OCEAN CITY – An average of 11.6 deaths in Worcester County were attributed to suicide from 2014 to 2016.
In 2016, Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset counties reported a total of 23 suicide deaths, according to most recent data from the Maryland Vital Statistics Administration. That same year, the state reported 9.3 suicide deaths per 100,000 people, a rate that is 6.9 percent higher than the year prior.
And while health officials have noted a recent decline in the county’s average suicide rates, they explained these statistics are what make events like the upcoming Out of the Darkness walk so important.
“Participants see they are not alone and have gone through the same traumatic experiences,” said Travis Brown, the health department’s public information officer.
On Sept. 22, hundreds of walkers will gather in Ocean City to memorialize the victims of suicide, offer support to friends and family, and raise funds for suicide awareness and mental health first aid through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at the seventh annual Out of the Darkness walk, which takes place each September during National Suicide Prevention Month.
In 2012, the Worcester County Health Department worked with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Jesse Klump Memorial Fund to host the first Out of Darkness walk in Ocean City. Nearly 200 registered for the inaugural event and in the years since that number has only grown. Last year, for example, the walk attracted more than 500 registered participants.
Event co-chair Jessica Sexauer, director of the Local Behavioral Health Authority and the Worcester County Local Management Board, said the annual walk is meant to highlight suicide prevention efforts and break the stigma often associated with suicide.
“We continue to do these walks because of what it brings to the family members who are walking in memory of a loved ones who have died from suicide and those struggling with thoughts of suicide,” she said. “The idea is no lives lost to suicide.”
While money voluntarily raised at the walk will contribute to the work of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – a national organization for suicide research and suicide prevention outreach – Sexauer said a portion of pledges collected will come back to the local community in the form of grants for suicide prevention efforts.
“We also partner with the foundation to provide mental health first aid, youth mental health first aid and applied suicide prevention skills training, which is free of charge,” she said.
Ron Pilling, founding board member, secretary and treasurer of the Jesse Klump Memorial Fund – a local nonprofit with a goal to end suicide through outreach and education – said the Out of the Darkness walk is one of many suicide prevention events taking place on the Lower Shore throughout the month of September. Past and upcoming events, he noted, include movie screenings and health fairs.
“We teach people how to recognize the warning signs that might indicate that a suicide attempt is imminent …,” he said. “It’s like CPR. You don’t have to be a cardiologist to do CPR, and you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to do basically our mission.”
Pilling said suicide prevention efforts are critical for community members in rural areas, where firearm ownership is higher, and residents are less likely to seek and receive help for mental health issues.
“We can’t imagine that major depressive disorders can be treated just like Crohn’s disease, diabetes, or any chronic illness,” he said. “Once you get over that hump it becomes a lot easier to understand that suicide is preventable.”
Pilling added the Out of the Darkness walk seeks to showcase the importance of suicide prevention awareness.
“They are there to demonstrate that lots of people are touched by it and to demonstrate that even though a life was lost prematurely it doesn’t make it worthless,” he said. “It’s an uplifting event.”
The Out of the Darkness walk will be held on Sept. 22, with registration beginning at 9 a.m.
As in years past, walkers will gather at Caroline Street and the Boardwalk. After opening remarks, the procession will walk solemnly to the Inlet, turn and walk to 5th Street, then back to Caroline Street.
For more information on the walk, to raise your personal pledge team, or to pledge on behalf of an existing team, visit worcesterhealth.org. Since its inception, the walk has raised nearly $200,000 to support local and national efforts to reduce suicide.
“It’s a great way for people to share and connect,” Brown said.
This year, the Worcester County Health Department (WCHD) will also host the second annual “Celebration of Life,” which will take place at Church of the Holy Spirit in Ocean City the night before the walk. For more information, contact Monica Martin at 410-629-0164 ext.147.