suicides in Carter County at that time were adults, she said, "but at the same time, Boyd County lost a middle schooler to suicide, and there was a similar circumstance in Lewis County."
"If you look at data, it's alarming," York said.
Suicide in Kentucky, she said, is the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 34.
"It's a difficult thing because it is a subject nobody wants to think about," she said. "Discussions about it are difficult, and the family members that survive any sudden death... people (worry they) will say the wrong thing trying to be comforting."
Because of that folks may not even go near it, she explained, and the comfort that would normally come after the loss of a lost loved one isn't there.
"So the survivors have a deep need for connection and support, and we as a society – and I'm no expert, I'm a volunteer – but (you) can't just let that wash on by if there is something you can do about it," she said.
"What we need to do, and what I've been happy to see these clinicians do, it needs to be something we address like a broken leg," York said. "If someone has whatever issues – trauma, abuse, PTSD, a broken heart, and addictive personality, whatever – if we are aware of that... then don't ignore it. Be aware. Bring the support. Ask the questions. Make sure that they do not feel isolated. Be that sounding board and be a resource. Hopelessness is a factor that you find over and over in stories of those that survived, in what brought them to consideration of such things."
You need to be the hope for those loved ones, she said, and you can't be afraid to ask, "Are you considering suicide?"
The Carter County Suicide Awareness and Prevention Walk will take place at Carter Caves State Resort Park on Sunday, September 8, starting at 3 p.m. You can register yourself or a team for the walk at https://forms.gle/EPcyoeLEVjGdsoJ3A, and follow Carter County Be Here Tomorrow on Facebook at @ccbeheretomorrow.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.