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Volunteers shine light on suicide awareness, prevention

Pictured from left: Claire Verch, with a photo of her brother, Neal deCathelineau; Nicole Pulsifer, with a photo of her husband, Bill; and Kristin Dalton, with a photo of her brother-in-law, Bill Pulsifer. The three women are helping organize the area's first "Out of the Darkness" community walk Saturday at Robbins Island to raise money for suicide prevention, education and awareness. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- After Claire Verch's 21-year-old brother, Neal deCathelineau, died by suicide on April 3, 2004, she vowed she would not be ashamed of how he died.

"For me, that was a turning point," she said.

Organizers hope to shine a light on suicide at the region's first "Out of the Darkness" community walk on Saturday. The event, co-hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, will raise money for research, prevention and education. More importantly, though, it's a chance to begin erasing the stigma that historically has surrounded suicide and start talking openly about it, say the volunteers who are planning the Saturday morning walk in Willmar.

The organizing committee brings both passion and firsthand experience to their cause.

For Nicole Pulsifer and her sister, Kristin Dalton, it was the death by suicide of Nicole's husband, Bill Pulsifer, on Jan. 17, 2005. Bill was 34 years old; he left behind his wife and their two children, ages 5 months and 27 months.

"For us, this doesn't go away," Dalton said.

On average, suicide claims one life in the U.S. every 15 minutes. But it took the deaths this spring of three young people in the New London-Spicer community to propel the issue out of the shadows, galvanizing the public discussion at a level not previously seen.

It was a call for action, Nicole Pulsifer said. "It did draw a lot of attention and it created a lot of energy. It left us all asking, what can we do?"

With the awareness generated by the walk on Saturday, organizers hope to start laying the foundation for a local education and prevention initiative that becomes self-sustaining.

Some of the funds being raised locally and at hundreds of other Out of the Darkness community walks nationwide will be used for research into the genetic, biological and behavioral factors that contribute to suicide. Findings could help point the way toward effective treatment and intervention.

Dalton, Pulsifer and Verch say it's important to make the public more aware of the link between suicide and mental health. According to researchers who study this issue, 90 percent of suicide deaths involve someone who had a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death, most often unrecognized or untreated depression.

The stigma attached to depression and other mental health conditions can make it hard for many people to seek help when they need it -- and some will go to great lengths to hide how troubled they are, Dalton said. "They just keep it bottled up inside. ... They can be very isolated."

Misunderstandings abound about suicide, one of them being that suicide is a choice, Verch said. "Unfortunately it is not that simple. Unfortunately it is a permanent solution to a very temporary problem."

The volunteers who are organizing the walk would like to see a chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention established locally -- or, alternatively, have a liaison with the nonprofit foundation to help direct how funds could be spent in ways that have a local impact.

One of the needs is for outreach services that are age-appropriate, Dalton said. Although suicide among teens often receives the most attention, the incidence of suicide is highest among 45- to 54-year-old men. The suicide rate also has been increasing nationally in every age group from 35 to 74. At the same time, psychiatric services are shrinking, especially in rural communities.

Another need: support for surviving families.

Families often are left with a welter of emotions and unanswered questions, Pulsifer said. "It's hard to get over the anger."

On top of the pain of loss, there were friends and acquaintances who avoided her, she said. Yet she also experienced love and support -- and this was what gradually helped her start to heal.

"I think that's the benefit of living in a small community where you know you can call anyone for help," she said. "I had my life to live and two kids who needed their mom. ... It just takes time to get there. For some it could take a year. For others it could take 10 years."

The three women say they're heartened by the response to Saturday's walk. As of Monday morning, they had raised $18,000 -- their goal was $15,000 -- and had 19 teams with 205 participants signed up. Support from corporate sponsors has been "fantastic," Verch said. "We couldn't do this without them."

Organizers of the walk want it to be an annual event that leads to more, and better, awareness and increased local services.

"Who knows what it will branch off into? This is a starting point," Verch said. "If we can help one person by telling our stories, then we are successful."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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