Polk County suicide prevention walk to take place Sept. 7

Press release from the Polk County Community Foundation:

Polk County’s 5th annual Walk/Remembrance event — in recognition of mental health and suicide prevention — will be Saturday, Sept. 7, 5:30-8 p.m. at Tryon’s Harmon Field. This growing and well attended public event includes a casual stroll opportunity to carry a candle in support of someone’s suffering and struggling with mental health issues. First names are provided to emcee to call out. The dove release is at 6:30 p.m. Doves are freed by a collaborative effort of children honoring those who have lost their battles, potentials lost, and survivors left behind to reconcile.

Last year, more than 500 people attended and came from several states as far away as the Midwest. It will usher in National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week, Sept. 8-14, and World Suicide Prevention Day, Sept. 10.

This event was initially organized through joint efforts of Mary Wells Prioleau and Tamara Black who joined forces with a sense of urgency and grief. Prioleau reached out to Black in February 2015, following the suicide Black’s brother, Mr. Jaheir Ford. Mr. Ford and Prioleau’s daughter, Miss Caroline deRosset Wesley, were friends at Polk County High School. Miss Wesley had also died from suicide, October 2014. Miss Wesley had funds in her bank account that Prioleau wanted to spend in a manner honoring her. Prioleau and Black concluded that a wise investment would be an annual community focused event.

“Do Not Lose Hope” as the theme is particularly significant as Miss Wesley wrote these words moments before hanging herself. More than 1,000 Do Not Lose Hope T-shirts have now been given away, along with car decals and temporary tattoos with the same message.

The first year drew a crowd of approximately 100. Last year the event brought 500. Each year the event has grown tremendously with incredible community support and sponsorship. Last year, as result of Polk Fit, Fresh and Friendly (PF3) deciding to be a non-profit host, Polk County Community Foundation secured 100 percent funding and is again this year.

The third year, resource vendors were added to educate and raise awareness of all factors involved. A discernible distinction between Miss Wesley and Mr. Ford is that Miss Wesley had a diagnosed mental illness whereas Mr. Ford appears to have experienced a mental health crisis, Prioleau said. “Understanding the difference between mental health issues and mental illness is critical in providing proper support to all affected, ending the stigmas and saving lives.

“The most amazing aspect of this event is the diversity among participants and attendees affirming that mental health issues know no boundaries,” Prioleau said. “Race, religion, culture, gender, age, socio-economics: are all represented.”

“Our goal is reaching the masses, ending stigma and making our best effort to ensure healthy, safe communities for our loved ones, neighbors and ourselves,” she said. “This is not a ‘them’ issue. It’s ‘us’ — all of us.”

This year, the event is solely funded by the Polk County Community Foundation. It is being organized by Polk Fit, Fresh and Friendly (PF3), a coalition of local agencies that promote health and wellness in Polk County. Prioleau is an at-large board member of PF3, serving as an appointee to the Polk County Mental Health Commission. “I really must thank the Foundation and PF3 for stepping up to make this happen,” she said.

“The Polk County Community Foundation is constantly asking about the needs and wants of our community,” the Foundation’s President and CEO Elizabeth Nager said. “When one of our committees met with all of the counselors at Polk County Schools, we learned more about urgent needs in the area of mental health. As a result of that meeting, the Foundation provides funding for additional resources identified by the school counselors to support their work and looks for other ways to fund mental health solutions in our community. Donors have contributed to the Unrestricted Fund at the Foundation to support the evolving needs and wants of our community such as the Walk/Remembrance event at Harmon Field. We appreciate all the volunteer hours and PF3’s efforts to organize this needed event.”

“PF3 considers mental health to be a major health concern for Polk County,” the agency’s Executive Director Haley Suskauer said. “It is our hope is that bringing the resources of the community together, we can continue to shine a light on this problem. We share in Mary’s passion to openly understand mental health, mental illness, and suicide; and to end fear, judgement, and discrimination. This annual coming-together shows we are not alone. More importantly, it shows that people who have these issues are not alone either. We are here to help.”

Using the 2018 Polk County Community Health Assessment identifies mental health as the #1 priority, Prioleau said. The statistics show 284 people served by an area mental health program; 13.7 percent of Polk adults self reported having greater than seven days of poor mental health in the past month, with 5.2 percent of those not having received care. Polk County had 18 deaths related to unintentional poisoning between 2009 and 2013. In Polk County, 8.1 percent of the adults indicated they are dissatisfied with life.

The Walk/Remembrance will start at 5:30 p.m. at Harmon Field, and attendees will be greeted with free food being cooked by high school athletes, free T-shirts, and various community agencies that will have information tables. Also, children’s games will be on-going, Polk County School Superintendent Aaron Greene will be the event’s emcee for the fifth year, providing a special selection of inspirational music will play as people walk around the track in remembrance of a lost loved-one. Attendees can give the first name of a suicide victim to Greene, who will announce the names to the public. Photographs of victims can also be posted and shared on a special wall. Attendees may speak publicly and share in their experience. At 6:30 p.m., live doves will be released, as they are a symbol of hope.

“I believe strongly in raising awareness and promoting discussion on the mental health issues that confront so many of our young people and community members of all ages,” Greene said. “The Walk/Remembrance allows us to honor loved ones who lost their battles and to lean on each other as we search for answers and solutions. Perhaps just as important, it helps create productive dialogue around the issue and removes the stigma that prevents many people from bringing these issues to light. Sadly it affects all of us. I have lost students, family members, and friends in the community. Many people deal with depression and anxiety daily as the hope for a better existence. So doesn’t it make sense for us to get together and remind everyone we can that we are here for them and not to lose hope. I have great respect for Mary Prioleau, Tamara Black, and all the folks who work so hard to make this event special. I feel fortunate to be a small part.”

“It is very moving and inspiring event on many different levels,” Prioleau said. “I’ve seen people in wheelchairs make a lap around the track. They carry candles and comfort each other. We hear the names being called out; see pictures; we hear music that has special meaning. There’s a lot of sharing. There are some sad moments, but most of all there is a feeling of hope, that you are not alone in your grief or struggles. That is really what this Walk/Remembrance is all about. It is about the living and how we can go forward, coping with mental health issues, mental illness, or suicide that has touched our lives. Personally, I think this is something that my daughter and Tamara’s brother would be proud of us for.”

For more information or to be more involved in the Polk County’s 2019 Walk/Remembrance, join the Facebook event or email Prioleau at MaryWPrioleau@yahoo.com.

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