Rather than sleeping, Ruth Bradford-Johnson will spend Saturday night walking through the dark streets of San Francisco. She and others from around the country making the 18-mile, sunset-to-sunrise Out of the Darkness Overnight walk will do so to raise awareness and funds for a cause they feel is very important: suicide prevention.

It is a walk the retired Racine educator has done three times before in Chicago, Boston and New York City. And for each of the walks, Bradford-Johnson has done a lot of training, both through daily walks around Racine and in fitness classes and workouts at Razor Sharp Fitness.

What has kept her going through all of it is her need to bring the topic of suicide into the light.

Suicide is a serious national health problem that affects all ages and demographics, said Bradford-Johnson, who got involved with the overnight walk when a childhood friend’s son died by suicide after suffering with mental illness for years.

Close to 1 million people make a suicide attempt and more than 36,000 die by suicide in the U.S. each year, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The rate of suicide has been increasing in the U.S. since 2000, and the majority of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

“We, as a people, have to be willing to talk about mental health and make it a priority,” Bradford-Johnson said. “And we need to listen to each other.”

Hoping to erase the stigma

Society’s tendency to not talk about suicide stems from the stigma attached to both it and mental illness, she said. It is a stigma that Debby Ganaway, executive director of the Racine County office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.namiracine.org), has experienced both through her work and as a parent. Ganaway, whose daughter Katy died by suicide at age 30, said that she and her husband, Fred, were comfortable in saying that their daughter had bipolar illness. They were even OK in saying that she ended her life. But when it came to hearing or saying suicide, the strong connotations associated with the word made it very difficult to deal with.

“You have to really get strong to be able to hear that word,” she said.

By helping people to better understand suicide and its causes, she and Bradford-Johnson hope to help erase the stigma attached, allowing more people to work toward its prevention.

One of the keys, Ganaway said, is early identification of mental illness (such as clinical depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar illness and schizophrenia), followed by good treatment. That combination can help people suffering with mental illness reclaim the life they wanted, she said.

“As many as 90 percent of the individuals who die by suicide have mental illness,” Ganaway said. “The other 10 percent are probably situational.”

One of the things Ganaway said people can do to help prevent suicide is to be observant of their family, friends and neighbors and use a three-step method called QPR: question, persuade, referral. With QPR training, people can learn to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to question, persuade and refer someone to help. For more about this method, go to www.qprinstitute.com/about.html.

There are also support resources for those who have survived the suicide of a loved one, including the local NAMI office (262-637-0582) and Burlington’s ENTOUCH Support Group, which meets on the fourth Tuesday of the month at Riverwood Church, 6919 McHenry St. (www.riverwood.net).

Just having someone to talk to can be a big help, Ganaway said.

“To be able to talk about the person you lost, and know that someone else holds that loved one in their heart, is so important,” she said.

A moving experience

Each year Bradford-Johnson has done the Overnight walk, she has honored the memory of people who died by suicide as well as those suffering with mental illness by wearing photos of them on her vest — a tradition she started with a picture of her childhood friend’s son.

“It is my way of taking people with me on the journey,” she said.

Katy Ganaway’s photo is also on her vest and having Bradford-Johnson offer to wear it is something Debby Ganaway said has been wonderful for her and her husband. “It honors Katy’s life and her struggle, and it is another way for someone to honor what a wonderful person she was,” she said. “Ruth really has turned a light on a sad situation for many of us.”

Each walk has also been a powerfully moving experience for Bradford-Johnson, during which she has met many people, all of which have their story to tell.

“I’ve never experienced anything quite like it,” she said.

This weekend’s Out of the Darkness Overnight may be Bradford-Johnson’s last, as she said the training for the event is becoming more difficult for her. But you can bet it won’t be her last effort to support a cause that she believes in.

“I’m hoping to raise as much money as I can for what I think is a dynamite organization,” she said.

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