By Joe Goncalves and Josh Farber
It’s 69 degrees at Jones Beach and there’s hardly a cloud in the sky. A DJ plays Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Maroon 5’s “What Lovers Do.” But for Pheobe Ervin, the day is still tinged with dark memories.
“I lost a young soldier in my unit, who actually committed suicide,” Ervin, team captain for the Lakeview Youth Council NAACP, said. “And I’m battling severe PTSD myself.”
More than 5,000 Long Islanders walked the Jones Beach boardwalk to raise awareness for suicide prevention on Sunday, as part of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walk.
“I still think there’s a stigma,” Sharon Sturiano-Rocco, the Long Island chairperson for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said. “I try and relate it to the fact that if you were a diabetic, nobody would bat their eye. All it is is a different organ that isn’t working well, and it’s something that can be corrected.”
The widespread effect of suicide was one of the reasons Sturiano-Rocco helped to coordinate the Out of the Darkness Walk, which aims to raise awareness for mental health and depression.
“You go regularly to doctor appointments for your physical health, but I think mental health is just as important,” Meg Ryan, a walker from Emerald Document and Imaging, said. “I thought [the walk] was a really good cause to get people together, get involved and bring more awareness to it.”
In addition to the walk, the event also featured a remembrance area, where survivors of suicide could share memories and photographs of their loved ones who they lost. Three six-foot tall boards were covered in signatures and messages for loved ones and those suffering with mental illness, and pictures of those lost were laid across the bottom.
Walkers wore colored honor bead necklaces, ranging from white, which signified the loss of a child, green, which signified a personal attempt, to teal if they know someone who’s struggled with depression or mental illness. Family and friends shared their struggles and stories, finding solace and solidarity in those with a similar loss.
“Long Island is the third largest walk in the United States, and it keeps growing every single year,” Sturiano-Rocco said.
Preliminary fundraising totals approached $300,000, which goes to the Long Island chapter of the AFSP. 83 cents of every dollar raised is used for AFSP programs, including education programs at Long Island schools and community groups. In addition to education and outreach, the AFSP organizes a Survivor Outreach Program, which helps those who lost a loved one cope in the aftermath of a suicide.
While New York has one of the lowest suicide rates in the country by proportion of population, the number of suicides has increased by 32 percent over the last 10 years, according to a report by the New York State Office of Mental Health. In 2014, 1,700 people committed suicide in New York, with only four other states having more deaths.
“We just want to go out there and let people know they don’t have to suffer by themselves anymore,” Sturiano-Rocco said.
A main goal of the event was to raise awareness for suicide prevention, and to get the message out that help is available for those struggling with depression and mental illness. Through advocacy, research and outreach, the AFSP hopes to lower the national suicide rate by 20 percent by 2025.
“We’re doing the walk, this is our second year, just in hopes the message gets through,” Michelle Campbell, a walker who lost her niece to suicide, said. “The epidemic is getting worse.”
Sunday’s event was the AFSP’s 14th walk on Long Island, which has become a yearly tradition for the organization. More walks are planned for local college campuses, including at Stony Brook and Hofstra.
“I’ve lost two brothers to suicide,” Lisa Buttacavoli, a repeat walker, said. “I don’t feel that it’s acknowledged like a disease, like cancer. I feel there needs a lot more done for proper care, proper interventions.”