Participants in Sweetser’s Cycle or Stroll for Suicide Prevention event on Sunday could choose to walk or bike. This year, more than 150 people preregistered for the event, and all the funds raised went toward crisis services. CATHERINE BART/Journal Tribune

SACO — On Sunday, Sweetser’s Cycle or Stroll for Suicide Prevention event brought community members together to promote education and awareness for those who may suffer with suicidal thoughts.

People gathered at Sweetser’s headquarters on Moody Street in Saco to participate in a walk or bicycle ride along the Eastern Trail. Before they headed off, Sweetser employees and volunteers talked about the importance of suicide prevention and awareness.

The nonprofit mental health organization provides help to eight counties in Maine, including York County, said Debra Taylor, Sweetser’s president and CEO. 

This is Sweetser’s sixth annual event, which was sponsored by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, said Jodie Hansen, development officer for the organization, but this is the first year that the event focused solely on suicide prevention and awareness.

As this week is National Suicide Prevention Week, Taylor said that it made sense to center the event around the cause. 

This year, 150 people pre-registered to attend, with more signing up once they arrived on Sunday, Taylor said, making it Sweetser’s most successful event to date. 

“This is something we really enjoy,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to get people out on the Eastern Trail. We promote it as a wellness event to our employees, a great way to get them out and moving. So I think a side benefit is to get them to the trail and maybe then they’ll want to come back here.”

Taylor said the event is supposed to be more fun than physically exerting, with participants being able to choose how long they want to be on the trail. 

“Being active is a great component to solid mental health,” she said. “They’re linked.”

People shared personal stories with each other before they went off on the trail. One volunteer, Connie Dries, a Saco resident, said that she was touched by some of the memories that participants shared with her.

Sweetser’s sixth annual cycle or stroll through the Eastern Trail in Saco on Sunday focused on suicide prevention this year. Participants shared memories before they hit the trail to help support awareness for helping loved ones who struggle with suicidal thoughts. CATHERINE BART/Journal Tribune

“Everybody has a story,” she said. “You hear about it, but now you can put a face to a name.

Dries said she immediately wanted to get involved after seeing the event’s banner in Saco. 

Besides acknowledging past experiences, Sweetser also wants to end myths that surround suicidal behavior, said Taylor, so that people will be better prepared to help their friends and family who may struggle with harmful thoughts.

“It’s a myth that talking with someone about the possibility of feeling suicidal will cause them to act on their thoughts,” she said. “I think for people to understand that — if you see someone struggling, knowing the signs and engaging with someone, connecting with them and letting them know that you’re there to help and support them can help get them to the right place. Not everyone can provide the connection someone needs, but they can help get them to where they need to go.

Some of the warning signs include talking about feeling hopeless or wanting to die, withdrawing from others, acting anxious or looking for ways to commit suicide, according to information from Sweetser’s flyers.

Sweetser recommends people be direct with their loved ones and offer support.

“We hope this is just the beginning of what you will do to help your community,” Taylor said to the group members before they left for the trail. “Be aware of the signs of suicide like you’d be aware of someone having a heart attack.”

Volunteers and Sweetser employees were also advertising periodical one-day classes that are offered, Taylor said. The classes are to help train people in mental health first aid.

“It’s for individuals who aren’t professionally trained to respond, just like a first responder,” she said. 

Dries said that she’s noticed suicide being an issue for the younger generation, who have many hardships and stressful situations, and she’s glad there are resources for those people.

“You hear about crisis, but you never hear about prevention,” she said. 

Some of the participants were excited to have a place to talk about this issue, Taylor added.

“A couple of people have said they were really happy to be able to have something to focus on,” she said. “Some may have seen the banner in town and have lost a family member to suicide. They may not have fully recovered or ever will, but this is an opportunity to come and honor the memory of their loved one and feel a sense of healing around that loss.” 

Those who are interested in learning more or wish to sign up for a class can visit www.sweetser.org.

— Catherine Bart can be reached at [email protected] or 780-9029. 

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