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Out of Darkness walk at JCC puts suicide prevention, depression in public eye

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A bright sun bathed the dozens of participants in the Out of Darkness suicide prevention walk on Sunday in Watertown, as they exchanged memories of lost loved ones and sought to lift the stigma of mental illness.

About 50 people, many of them relatives and friends of suicide victims, joined in the 3-mile walk that kicked off at Jefferson Community College and proceeded east on Coffeen Street before returning to the college’s Health and Wellness Center. It was the first time JCC hosted the annual walk, which raised money to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

A list of 26 suicide victims collected from participants was read over loudspeakers before the walk started, followed by a moment of silence.

Out of Darkness walks, which are held nationwide, underscore the fact that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students, and the third for young people ages 15 to 24.

Katy E. Troester-Trate, a licensed mental health counselor hired by JCC in February 2012, meets with students battling depression and anxiety every day. The 32-year-old provided short-term counseling for 80 students during the fall semester last year. Most of them were referred to agencies in the community for additional treatment.

“I have students with a wide gamut of issues, anywhere from mild anxiety to severe depression,” Ms. Troester-Trate said. “We need to lift the stigma so that more people are willing to get help, and I think people are slowly seeing the need” for these services.

People often overlook the seriousness of depression until someone they know dies of suicide, said Sarah R. Vroman, chairwoman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Central New York chapter. The 29-year-old from Phoenix, a suburb of Syracuse, received shocking news in April 2003 while she was a freshman attending Mohawk Valley Community College in Rome. One of her closest friends from high school, Josh Graham, took his own life six weeks before graduation. He recently had made plans to study graphic design at Mohawk Valley with Ms. Vroman.

“We had friends who died in car accidents, but my friends and I were all lost because we never knew a person affected by suicide,” Ms. Vroman said. “There was a plethora of questions without any answers: What could I have done to help?”

Outwardly, her 17-year-old friend seemed optimistic about life. Ms. Vroman said she remembers him playing guitar, for instance, to entertain his friends during art class.

“He was the last person that I would ever imagine dying by suicide,” she said. “He would be in a room full of people and could say five words to make everyone laugh. He was a comedian, artist and musician. He had the gift of making people feel good, but hid his inner pain.”

During the walk, Watertown resident Carol S. Roney, 61, spoke to a reporter about her family’s history of depression. Two close family members who suffered from depression took their lives in 2009 and 2011. Both of them had difficulty seeking professional help to overcome their mental illnesses.

“They were respected citizens with successful careers, and they wouldn’t think about the possibility of depending on someone for help,” she said. “One of them struggled through years of depression, and when he took his life, I accepted it because I knew how much he struggled. We shouldn’t look at depression as a weakness.”

Family tragedies were a learning experience for Mrs. Roney, who also has suffered from depression. When her sleep deprivation and depression reached a chronic state in January, she was admitted to BryLin Hospital, Buffalo. After receiving inpatient psychiatric care for 11 days, she left the hospital with a feeling of hope she hadn’t experienced in months.

“I’m proud of myself and the support that I’ve had,” Mrs. Roney said. “If I had not gone there, I wouldn’t be here today.”

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