At the 2009 walk which was an amazing experience
As a supporter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and its annual Out of the Darkness suicide prevention walks, I’m disappointed to write this post. I’d like instead to have seen something better today; something better for the walkers who’ve lost somebody to suicide, for the passersby whose awareness is increased as they witness the walk, for the cause which reduces the stigma attached to suicide and supports education and prevention.
Until last year, the Portland Out of the Darkness walk began outside the World Trade Center in downtown Portland, an area receiving sufficient traffic to be noticed, but not so much traffic as to deafen participants to the activities and events going on within the spot, including information booths and speakers to share their knowledge and experience with the community both before and after the walk. There were tables set up so that families could sit together prior to and after completing the walk. There was even a small cheer squad applauding walkers as they made it through the finish line.
This year’s event headquarters was the Main Street Plaza on the Eastbank Esplanade. Never heard of it? Located under the Hawthorne bridge in one of the premiere hotspots for Portland’s homeless population, the Main Street Plaza manages to find itself directly below every major freeway, or so it seemed. We could barely hear ourselves speak, let alone the event’s speakers, including Senator Ron Wyden. Their voices were effectively drowned out by the traffic overhead.
And the venue could not have been more hidden had we decided to hold the event in a coat closet. Nobody but the walkers themselves, and the homeless people camping out in the midst of the event, would have found the event. And by no means is this a criticism in any way of the homeless population, considering that 20 – 25% of the adult homeless population suffers from some form of chronic mental illness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, and can benefit from suicide education and prevention. This is a more broad criticism of the decision to hold the Out of the Darkness walk in the darkness. This is a criticism of the decision to uproot its location from an area in which the general population could be confronted with the reality of suicide. This is a criticism of the decision to hide the grief of suicide’s survivors under a bridge when the survivors were brave enough to come out of the darkness to honor those they loved and lost.
And it’s true that none of us came out to the walk this morning for the accommodations. Nobody came out into the cold so that they could sit at an outside table, or so that they could score free coffee. Everybody who was there came for the cause. But after having been in a semi-covered area in the past, with tables at which families could sit, particularly elderly and young participants, warming our hands with a good cup of coffee, listening to speakers we could actually hear, many participants are going to be sufficiently disappointed as to consider forgoing next year’s walk and donating more time to other organizations. I understand that cutting corners on the venue saved the organization a good amount of money, but given the downgraded quality of the event, I have to ask at what cost?
I would like AFSP to keep in mind when planning next year’s event that if it is to sustain the walk, its top priorities should be providing a quality walk for participants so that they return, and placing the event in an area in which those who are less informed about suicide and its prevention have a chance to witness the event. Let’s bring the walk back out of the darkness and give it some staying power. So that people considering suicide get the help they need to have the power to stay with us.