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Out of Darkness walk participants hold balloons Saturday in anticipation for the balloon release ceremony to remember loved ones lost to suicide. (Katie Ryan-Anderson / The Sun)

Jamestown residents march for suicide awareness

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Sisters and mothers wept at a community park Saturday while children giggled and chased each other in the background.

It's was a bittersweet day, organizers said.

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About 200 people trekked the 3-mile course of the first Out of Darkness walk at McElroy Park in Jamestown. Organizers hope to make it an annual event.

The walk raises awareness of suicide and mental illness while also giving residents an opportunity to remember loved ones lost to suicide, which is the ninth leading cause of death in the state, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

"I think the community had a need for it," said Delayne Ballard, who, along with her father, sister, niece, husband and son, wore T-shirts reading "kurt." The T-shirts were in memory of Ballard's brother, Kurt Schreiner, who died by suicide about two years ago. Ballard was one of the walk's organizers.

Other attendants had less direct connections, but still showed support.

More than two dozen Essentia Health employees attended for the cause.

"Suicide is something that needs to be brought to awareness like any other health condition," said Crystal Hovda, registered nurse and diabetes educator at Essentia.

Dr. Dan Cramer echoed Hovda. A psychologist with the South Central Human Service Center in Jamestown, Cramer said it's sometimes difficult for people to reach out for help.

Make it comfortable for people to say, "I am hurting," he said, because talk can be a healing thing.

Another of those remembered Saturday was Matt Finck, a Jamestown High School senior who died by suicide in May. Matt had struggled with mental health for many years, his mother, Karen, had said.

Many members of the community attended in support of the Finck family. About 50 of them wore T-shirts emblazoned with "Fatt Minck" a silly nickname other students had given him at school, said his sister, Carissa, now a junior at Jamestown High School.

Carissa and two of her best friends, Christina Radi and Morgan Huber, filled about 1,000 pink, yellow and green balloons with helium while participants encircled them on the 3-mile walk.

The walk stirs up a lot of emotions, Carissa said, but community support helps. She said she wants other survivors to know mental health and suicide don't have to be taboo and there's nothing to be embarrassed about.

"(It's important) that they know that they're not alone. That they know there's other people that can help," she said.

Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness, Cramer said. And recognizing the impact of mental health is crucial, he said.

Resources are available to help survivors and their families. Some of those resources include the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or 211, the FirstLink Lifeline serving North Dakota and Minnesota.

"Maybe we have people in our community who are hurting and we don't know," Cramer said.

Half of the money raised supports the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention while the other half remains within local communities. The Jamestown organizers had raised about $3,500 prior to the walk Saturday. They hope to use the money to form a support group for suicide survivors, a group Jamestown has never had.

Geni Hieb of Jamestown welcomes that idea. Hieb lost her brother, David Burch, to suicide in 1995. Burch was 28 years old at the time. Hieb remembers him as a father and as an advocate for the homeless. Burch's daughter was two weeks old when he died.

Sixteen years later, Hieb said she still struggles with the loss. She's been hospitalized four times for her mental health, an issue she didn't have prior to her brother's death.

To help them grieve, Hieb and her husband, Todd, sometimes drove the 100 miles to the support group in Bismarck, but the trip got long and taxing. Jamestown doesn't offer anything similar to such a group, but such a group is critical, Hieb said.

"This is something that no one else understands," she said.

The walk culminated with a balloon ceremony, where participants wrote wishes, dreams and messages on the inflated latex, and sent them into the sky.

"I wrote, 'My heart aches,'" Hieb said. "I will always ache. It will never be the same."

If you missed this walk, but would like to attend another one, LaMoure County is holding its walk at 1 p.m. Sept. 18. Registration begins at the LaMoure Civic Center in LaMoure, N.D. Cost is a freewill donation.

For more information on mental illness and suicide prevention, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website, www.afsp.org or www.OutOfDarkness.org.

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