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ON THE SCENE: Walkers head Out of the Darkness in Lake Placid

October 5, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

On a cold, overcast day more than 200 people gathered for the 10th anniversary of the North Country Out of Darkness Walk held on the Olympic Speedskating Oval in Lake Placid followed by a mass walk around Mirror Lake.

The walk was held Sunday afternoon, Sept. 30, and attracted people from as far away as Glens Falls, Plattsburgh, Malone and Watertown.

People gathered to remember lost loved ones and raise funds to support suicide prevention initiatives and programs to provide counseling and other services for people who have lost friends and family members to suicide. Sadly, the North Country has one of the highest suicide rates in the state and nation, an outcome of a mix of factors that range from isolation, difficult economic circumstances, high levels of alcohol and substance abuse, long, dark winters and easy access to guns, as almost half of all suicides use a firearm.

Article Photos

The North Country Out of Darkness Walk begins Sunday, Sept. 30 on the Olympic Speedskating Oval in Lake Placid.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

"Working in the mental health field you lose clients to suicide," said Peter Wood, resident manager of Lakeside House in Saranac Lake, a co-founder of the Out of Darkness Walk. "I've lost other people I know to suicide; preventing suicide is what brings me out today. It's all about raising awareness. For many people, to this day, mentioning suicide is taboo. We're getting better. The Lake Placid walk attracts three to four hundred people. That's a major plus."

Suicide is a significant health crisis, now the 10th cause of death in the United States and one of three causes of death -including Alzheimer's disease and drug overdoses - that are increasing. The good news is that through education and training, people can learn how to help reduce suicide rates, as they are here in the North Country. Progress is being made, but our community and region still have a long way to go. Most important is helping people understand that suicide can impact the lives of anyone no matter their economic, educational, sexual or social circumstances - and, to a large extent, age. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death of youths age 10 to 20 nationally and here in the North Country. Suicide knows no demographic; it does not discriminate.

"There are two goals for the walk. The first is fundraising," said Shelby Davis, walk chair. "Our goal is 35,000 this year. Our second goal is awareness. We want to raise awareness to the cause of suicide, opportunities for prevention, and to let people know that there are resources out there for people struggling with mental illness and who have lost someone to suicide. The money raised goes to four primary areas: suicide prevention education, support for survivors of suicide loss, research and public policy advocacy. A portion of the money raised today stays in the North Country, which is why this walk is so important to me."

"I am here to do anything I can to help raise money for this cause," said Chris Paiser, now blind as an outcome of a shrapnel wound during his military service, and one of the two featured speakers. "I had some dark times in my past, so I know how important it is to have support. I don't know where I would or could have gone without the support of my family. You can't get through the dark times alone. I was thinking, they don't deserve me. They don't deserve this burden. You push everybody away. Thank God my wife is a very strong-willed individual. She said, 'I don't care what you think.' With her and Valerie's help (his counselor) I'm here today. It's a long path and a tough path, but you can get through it as I have done."

The other speaker was paramedic Susie Taylor, who lost her partner Shane to suicide last year. She was attending as a representative of the Code Green Campaign, a nonprofit founded in 2014 by EMS professionals in response to the high rate of mental health challenges and suicide by first responders which includes EMTs, fire and police. She said that in small communities such as Lake Placid, first responders often know the people they serve, know their situation and story, which can make it even more difficult as they have an emotional connection.

"Shane became my partner on the truck at least two days a week," said Taylor. "It wasn't long before I had taken him under my wing in an effort to mentor him in his practice as an EMT. He was observant and smart. We meshed well together. He knew what I needed before I even arrived at a patient's side. He learned quickly and asked great questions. I expected to have a great EMT to mentor and teach. What I didn't expect is how fond of him I'd become. I didn't expect the friendship that would last the rest of his short life."

"Flash forward to a beautiful June morning," Taylor continued. "I got up and headed to my sister's graduation. My husband was at work on a 24-hour shift, and our unborn was doing his morning gymnastics in my uterus. It had a promise of being a great day. About an hour after the service, I received a text. Shane was supposed to drive that day, but he hadn't answered his pager or his phone and did I know where he lived.

"There's this moment when everything stops. Your heart hits your stomach. Your stomach hits the floor. It was so out of character for Shane not to answer his phone. He loved his job. He loved being an EMT. He was super eager to go on every call. The EMT staff thought it was a mix-up, but I had this awful feeling in my stomach. I knew about his struggles with depression. Life as I knew it ended that day, and a new life began. You guys all know what I'm talking about."

Many people were weeping and wiping their eyes. They did know.

"There's your life before, and there's after," Taylor said. "The best way to honor my partner is to reach out and help people. Shane reached out to people struggling. He'd want us, he'd want me to continue to do that."

Taylor went on to urge people to advocate for more mental health services and to support initiatives like Out of Darkness. She closed with, "If there is anything to take away from my ramblings today, please let it be this. You are not as alone as your thoughts make you feel. There are always people who care about you, love you, and people who I promise you will never be the same when you're gone. There's always hope, and hope is stronger than depression."

At the opening of the presentation, Lake Placid Deputy Mayor Art Devlin read a proclamation signed by Mayor Craig Randall declaring Sunday, Sept. 30 as Out of Darkness Day in Lake Placid. Afterward, people released white (biodegradable) dove-shaped balloons on the sides of which people had written the names of people lost to suicide. Then they marched around the Oval out across Main Street and around Mirror Lake.

Wayne and Melissa Woods and their daughters - Avery, Shae and Keria - attended, all wearing dark blue hoodies emblazoned with the phrase, "Every Day I Miss My Hero."

"My father died by suicide on May 30th, 2017," said Wayne. "We're here to help people see the warning signs. We've got to help. We've got to be there and support our loved ones."

For information on suicide prevention, contact Shelby Davis at the Essex County Suicide Prevention Coalition at 518-962-2077.



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