When asked for whom he was walking during Saturday's ninth annual Suicide Awareness Walk, Chad Mackey's answer was short and sad.
"Too many people," he said.
When Mackey was a senior in high school, one of his friends died by suicide. In 2007, another friend, Doug Angell, died by suicide. Recently, a student at Duluth's Marshall School where Mackey's daughter is now a senior, died by suicide.
Michael Diver, who was burning sage, sweetgrass, cedar and pine needles outside Carlton High School as he waited for the walk to begin, lost his dad to suicide when he was 4, and his eldest stepson in January.
Similar stories were everywhere. So were shirts, bearing photos and poems and drawings to remember those who died. That was fine, as the purpose of the annual walk is to bring awareness to the community about suicide and suicide prevention and to serve as a memorial walk to remember those lost to suicide.
"There's an automatic understanding when you come together, so you don't feel so alone," said parent survivor and walk organizer Jo Angell, whose son (and Mackey's friend) died by suicide 10 years ago. "I hope it gives hope to people to see that others have made it."
The walk is one of the ways she has coped with his death, and tried to connect with others dealing with the same tragic loss.
Meghann Levitt, who helps Angell and others organize the annual event, read a quote from Dan Reidenber, of the Minnesota-based national non-profit SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) to Saturday's walk participants:
"Today, I know that some of you are in immense pain. The pain of a loss so deep, so profound, so unfair that it just shouldn't have to be felt, not now, not ever. And this pain might be new and it might be old. For those of you who have suffered a recent loss, we have felt your pain and know your despair. We are here for you today and hope you can see that we'll be here for you as the days continue on. For those of you who suffered a loss some time ago, we know that today it might feel like it was yesterday, and we are gathered here to say that we know that you still need and deserve our support and you have that too."
Levitt read a list of 79 names - including Cody, Doug, Jeremy, Jesse, Grandma Pappas, Uncle Peter and many others - all of them lost to suicide. So far this year, she said, there have been nine completed suicides in Carlton County.
"Suicide doesn't discriminate," Angell said. "It affects everyone from young teens to the elderly and everyone in between."
Some 300 people participated in the walk Saturday, most of them from Carlton County, but some from more far-away places.
Two Harbors resident Jack Loiselle wore an orange shirt with the words, "In Loving Memory of Drew Thomas Fleck," across the front, and a poem down the back. Fleck was his girlfriend's son, who died by suicide at age 24. Fleck's family members, girlfriend and 3-year-old daughter came to Carlton for the walk.
Loiselle gestured at the little girl in the stroller, a poignant reminder of what Drew left behind forever. He said he has learned a lot in the nearly 11 months since Drew died.
"I always thought it was such a selfish act, but you don't realize what state people are in, how they're hurting," he said.
Angell touched on the same point.
"Some people don't understand why someone gets to that point," Angell said. "Over the last 10 years ... it's hard to wrap my mind around the pain and helplessness he felt. Mental illness is a sickness just like heart disease and cancer. It's not like they can just fix it right away. It needs to be recognized."
Diver liked the walk.
"It brings people together for a common reason," Diver said. "It shows everyone that you're not the only one out there. And by walking through the community, it let's them know there are a lot of people out here supporting for whatever reason. I would hope it would also let people know there are resources out there for people in tough times."
People could find many of those resources inside the gymnasium at Carlton High School, where multiple tables lined the wall, loaded with pamphlets and signs.
Parent survivor Corrine Campbell spoke to the crowd gathered in the school auditorium after the walk. She wore a shirt emblazoned with a photo of her son, Jeremy, who died by suicide when he was in the Army.
Campbell described how she and her husband raised their son and daughter on a hobby farm outside of Cloquet, how Jeremy was extremely intelligent, reading books in elementary school that most people didn't read until high school. In addition to being a good student, he was a three-sport athlete (football, wrestling and track) and an Eagle Scout.
He flourished during Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and graduated top in his class.
That all changed when Jeremy was sent to Fort Campbell. Jeremy struggled to make new friends, and didn't pass a march. In August, even though he had the time off, the Army wouldn't allow him to come home for his grandfather's birthday.
On Sept. 1, they got a call from Jeremy's sergeant asking if they knew where he was. He'd stayed back to help a fellow soldier during a march, and was yelled at for finishing poorly. That night, he drove off the base.
He didn't answer a call from his mom. When she texted him, he texted back that he was "sick of all the bullshit" and he was going to take his life.
"I'm sorry," he texted her.
Happily, the Army found Jeremy and brought him back to a Wounded Warrior Wellness Center. Corrinne and her husband, Chris, drove down to see him.
When they left, they called him daily and he seemed to be getting better. He was prescribed medication and discharged back to his unit ... too soon.
Three weeks later, he completed suicide.
"My son's death was the worst thing that will ever happen to me," Campbell told the crowd.
She took sleeping pills to sleep for awhile, read a lot of helpful books, and faced bewildering side effects from the trauma of losing her son suddenly and unexpectedly, like short-term memory loss. She talked to others who had lost a loved one to suicide.
"I needed to know I wasn't the only one feeling what I was feeling, that I wasn't the only one to go through losing a child," she said.
Campbell knew she had two choices moving forward: become bitter, or choose to deal with Jeremy's death in a positive way. She was determined not to become bitter and she hasn't.
"The biggest thing for me is to be a role model in all that has happened to me," Campbell said. "Yes, it happened to me but, guess what, I'm still living. There are days I'm sad and miss him terribly, but I need to go on living and I'm going to."
Warning Signs of Suicide
• Talking about wanting to die
• Looking for a way to kill oneself
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.
What To Do
• If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:
• Do not leave the person alone
• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
• Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
• Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
• Text "LIFE" to 61222 (TXT4Life)
• Call Mobile Crisis at 844-772-4724
• Call a Carlton County social worker at 218-879-4511
• Make a crisis appointment with the Human Development Center at 218-879-4559
• Go to the Northland Children's Mental Health Collaborative at www.northlandchildrensmentalhealth.org
SUICIDE AWARENESS PART I