Editor’s Note: A new suicide loss support group will begin in Bath on Sept. 25, at United Methodist Church, 340 Oak Grove Ave. It will begin at 6 p.m., and run for eight weeks. To confirm the first meeting, or to get more information, call Andy Solokoff at 721-1357.

BATH—On Sept. 17, those affected by suicide in the greater Midcoast area have a chance to meet others who have experienced the same loss, and to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The annual Out of the Darkness Walk will depart from Waterfront Park, where booths will offer information, bake sale items and raffle prizes, and a general sense of esprit de corps will color the day. Check-in and registration begins at 11 a.m., with the walk commencing at 12:30.

Last year’s walk raised some $25,000 for the Maine chapter of the AFSP.

Kelly Hoyt is a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner, and president of the Maine Volunteer Board of AFSP. Her husband Matt Hoyt is chair of the board, and the two became involved after moving to Maine from Massachusetts two years ago.

“I initially got involved as a mental health professional, and have always devoted myself to eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illness,” Hoyt said. “I saw suicide as a fatal consequence to this stigma, and then fell in love with the Foundation.”

The Hoyts have suffered several of their own personal losses to suicide, one of which was Matt’s grandfather, who took his life at an early age. “It was concealed within the family for many years. This made me realize the importance of speaking out.”

Kelly’s own father suffered with mental illness, and his death earlier this year was presumed to have been suicide.

She noted that while suicide rates have risen in recent years, both in Maine and nationally, at least some part of that rise may be due to things like improved reporting systems and new ways of keeping data, and to people being more open and honest about the topic. Rural states definitely see higher numbers, with some of that being due to limited mental health care. She reports that some 55 percent of counties in America have no psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers.

As for Maine statistics, she notes a positive shift: “The data from the last year available ranked Maine as 20th in the country, but the year before we were 10th. Also, suicide was the leading cause of death in 10 to 14 years olds in the reported data from 2016, and in 2017 it has dropped to third. I know this positive shift has been influenced by the Maine Suicide Prevention Program, as their focus has been on youth suicides, and we now mandate school administrators to receive ‘gatekeeper training.’ I hope these efforts continue.”

That’s where fundraising comes in. AFSP has four focuses: Education, advocacy, research, and support for survivors of suicide loss. Fifty percent of all funds raised from the walks stay in the state, supporting these efforts at the local level, funding high school and college programs, survivor support groups, legislative advocacy, and more. Some of AFSP’s education and training programs will be integrated with the Midcoast Community Alliance, which the Coastal Journal reported on in August.

Here are a few price tags: Five hundred dollars is the cost of training a facilitator to run a suicide loss support group; $250 covers training for a local field advocate to work on legislation that could help prevent suicide; $100 is what it takes to bring an educational program to a high school.

Hoyt says she knows how important it is to local communities to understand how their fundraising dollars are spent, and shared the organization’s annual report and financial details. “I am proud to support this foundation,” she said, “They are a 4-Star Charity through Charity Navigator. AFSP keeps its administrative and fundraising costs to 16.5 percent, which is well below the industry standard of 25 percent. That is something I truly value with the organization.”

The Bath event is organized by Cristal Homan and Stacey Manter, Bath and Phippsburg moms who each lost teenage children to suicide. Somehow, out of the excruciating pain comes the drive to prevent others from enduring the same tragedy. Homan wasn’t ready to walk until 2015, two years after losing her daughter Jessica.

“Then, I was ready to listen and learn. Everyone has a story related to a suicide loss,” Homan said. “Due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and suicide in particular, many people never felt they could talk about it.” She plans on taking some of the education and training courses offered by the AFSP next year.

“I have personally seen someone’s whole night change by just having a chat with them, and giving them an Out Of the Darkness bracelet,” she said. “The AFSP reminds people they are not alone, and it gives them hope.”

Manter organized the first walk in Bath after attending a walk in Brunswick when she lost her son Christian in 2012. She handles the logistics of the event, while Homan handles fundraising.

“The most satisfying part of volunteering for the AFSP and coordinating the walk is the connections I make with the walkers, who are walking for so many reasons,” Manter said. “They walk to honor loved ones they may have lost, or that may be struggling with suicidal ideation or past attempts. Many walkers also come to show support for suicide prevention and mental wellness even if they don’t know someone who is struggling.”

There are currently walks in Bath, Bangor, Portland and Fort Kent. Any community wishing to host their own Out of the Darkness Walk can contact Hoyt at [email protected] The Bath event is open to those in the Midcoast, but organizers would not turn away any fundraising effort or anyone seeking community. With speakers, music, food and even bubbles—yes, giant bubbles—at last year’s event, a healing vibe will undoubtedly be part of the landscape.

“We say in AFSP that this is a family we never wanted to be a part of, but we are glad to have one another,” Hoyt said.

Donations can be made by sponsoring a walker, or just donating to the event. Participants can also start their own fundraising page and bring in friends and relatives to donate in memory of a lost loved one. Visit https://afsp.donordrive.com/ and click on “Out of the Darkness Community Walks.”