Tova Reddick-Starkel doesn’t just walk for Brayden Schaeffer.
Clouds gathered Saturday afternoon before participants began the third annual Out of Darkness Campus Walk in East Helena, but the rain held off until just after the crowd completed the 2.5-mile trek to and from East Helena City Hall. The event marked Reddick-Starkel’s third as chair and the third since Schaeffer, Reddick-Starkel’s cousin and a Helena High School student, died by suicide in 2016.
Saturday’s walk coincided with 17 others held from Florida to Oregon, each helping to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).
The East Helena event represents somewhat of a geographic anomaly. Whereas the Corvallis, Oregon, walk centers on Oregon State University, and the Ashland, Massachusetts, walk on Ashland High School, East Helena’s walk is very much the entire town's event. Keeping with the event's title of Campus Walk, the route crossed paths with Prickly Pear Elementary and East Valley Middle schools.
East Helena Mayor James Schell and Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer of East Helena Public Schools addressed the crowd of 330 walkers just before they set off down Riggs Street. Whitmoyer played up the May 20 opening of a community health clinic sponsored by PureView Health Center, which he said will provide physical, dental and mental health care.
“We’re also proud of the fact that the high school is also founded on the premises that we need to care for kids and we need to care for the community and grow our own to be great leaders and people that are aware of the mental health needs of our community,” Whitmoyer said.
Dogs milled about inside and outside City Hall as Schell and Whitmoyer spoke to provide comfort to participants, many of whom wore the names of lost loved ones. The event raised just under $14,000, which is split locally and nationally with AFSP. But Reddick-Starkel said money isn’t the objective. Most important is awareness, getting as many people to walk and know the resources available to them.
“It’s not about the money to me,” Reddick-Starkel said in the City Hall gymnasium, surrounded by volunteers from organizations hoping to educate the public about their services, among them the Department of Veterans Affairs, Helena College, Montana Peer Network and Lifepoint Church in East Helena.
Reddick-Starkel wore purple beads Saturday to signify the loss of Schaeffer. Event organizers offered beads of nine different colors for various shades of personal involvement with suicide and mental illness. Red for the loss of a spouse. Gold for a parent. White for a child.
Schaeffer’s mother, Melissa, took part in her second walk Saturday. Like Reddick-Starkel she hoped for more awareness, not just of resources but "to pay attention to people, to talk to people, see how they're feeling."
"Suicide does not have a face," Melissa Schaeffer said.
The figure has been reported over and over: Montana passed Alaska and Wyoming to hold the nation’s highest age-adjusted rate of death by suicide in 2016 with 25.9 deaths per 100,000 residents, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. When that number reached 28.9 the following year, Montana was the only state in the nation with a rate double the national average.
Schaeffer was one of five Helena High School students to die by suicide in four years through the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year, when the school introduced a new suicide prevention program.
Lewis and Clark County accepted a federal grant in October to hire a full-time suicide prevention coordinator after 19 county residents took their own lives in 2017. Jess Hegstrom accepted that position after working with East Helena Public Schools for Americorps VISTA, helping to bolster the East Helena Suicide Prevention & Awareness Coalition. She wore gold at Saturday's event to signify the loss of her father two decades ago.
“There’s not much I can do about the people that I’ve lost,” Hegstrom said. “But there’s a lot we can do, I can do, to ensure that people are aware of this issue and know what to do to prevent it.”
If you or a loved one is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).