by June Pichel Cook
CRAFTSBURY – Craftsbury’s first Out of Darkness Walk to benefit the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention drew 30 people on Sunday. The walk was coordinated through the Craftsbury Mental Health Resource Group and supported by community and area residents.
Three years ago, the tragic death of a young man, Wesly Warren, brought a stark reality to this small community. Michelle Warren, Wesly’s mother, helped to organize the mental health resource group, which has been active in raising awareness, educating, providing hope and resources for persons and families struggling with mental health issues. They have worked to decrease the stigma around mental health issues in the community.
“I would like this walk today to focus on hope,” Warren said. “Hope for an end to the stigma of suicide, hope for the future, a world without suicide, hope that medicine and therapy can help everyone with mental illness and be available to all, and hope for our young people to learn coping strategies for this ever-changing world.”
East Craftsbury Presbyterian Reverend Deborah McKinley, who was active in forming the community resource group, was among the walkers on Sunday. She stressed, “The Craftsbury Mental Health Resources Group is trying to increase awareness and education, while decreasing the stigma of mental illness. We’re seeking to get mental health into the public conversation so it’s a natural part of our everyday conversations, not a secret to be spoken of only in hushed tones.”
She noted, “We also seek to support those seeking to navigate the mental health system, which can be daunting. I consider it a privilege and an honor to convene this remarkable group of people.”
The grassroots Craftsbury Mental Health Resource Group is unique and the only one like it in the state, Warren said.
“At first, I thought how sad. How can we be the only community in our state that cares enough to organize a group for mental health,” she said. “Then I realized, our town could lead the way for caring about mental health on a community level, and we can encourage other towns to follow our lead. We all can make a difference, one community at a time.”
In two years, the group developed a mission statement, created a resource booklet listing therapists and hospitals in the Northeast Kingdom, created a website (nevtsuicide.com), started a fund for mental health projects and help for those seeking assistance with therapy. They have worked with Lamoille County Mental Health to hold a mental health first-aid class about children and have held a suicide prevention presentation. Members of the group have volunteered to serve as contacts for people struggling and needing some support to navigate the mental health system.
Suicide claims more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined, Warren said, yet suicide prevention doesn’t receive anywhere near the funding as other leading causes of death.
“It is up to walkers like us to make a difference. Together we can change the conversation about mental health and put a stop to this tragic loss of life.”
The Out of Darkness Walk drew walkers from across the community and surrounding area to raise $3,665 for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.
“We have an amazing town,” Warren said. “Even with everything going on in the world and considering COVID-19, the community support is amazing. It (walk) was extremely successful.”
Walkers were given bracelets with colored beads, each color symbolizing a level of connection to the Out of Darkness Walk. A memoriam board was set up on the Common, honoring those who have been lost to suicide. Everyone was encouraged to add a heart with or without a name of someone lost to suicide.
“To lose someone you love to suicide, whether it’s your child, brother, sister, parent, grandchild, friend, or other relationship, is devastating,” Warren said. “Every suicide shatters the life of so many. Together, we can help save the lives of others with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. We have to, every life matters.”
Vermont ranks 18th in the nation for age-adjusted suicide rates and is the second leading cause of death in the state for ages 10-44. In 2018, eight times as many people died by suicide in Vermont than from alcohol or motor vehicle accidents.
The three-mile walk took people around the Common to Mill Village, King Farm Road, and Dustan Road; the shorter 1.5 miles made a loop from the Common to Strong Road, King Farm Road, and Dustan Road. The United Church of Craftsbury provided refreshments.