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Raising suicide awareness, one step at a time

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds in the United States.

Yet despite all the damage it does, suicide and its related mental illnesses, such as depression, still remain very much a taboo topic.

VCU’s chapter of Chi Sigma Iota, the international honor society for counseling students, is looking to change that.

Thanks in large part to the legwork of Jen Gerlach, a third-year Ph.D. student in the counselor education and supervision program, VCU will hold its first ever Out of the Darkness Campus Walk on April 2.

A nationwide initiative of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, these walks are designed to increase awareness about suicide prevention, as well as to raise funds for related research and educational programs.

“It’s just a hugely important cause, since most VCU students are at such a high risk age for suicide,” Gerlach said. “I always say that silence is the biggest ally of depression. So I thought it was important to provide a voice for those who don’t feel like they can speak up.”

After discussing the idea of a VCU walk with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention last August, Gerlach and her team (which included co-chair Dr. Sandy Gramling, Dr. Donna Gibson and Shajuana Isom-Payne) got to work, doing everything from hanging flyers around campus to coordinating the event’s route with VCU Police. The 1.1-mile course begins and ends at the Shafer Court compass, though participants are welcome, weather permitting, to take multiple laps.

“I thought it was important to provide a voice for those who don’t feel like they can speak up.”
– Jen Gerlach, VCU campus walk co-chair

In addition to the walk, a resource fair will also be held in Shafer Court, with organizations such as University Counseling Services and Fan Free Clinic on hand to offer services for those impacted by suicide.

To date, more than 190 participants have already signed up for the walk, raising more than $2,700 for the AFSP.

“I’m incredibly pleased with the response around campus to this event,” Gerlach said. “Raising awareness, and learning to talk about suicide and depression, is just so important.

“There’s a misconception that talking about your problems is weak, when really it’s the exact opposite — it takes an incredibly brave person to say, “I’m hurting.’”

If you’d like to make a donation to the VCU Out of the Darkness Campus Walk, or sign up for the event, please visit the campaign page at the AFSP website. Donations are welcome from non-walkers as well.

For more information about suicide prevention, please see the available AFSP resources or contact VCU’s University Counseling Services.

For more information about the VCU Out of the Darkness Campus Walk event, please contact Jen Gerlach at gerlachjm@vcu.edu or (804) 338-0278.