June 1, 2013

Deirdre Fleming: Bethel trail race puts focus on suicide awareness and prevention

Kristen Kimball at first only wanted to share with others the trails on which she loves to run around Gould Academy in Bethel, where she lives and works as a college counselor. But somewhere during a morning run this spring, a message about understanding and support came to mind.

Kimball thought of creating a 5- and 10-kilometer trail run to share her own rugged outdoor spirit, but then she thought it would be better as a charity fundraiser. And then there was only one option.

In 2008, Kimball's younger brother, Ryan, took his own life. In the years that followed, Kimball dealt with her grief, as many do, by helping others. She began to speak about it at her school in 2011. That journey proved difficult but cathartic.

This spring, Kimball has taken her story and understanding of the grief left by a suicide to the outdoor community with the first Ryan's Trail Run, "a run for life." The event will be held June 16 at Gould Academy.

As it turns out, Kimball's very public message comes at a critical time in Maine, and nationally.

The Center for Disease Control reported this month that suicide is now the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, moving ahead of automobile accidents. In 2010, there were 38,364 suicides -- an average of 105 suicides each day.

From 2007 to 2011, there were 959 suicides in Maine, a 19 percent increase from the previous five-year period.

"We're concerned about the increase around people of middle ages," said Greg Marley, the senior manager of education and support at the Maine Suicide Prevention Program in Augusta.

"We're concerned that the numbers among our young people are going up as well. But it's not as significant (as with middle-aged people) at this point."

Kimball, a college counselor at Gould Academy, is determined to spread awareness. In the past few months she has shared her family's story on the Ryan's Trail Run website.

It's one more way Kimball has chosen to share the story of her brother, an outwardly cheerful, giving member of the Gould Academy community who loved to hunt and fish before his struggle with depression ended his life.

After two years of giving a talk at Gould Academy about her experience, Kimball was ready to be an ambassador for a gathering of suicide survivors.

The trail run is intended to spread awareness about mental illness, and also to provide a forum for those suffering from their own experiences with suicide.

"The first presentation was nerve-wracking. I don't have a problem presenting, but what was difficult was this was so personal. And my brother worked here, as well. So it was about all of us. But that was the whole reason for doing it, to address the stigma," she said of the first school assembly where she presented in 2011.

The outpouring of support from the student body and faculty that followed was overwhelmingly. Kimball knew she was on the right track and gave a similar talk last September. Then this year her vision of a charity trail run came to mind.

"All the responses I got told me, people need this. You don't realize how much they need it until you talk about it," Kimball said. "We need to focus on how we as a society view this, and how we need to create a shift by educating others and talking about it, and not viewing it anymore like a disorder. Mental health is just like cancer. It's a sickness."

Marley, at the National Alliance of Mental Illness Maine, said talking and sharing stories about different experiences in an outdoor setting is a positive solution. The conversations won't end the day of the trail run, he pointed out.

"I'm a suicide survivor myself. And coming out of that grief, people seek ways to make meaning. And often that meaning is in making a difference, by helping other people to understand suicide, to help prevent it," Marley said.

"Her blog in western Maine (about the Ryan's Run), who knows how many people are directly or indirectly affected by it."

The event has a $30 entry fee, and participants are asked to collect $100 in pledges, which will go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. To learn more, go to www.ryanstrailrun.com.

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph

 

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