Out of Darkness walk shines light on suicide prevention in Detroit

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Jan Simpson, right, of Taylor, hugs Jane Tranter, of Bloomfield Hills. They lost their niece Gabby Garzoni.

Detroit — A day before the one-year anniversary of her mother's death, Tabetha Harvey and 45 family members gathered in white T-shirts joining thousands walking in Hart Plaza Saturday.

"I wish that we saw the signs and didn't relate it to what was going on in her life at the moment," said Harvey, from Madison Heights. "What people don't realize is it's a permanent fix to a temporary problem."

Harvey's family joined more than 3,000 people who gathered along the Riverfront on Saturday for the Out of the Darkness Walk to raise awareness and funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The Hart Plaza walk joined more than 100 suicide-prevention walks across the country this weekend.

Money raised from the walk will be used to invest in new research, create educational programs, advocate for public policy, and support survivors of suicide loss. About 45,000 people die by suicide each year in the country and the foundation hopes to reduce the rate 20 percent by 2025 through 5K walks in major cities. The Detroit walk exceeded their $200,000 goal last year and raised the goal to $225,000 Saturday.

Clayton Monte, of Livonia, colors in a chalk caricature of his brother, Jarrod "Skull Ape" Clayton, a father of two boys, who died of suicide Dec. 2, 2018.

Sarah Schang, co-chair of the Michigan chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said people come to honor the lives of ones they've lost and others also come who are struggling with the mental illness for support. 

Harvey said her little brother was across the hall when their mother, Davida Ahlfield, committed suicide. It wasn't until after her death they found out she was suffering from bipolar I, her doctors said.

"She got help, but we were never aware of what she was going through. Our grandfather had stage four cancer and we thought a lot of her grief was dealing with that," said Harvey, 32. "Earlier that day, she spent it with me and my three kids. My oldest is a cheerleader and we all attended her game. One minute she's at her game, next minute she's gone."

The family was shocked saying "it came out of nowhere" but after digging, they said she should have never been able to purchase a gun.

Fox 2 News anchor Amy Andrews becomes emotional as she addresses walkers about co-worker, meteorologist Jessica Starr, who died by suicide.

Walk organizers said they are working towards enhancing conversations about suicide and mental illnesses because "there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach."

"We're starting a conversation. ... There's so much stigma around suicide and there's an important conversation to be had about it as a mental illness," Schang said. "My hope is that people know they're not alone. Regardless of the reasons that have brought us here, the loss of family and friends or struggles within ourselves, I hope people walk away with a sense of hope and unity."

First-time walker, Bill Ruch from Dearborn wore purple with family members in memory of his sister Chrissy, who committed suicide in April 1994. She was 27 years old, married and seemed to be happy, he said.

"You don't go looking for these signs and resources if you're not affected by it, but the more you look, the more you'll know," said Ruch, 51.

Each year, the walk presents a new art installation to raise awareness of different groups. Last year, the walk focused on veterans because 20 active or military veterans commit suicide a day, organizers said. On Saturday, the walk focused on the LGBTQ community with the help of Affirmations in Ferndale.

"Unfortunately, the number of people who have come into Affirmations seeking help has increased in the last few years and are attributing it to the political atmosphere surrounding us," said Kyle Tylor, development and community relations manager at Affirmations. "Our programs are designed to combat suicide and promote prevention through our youth programs to our resources and free support groups."

In Michigan, suicide is the second leading caof death for all youth between the ages of 10 and 24.

Michigan had the seventh-highest rate of suicide among African American teens, according to the study, "The Changing Characteristics of African American Adolescent Suicides, 2001-2017." 

Suicide rates among African American teens, especially girls, have skyrocketed since 2001, highlighting the need for better mental health awareness and services in the black community, experts say.

According to the University of Toledo study published in late June in the Journal of Community Health, the suicide rate among African American males between the ages of 13 and 19 jumped 60% between 2001 and 2017, and a staggering 182% for black girls. In 2017 alone, 68,528 black teen males and 94,760 black teen females made suicide attempts serious enough that they had to be treated by health professionals.

Experts say a number of factors likely play a role in the alarming rates — limited availability of mental health services in the black community, access to firearms, distrust of the medical community and other factors. The study found African American teen males were most likely to use firearms (52%) to kill themselves while African American girls were more likely to hang or suffocate themselves.

Read more: Skyrocketing black teen suicides 'alarming'

Danielle Busby, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan's Department of Psychiatry and a member of the university's Youth Depression and Suicide Prevention Program team, calls the findings "alarming." Still, she's glad the study was published because "we know it's out there."

"But we don’t always look at it for these unique differences as it relates to race and ethnicity," Busby told The Detroit News in July.

The walk plans to return to Hart Plaza next year at the end of September to continue their mission, Schang said. 

"This is our biggest walk in Michigan and our event is family and pet-friendly," she said. "Our atmosphere allows these conversations to be had and it's so important that they do."

Visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for additional information. 

Suicide Prevention Hotline — 1-800-273-8255.

Upcoming Michigan walks in Michigan: 


Twitter: @SarahRahal_