UMass participates in ‘Out of Darkness Walk’ to raise awareness for suicide prevention

UMass Active Minds leads its fifth annual walk to destigmatize conversations around suicide

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Mehroz Kapadia / Daily Collegian

A national walk to raise awareness and fundraise for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is expected to draw participants from across the country, including those from the University of Massachusetts community.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15-24, according to the AFSP website. It’s an important issue for the UMass chapter of Active Minds, a national organization that focuses on destigmatizing mental health, which has participated in the national walk for five years.

“By bringing this conversation out into the open, people no longer have to feel like they’re hiding these feelings that they might have,” said Lili Olsen, a senior psychology major and biology minor at UMass who serves as the president of UMass Active Minds. “We need to start talking about it.”

The walks, called Out of the Darkness Campus Walks, aim to raise awareness about suicide rates and prevention and fundraise for the foundation’s educational campaigns as well as other resources and programs. The virtual grand closing ceremony will take place on Sunday at 6 p.m.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, individualized walks will not be held on campus this year. Instead, Massachusetts is organizing a state-wide virtual walk. UMass has its own team run primarily by Active Minds, in collaboration with the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH).

Despite the virtual format for the walk, Active Minds is trying to coordinate an engaging event. During the weekend, the group will host livestreams on Instagram as members walk around campus.

Active Minds collaborated with the University Programming Council’s mascot to promote fundraising efforts, Olsen said.

“If you’ve raised a certain amount of money, then the mascot will go to the UMass library. And if we raise another amount of money, then the mascot’s going to go over to the testing center and that kind of stuff,” she said.

Though the group is UMass-based, Active Minds is hoping to extend the walk to people beyond the local community, as the group has in past years. During her sophomore year, Christine MacCune, a double major in psychology and sociology and the vice president of Active Minds, had her parents come to UMass and walk with her.

The virtual format has also presented unexpected upsides. Olsen has had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with chapters on other campuses across the state, including Northeastern University in Boston.

“It’s nice because all of these different campuses can get together and work with each other,” she said. “It also is more accessible; you don’t have to be at the UMass campus to walk. You could be living in Boston, you could be living in New Jersey, you could be living elsewhere. As long as you’re a part of team UMass, you can walk on that day.”

There’s an activity tracker that logs the amount of time you walk and counts it toward the team you are registered to (i.e., UMass). In addition, a podcast with testimonials from other walkers, impactful speeches from some of the heads of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and individual stories about personal struggles or the loss of someone significant is available to registered participants.

The podcast “is trying to replicate what we’d normally have, which is usually stories from a parent of someone who’s lost a child or someone who’s lost a friend or significant other,” Olsen said. “And we’d also have someone who’s personally struggled with it talk about their experience, and then we’d have a chair, like one of the heads of the AFSP, come and talk about it.”

The walk is one of MacCune’s favorite events that the chapter coordinates. During the weekend of the event, MacCune said, “I can’t do anything else. I’m just reminiscing, feeling it and wanting to be with those people.”

In a normal year, members wear their Out of Darkness shirts and a certain color of beads that signifies their personal connection to suicide. Seeing other people’s beads and being in the crowd of over a hundred people in past years has been impactful for MacCune.

“Walking in a unified group around campus is just one of the most powerful moments because no one talks about suicide ever. It’s so scary to talk about, so having a group of over a hundred people there thinking, talking, and feeling those vibes is really powerful. I’m definitely going to miss that, but I’m very excited for next year to be able to do that again” MacCune said.

Registration for the event and further information can be found here. To learn more about Active Minds at UMass, reach them on Facebook, Instagram, and Tik Tok.

Esther Muhlmann can be reached at [email protected] Sophia Tsekov can be reached at [email protected] Grace Fiori can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @grace_fiori.