The ring of a bell echoed across the quad by Hewitt Union at Oswego State 51 times on Saturday as it followed the names of loved ones lost to suicide.
Head of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education CNY Jaime Leszczynski, an Oswego State alumna, and her committee of 10 women organized its 7th annual Stride to Save Lives 5K on Saturday. 800 attendees walked or ran 3.1 miles around Oswego State, remembered those who have died from suicide and spread awareness with the hopes to end the upward trend.
SAVE CNY collaborated with the city of Oswego and other organizations around the Central New York area to further affect the community. Mayor Billy Barlow spoke at the event and read aloud a proclamation on behalf of the city of Oswego naming the day of the walk to be recognized as Suicide Prevention Awareness Day to emphasize the importance of SAVE’s event.
“I, William J. Barlow Jr., mayor of the city of Oswego, New York, do hereby proclaim Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, as Suicide Prevention Awareness Day in Oswego, New York, and I do encourage all citizens to work to prevent suicide and raise awareness and tolerance around all people affected by this tragedy,” Barlow said in the proclamation.
Leszczynski created SAVE CNY, the first of 18 national charters of the nonprofit organization, eight years after her brother took his own life in 2002 with the goal of spreading inspiration and hope. Throughout the year, the organization visits middle schools and high schools, hosts support groups and trains people in the community to recognize the warning signs of suicide to help prevent it.The Stride to Save Lives event raised about $25,000 to go toward these efforts in the community.
“I was always looking for a way to take something so negative and spin it into something positive,” Leszczynski said. “I knew I couldn’t save everybody, but if I could help one person or one family from going through what we did, then it would make it all worthwhile.”
Oswego County had the largest population adjusted suicide mortality rate in all of Central New York between 2013 and 2015. The CNY region’s average adjusted rate was 11.4 out of 100,000, and Oswego County’s exceeded it at 14.7 out of 100,000, according to New York State Department of Health. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans 15 years old to 24 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mariah Santana, one of the volunteers at the event and a second-year senior at Oswego State, spoke of her own struggles with mental illness and the death of her mother’s boyfriend by suicide. She encouraged the attendees to keep moving forward and to savor the small things in life.
“Every day is an opportunity to love like you never have before, an opportunity to breathe in the fresh air, to learn, to live and to dance in the rain,” Santana said.
Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of SAVE, traveled from Minnesota to attend the event. He said he believes there is not enough advocacy or funding for spreading awareness of suicide, which he said can be the solution to the issue.
“It takes everybody to save a life. It doesn’t just take a doctor; it takes a whole community of people to do what we need to do to save someone’s life,” Reidenberg said. “It is hope that saves lives.”
Oswego State student organizations also took part in the event. Vocal Effect performed two songs with hopeful themes in front of the 800 attendees. The Lifestyles Center and Peer2Peer sat at tables providing flyers and pamphlets of warning signs of suicide, depression and anxiety and how to get help on campus.
“Personally, suicide prevention is really important to me and I take it really seriously. Last summer, a close friend of mine lost their life to suicide, so the SAVE event hits close to home,” Peer2Peer educator Taylor Earle said. “The SAVE event is really important for grieving families and friends because it’s a safe place where they can express their emotions and be surrounded by people that understand what they are going through.”
Michelle Sloan, the health promotion coordinator at the Lifestyles Center, also works as the campus liaison for SAVE CNY and is in charge of sending collected monetary donations to the SAVE national office.
“I have taken advantage of some local training and I have been fortunate enough to be able to go to Minneapolis, where the SAVE National Office is located, on two occasions for training and education,” Sloan said.
Sloan said she does not believe enough is being done to combat suicide because it still happens. Despite efforts of spreading awareness and preventing suicide, the national suicide rate has increased by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to the CDC. Robin McAleese, the outreach coordinator for the Counseling Services Center at Oswego State, said she believes part of the problem is the stigma against mental illness.
Students who are experiencing a mental crisis can contact the Counseling Services Center at all hours of the day, and a mental health counselor can help them. Depending on the situation, someone from the center will call the student the next day to check on them, which McAleese said she believes the student appreciates because it shows that someone cares for them.
“When you lose someone, it is not the end of that person. That person lives within us, and not just within us, but in every person we meet. That is the beautiful part about life,” Santana said.
Photo: Taylor Woods| The Oswegonian