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Out of the Darkness

Clifton family participates in Out of Darkness Walk.

Despite the few dozen family members and friends on her team, Susan McCarty of Clifton missed one special member last Sunday morning at the Out of Darkness Walk at Reston Town Center.

As they strode forward, their hearts were filled with the memory of McCarty’s only child, Nicole, who died of suicide in March, two days after turning 16.

While the sun crept higher into the air, lighting the way, McCarty led family and friends in a six-mile walk organized to help prevent suicide.

“I’m hoping no parent has to feel the hole, the pain I have to feel,” she said.

McCarty’s sister, Donna Lannes-Robuck of Reston, had helped prepare T-shirts for the team, featuring a picture of a smiling Nicole.

“She was a beautiful girl,” said McCarty. “Now I’m part of a team I never wanted to join, but we’re not going to run and hide — we’re going to make a difference.”

WALKING FOR loved-ones and friends, about 250 people participated in the second annual Out of Darkness Walk in Reston on Oct. 2, raising roughly $50,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The walk, a metaphor for the ongoing effort to spread the word about suicide prevention to the public, has helped bring light into the discussion of depression.

According to AFSP, about 20 million Americans suffer from serious depression. Every 18 minutes someone dies of suicide, the organization says. And, among 15-24-year-olds, suicide is the third leading cause of death.

“You don’t hear about it, but it’s prevalent in this country,” said Lannes-Robuck. “It’s the dirty little secret no one wants to talk about.”

Lannes-Robuck, who said Nicole was like a daughter to her, said the event also helps bring together people who are going through the same kind of grieving. “Suicide is like no other death. The anger, the guilt, the sadness is a very dark, dismal grief to go through,” she said. “It’s hard to go over all the whys.”

For parents, keeping an eye out for warning signs can be particularly difficult, said Lannes-Robuck. “It’s hard to know if your teenage daughter is throwing a hissy fit or if she needs professional help,” she said. “One afternoon [Nicole] was [instant messaging] her girlfriends, the next moment she had a fight with her boyfriend and took her own life.”

ALL THE LOCAL participants hoped to break the silence about depression and suicide, a silence they know can prevent open dialogue and the potential to save lives.

That Sunday, Elena Prien walked the six miles in honor of her son, John. “It’s his birthday today,” she said. He would have been 39. Seventeen years ago, John committed suicide. At the time, he was 22.

“He really wants to be here,” she said of her son. “We all lost a very bright, young man.”

Dealing with a lifetime of pain caused by suicide, Prien has worked to help others cope with losing loved-ones to suicide. For several years, Prien has facilitated a survivors’ group. “I just know the pain it causes to so many people, and it’s so preventable,” she said.

For Scott Koenigsberg, a mental health therapist, the negative stigma of depression needs to be erased, so people will feel comfortable getting help. “I think that’s why a lot of people don’t go to therapy,” he said.

In 1998, Koenigsberg’s 20-year-old nephew, Justin Davis of Alexandria, died of suicide. Walking in Davis’ honor, Koenigsberg wanted get the word out about depression and “let people know there is help out there.”

Jaclyn Wood, who grew up in the Reston-Herndon area, isn’t afraid to talk about depression. Over the years, Wood, 26, has known three friends who died of suicide.

A good friend from childhood committed suicide during college. “There were no signs,” she said. “He was very smart. He had a law degree. He had a great girlfriend. It was shocking.”

While not always easy, Wood has tried to increase awareness about depression. “It’s OK to have depression and feel sad and look for help,” said Wood. Looking ahead, Wood said she was walking not only for her friends who’ve died, but also for her future children. “I don’t know what they will face,” she said.

Wendy Sittner, 28, of Arlington never got to know her father. When Sittner was four, he committed suicide. While she walked in his honor, she has also made a career as a social worker helping people in need, and has plans in the future to focus on mental health social work.

“I was made aware of mental health at an early age,” said Sittner. “Even though suicide has affected my family, there’s still a feeling that we don’t talk about it.”

Acknowledging the level of denial and silence among her own family members, Sittner said there is always room for more open discussion.

“Sometimes we need to just take time and listen, instead of speaking and offering advice,” she said. Like unconditional love, people suffering depression need unconditional support, she said.

Sittner also explained that suicide survivors, the people who have been left behind by a suicide death, become important messengers who can help save lives.

THESE COMMUNITY walks, which take place throughout the country, have helped raise funding for AFSP, which uses the proceeds to conduct research and educational programs aiming to prevent suicide and save lives, increase national awareness about depression and suicide as well as assist those dealing with suicide loss.

Leann Dupont of Chantilly has been working for the past few years to create a local AFSP chapter in the Washington, D.C. region. Fifty percent of the proceeds from this walk have already been earmarked for the chapter when it is created, said Dupont.

Four years ago, Dupont, 47, lost her father to suicide. “He was 18 months from retirement,” she said. Ever since, she’s worked to prevent suicide and helped to organize local efforts.

For many of the local walkers, the event’s message was aimed at people who might be suffering from depression.

“That’s what people [suffering from depression] need to know: don’t do it, get help,” said Lannes-Robuck. “Tomorrow is another day.”