Walk brings mourners, supporters together for suicide awareness

Richard Powell, an attendee at the Out of the Darkness event, hangs a picture of loved ones in memory before the walk. Powell and his wife, Karen, have participated in the walk for two years in support of loved ones who have committed suicide.

Karen Powell’s Valentine’s Days are not days of joy.

They are days of remembrance.

Powell’s son Colby committed suicide on Valentine’s Day in 2014. He was a 23-year-old student at Wichita State.

On Saturday morning, Powell and more than 200 others affected by suicide gathered outside Ablah Library at the Plaza of Heroines at WSU for the third annual Out of Darkness Walk to spread suicide awareness and prevention.

The walk was coordinated through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“I’m here to honor his memory and hopefully create awareness for suicide issues,” Powell said. “Maybe someone will be deterred away from suicide because of this. I definitely think there needs to be more awareness. If someone hints at suicide, there may be more beyond that subtle hint.”

Bailey Blair, a WSU behavioral health systems specialist and member of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said it’s especially important on campus to begin opening up and having these conversations. Blair coordinates all walks in the Wichita area.

“I used to be a high school teacher. About the second time I had to sit at my desk and explain to my class that their friend wouldn’t be coming back was when I realized I had a different calling,” Blair said.

This year, donations exceeded $12,000. Blair said 50 percent of all proceeds stay with WSU.

Two WSU students, Thao Le and Devante Garcia, spoke to the crowd before the walk began. Both are part of Mind Matters, a WSU organization that raises awareness about mental health problems, and have struggled with suicide and depression.

“I felt, for a lot of my life, ashamed, embarrassed and afraid because of the stigma attached to mental health,” said Garcia, a sophomore studying criminal justice.

Le, a junior studying pre-nursing, is vice president of Mind Matters and a member of Sigma Psi Zeta sorority. She said her struggles with depression reached a peak a year ago.

“I was in a very toxic relationship,” Le said. “My self-worth was at an all-time low. Some nights I slept for more than 12 hours and some days I couldn’t get out of bed. I stopped attending class, to which I failed two classes, and was fired from my job. I would drink past the point of blacking out.”

Le said this lasted nearly a year.

“That’s when I thought about ending it,” Le said. “Fortunately for me, I couldn’t bring myself to follow through. Choosing to live became the bravest thing I’ve ever done.”

The walk started outside the library and went around campus, spanning about a mile and a half.

About 50 people wore shirts reading, “We walk for Matt.” Matt Polk, who at the time was general manager of Wasabi, took his life Oct. 21, 2015.

Bob Polk said his son had reached out several times for help, but didn’t tell anyone in his family. Polk said the public’s awareness about suicide awareness should be greater.

“The most taboo word in the English language to stop a conversation is ‘suicide,’” Polk said. “People change the subject right away. They don’t want to be involved.”

After the walk, attendants shared memories. Powell said she finds strength in being with fellow support group members.

“I’m making it through each day,” Powell said. “I seem to be able to maintain. I do still grieve and I do find it very hard sometimes, but I’m taking it one step at a time.”