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Shining a light on the stigma of suicide
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At 20 years old Olivia Louise Bell Valentine, a Pitman graduate, decided to take her own life.

“I knew she was about to move to Reno with her cousin so when I got a text around 9 a.m. that said, ‘Goodbye Cait, you were always a good friend,’ I though that’s what it was about,” said Valentine’s friend Cait Hall.

However, when Hall did not receive a response from Valentine, she began to worry. During her break at work, Hall called Valentine’s grandmother only to be told the somber news.

“I hung up the phone and felt a ringing in my ears and thought I was going to pass out,” said Hall. “As the weeks went on, I wasn’t functioning. I blamed myself for not knowing this was coming, for not getting to my phone in time, for the petty fights we had shortly before her passing.”

“All I could think was that it was my fault,” continued Hall.

Hall said that following Valentine’s death, she could not physically stop herself from thinking about her. She said that she often cried herself to sleep where she would “beg her to come back to me” and eventually turned to drinking in order to forget about her lost friend.

“Olivia had so much heartbreak and abuse in her life,” said Hall. “She used to tell me that she felt like I was the only person who cared about her and would listen to her. She felt so alone and isolated and she just couldn’t cope any longer.”

Hall said that over the course of time she began to seek counseling and started studying religions to cope with Valentine’s death. She also got an ambigram tattoo of “Love” and “Olivia” on her wrist to commemorate Valentine.

“I still talk to her every day. Part of me imagines that she’s still here because I feel like the more I talk about her, it’s almost like she’s still alive in a way,” said Hall. “She helped me love in a way I never knew I could. She was my best friend and although I still have rough days, I fight for her. I keep going for her.”

Now three years later, Hall said that she is heavily involved in suicide awareness and prevention efforts, one of which is her endeavor to be there for anyone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts to help them “get through one more day.”

“Mental health has a stigma around it that is heartbreaking,” said Hall. “People are expected to just ignore their feelings, take a bunch of medication that mess them up worse and there isn’t a lot of help for people who struggle with it.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults, or approximately 61.5 million Americans, have a mental illness. Additionally, half of those who are diagnosed with a chronic mental illness develop it as early as 14 years old, with three-quarters by the age of 24 years old.

For those locally who are battling mental illness and suicidal thoughts, there are several resources available.

Although NAMI Stanislaus primarily serves adults, the volunteer organization also has special outreach programs specifically designed for youth.

“The whole idea is that we are trying to fight stigma, that’s what we do,” said NAMI Stanislaus executive director Lynn Padlo.

Ending the Silence aims to raise awareness and change perceptions around mental illness through a 50-minute classroom presentation. Along with sharing facts and statistics about mental illness, a young adult living with mental illness and a family member share their own experiences.

“This program is geared towards suicide prevention,” said Padlo. “We talk to kids about the signs and how they should be concerned if someone does mention that they are going to harm themselves.”

Through this program, students receive handouts that detail the signs they should look and listen for in friends who may be battling suicidal thoughts. Students are taught to express concern and reassure their friend that they are not alone.

“One thing, however, is we don’t want them to say that they won’t tell anybody, because that isn’t true,” said Padlo. “You are going to go tell somebody and you are going to be helpful to them in that way.”

Parents and Teachers As Allies aims to empower teachers and school personnel to make a difference in the lives of their students. The program teaches how to understand the difference between bad behavior and symptoms of a mental illness and how to communicate with families effectively.

In Our Own Voice strives to change attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes about mental illness. The presentation provides an introductory understanding of mental illness, along with a first-hand account of what it’s like to live with a mental illness.

NAMI also has special outreach programs at the collegiate level, including NAMI on Campus at Modesto Junior College, which is a support group for students to talk about their lives and get support, and a student-run support group at California State University, Stanislaus.

 “I hope to help students get help earlier and to not be ashamed of it,” said Padlo. “With one in four adults who have mental illness and one in five developing it between the ages of 14 and 25, we have to do something about it.”

Despite the fact that Turlock Unified School District does not have a formal program to address depression or self-injurious behavior, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Heidi Lawler still said that the District’s top priority is student well-being.

“We have highly trained professionals who work with those students who may be suffering or experience mental health issues,” said Lawler. “Our staff is mindful of changes in student behavior or those patterns that may signal a problem.”

In addition to administrators, counselors and teachers, school psychologists and mental health technicians at TUSD provide counseling to students who may be at-risk for suicide. School staff may also provide life skills groups to students on an as-needed basis.

In order to foster a sense of connection for among those personally affected by suicide, the Central Valley Chapter in Formation of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will be hosting the sixth annual Out of the Darkness Walk in Modesto next weekend in order to raise awareness and funds for suicide prevention.

“I started the first walk in 2010 after I had lost my son to suicide,” said Modesto’s Out of the Darkness Walk chair Alice Quayle. “They have walks all across the United States, but there wasn’t one here in the Valley. I wanted to do something locally.”

“It was healing for me while also getting this walk started in order to help others,” added Quayle.

During the annual event, over 800 walkers will travel approximately two miles over level and mostly paved surfaces along city streets that are accessible to all participants.

“The goal of the walk is to raise awareness and prevention. We want to get people talking about it,” said Quayle. “There is a stigma with depression and people don’t want to talk about, but there are other people who are feeling the same way and they can help each other by talking about it.”

Participants are welcome to bring a copied photo of their loved ones to place on the Memory Board Display. Honor Beads, which signify someone’s personal connection to suicide through different colored beads, will also be available to all walkers.

Awareness and funds that are raised during the annual walk will allow AFSP to invest in new research, create educational programs, advocate for public policy and support survivors of suicide loss. With a goal of $50,000, the Modesto walk has raised $18,558 as of Tuesday.

The sixth annual Out of the Darkness Walk is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Sept. 19 at Mancini Bowl in Graceda Park, Modesto. There is no cost to participate in the walk and check-in and registration begins at 7:30 a.m. For more information, contact Quayle at 545-8070.

Those with suicidal thoughts are urged to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).