‘HOPE’ is just around the corner

Published 6:00 pm Tuesday, June 11, 2024

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Suffolk residents may have noticed a sign spelling out a key four-letter word in our daily lives: Hope.

As part of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a sign created by Eddie Friedrichs, spelling “HOPE,” was placed outside the Suffolk Health and Human Services building in May in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. Despite being June, the sign’s stay at the building has been extended to help bring mental health awareness to those in need of hope in their lives.

During a Friday, June 7 interview near the sign, Suffolk Out of the Darkness Walk Co-Chairs Jenny Swinson and Angie Agar talked about the inspiration behind the sign, the upcoming Suffolk Out of the Darkness Walk this fall, and resources to help those who are struggling with their own mental health. As part of 15 different AFSP community walks in Virginia, Agar says that members come together for an annual January conference to share their walk experiences. While finding out that a walking chair created a special sign, Agar got the idea of having the same for Suffolk.

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“The chair for Stephens City had shown where she had created this sign. So, I come back immediately to my house after the conference and say, ‘Eddie, I need you to build me this sign. We need this out here. We need this for Suffolk,’” Agar reflected. “He [Friedrichs] is an engineer by trade, so he wanted to make sure he made it sturdy, he made it safe so we could display it anywhere we wanted to.”

The sign originally debuted during the 2023 Suffolk Out of the Darkness Walk prior to its new role outside the Health and Human Services building. Agar says that after talks with the city, the sign was placed outside the building for Mental Health Awareness Month.

“We said, ‘Hey, May’s coming up. It’s Mental Health Awareness Month. Let us put this out here. Let us show the city that there’s something for them,’” Agar said.

The sign’s June extension is timely as the month observes both Men’s Mental Health Awareness Month as well as Pride Month, two observations that Agar believes are related to mental health and suicide. Swinson says it’s “exciting” to see the sign come to fruition outside a city building. Swinson also discussed seeing more mental health signs outside notable city buildings.

“…I would love to see it in front of other government buildings, but also to use it as a fundraising tool where you can have it in front of your business on display for donation,” Swinson said.

With the Suffolk Out of the Darkness walk coming up on Oct. 19, 2024, Agar talked about the community event for those who are unaware.

“It is a tool for bringing hope to those who have lost or for those who have suffered. We still live in a time where people shun those who have died by suicide and this gives a person a chance to celebrate those people,” she said. “To remember them in a way that is very healing to them.”

Agar also detailed the Honor Bead ceremony held before the walk. Participants chose from 10 different colored beads to wear, each strand representing a different type of loss.

“When you put these beads on when you come in, there’s no conversation,” Agar said. “Like, you don’t have to tell people, ‘Hey, I’m going to walk up here and I am going to swipe this green bead that shows that I suffer from mental health issues or that I have attempted.’ You don’t have to have that conversation, but when you walk around and your eyes meet 40, 50, 60, next thing you know, 100 people that are wearing that same color, that heals. That helps.”

Likewise, Agar says that the walk provides various resources for those in need as well as an advocacy table, giving people an opportunity to become a volunteer with AFSP.

“We do different community events all year round. It is not just about the walk, it is a constant awareness that we want in the city,” she said. “We do a state capital day where we go up to Richmond and lobby for some of the mental health bills that are out on the floor. There are so many things…”

On resources for those struggling with mental health, Swinson says that 988 is available for those in need. Likewise, Agar expressed the importance of stopping the stigmatization of people suffering from mental health issues.

“We unfortunately live in a world where people are very quick to judge, and if you don’t know, don’t comment,” Agar said. “You can’t know someone’s pain by looking at their face. You don’t know that the person who’s smiling and making you laugh on the inside is crying for help. So educate yourself. There [are] so many different educational opportunities out there and again, through fundraising, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has all kinds of different learning tools that you can find right on their website. You can register for free and learn. Just learn.”

If you are in crisis, please call, text, or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. For more information on the Suffolk Out of the Darkness walk or to get involved, go to afsp.org/suffolk. For resources, go to afsp.org/suicide-prevention-resources.