Content warning: this article contains references to suicide and self-harm.
Saturday, April 22, the College of William and Mary’s chapter of Alpha Tau Omega and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hosted the “Out of the Darkness Walk for Suicide Prevention,” an annual tradition started in 2016.
The walk started at the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center at around 9 a.m. The crowd then proceeded to the Sunken Garden, passing by the Earl Gregg Swem Library and the Commons Dining Hall before heading back to the Wellness Center at around 10 a.m.
College President Katherine Rowe attended the event alongside Presidential Liaison for Strategic Cultural Partnerships and professor of Hispanic Studies Ann Marie Stock.
State Sen. Monty Mason ’89, D-Williamsburg, also attended the start of the event.
Rowe shared her personal experience of a friend who struggled with mental health issues.
“So the story is about a professor here named Paula Blank, professor of English,” Rowe said, recounting her friendship with the professor. “She was one of my best friends in graduate school, and she came here. It was her first job — it was her life job, at William and Mary. My first encounter with William and Mary was when she invited me about 20 years ago. And she died by suicide about a year and a half before I got here.”
Rowe cited her friendship with Blank as a reason for her consideration for the presidency of the College.
“And when the headhunter called me to say, ‘Would you consider exploring the presidency of William and Mary?,’ I thought, ‘Oh, that’s Paula’s school. She loved that place. I need to listen and explore more,’ and William and Mary is my school, in part, because it was Paula’s school for so long,” Rowe said.
Rowe commended the AFSP and ATO for their initiative in organizing the event this year, noting that the College is the leading campus for AFSP fundraising efforts.
“I want to thank the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for being our partner in this really important annual gathering fellowship,” Rowe said. “I’m so grateful to Alpha Tau Omega for making this your passion, your commitment, your service. You are living and you are helping us live our values. You are helping us name and normalize and know the resources for preventing, for stopping suicide, and that is what we’re about.”
ATO member Griffin Amos ’24, who helped organize the event, thanked the College community for support.
“Last year, we raised just over $18,000,” Amos said. “I heard today we just got over $22,000. Once you start the walk, I want to encourage all of you guys to talk to someone or just reflect, like, by yourself, on how mental health has affected your life. The main goal of events like this one, is to turn this campus into a safer place to talk about it.”
Amos also recounted a personal experience of being close to someone who struggled with mental health issues. One of Amos’s best friends in high school died by suicide in 2019.
Ronald North, Jr., a representative from AFSP, echoed Amos’ sentiment, emphasizing the importance of normalizing conversations around mental health.
Associate Vice President for Health and Wellness and Director of the Center for Mindfulness and Authentic Excellence Kelly Crace highlighted the importance of events like this that promote wellness.
“But if you’re here today, that means at some level, all of you have someone that you have had, you currently have, and you will have that when that phone rings at 3:00 in the morning, this is the first person you think about and the first person you worry about,” Crace said. “We all have that in our lives. And the complexity, the incredible complexity of suicidality, is something that we’re still trying to understand at a deeper level.”
Crace emphasized the importance of students considering goals as personal preferences, as opposed to necessities.
“We find that the healthiest approach is it’s okay for those goals to be a preference, but your true work is based on engagement and things that matter for you and doing so in a healthy way,” Crace said. “Engagement is what matters, not the experiences that come from them. So in this time today, I want you to be mindful of the expectations you might be demanding of yourself, and I want you to switch it a little bit. Let them be a preference.”
“Events like this will help end the stigma about seeking mental health help and remind people they are not alone.”
Board of Visitors member and Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources John E. Littel P ’22, who hosted a mental health summit as part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Office at the College on April 4, highlighted the significance of student leadership.
“Events like this will help end the stigma about seeking mental health help and remind people they are not alone,” Littel said in an email to The Flat Hat. “Student leadership and engagement in wellness remains a distinctive of W&M and the partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention makes a huge difference.”
Participant Brandon Carranza-Lopez ’26 voiced appreciation for the event.
“I think in general the support for mental health awareness, specifically like suicide awareness, is really important,” Carranza-Lopez said. “I think having people that care about a movement like this will make campus a safe place to discuss mental health and all like the people that struggle with it.”
CORRECTION (5/4/23): Article was updated by the Standards and Practices Editor, Sarah Devendorf to change Friday, April 21 to Saturday, April 22 as that was the date that the event was hosted.
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