Walkers remember losses, seek to draw attention to local problem of suicide

On an overcast Saturday morning, friends, family and strangers gathered together at the Lebanon High School football field to participate in the city’s first Out of the Darkness Community Walk.

The walk, held Sept. 22, was organized for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention by Samantha Fauvor, of Lebanon. AFSP is a nonprofit to educate, advocate and support those affected by suicide, and raise money to fund scientific research.

The father of Fauvor’s child took his life last year, she said, and his father initiated the effort for Lebanon’s walk. After tallying up as many as 13 deaths by suicide in the Lebanon and Sweet Home area in 2017, she realized “we lost quite a few people” and that the community needed something like the awareness walk.

“I hope it will break the silence of suicide, where it’s not hard to talk about it,” Fauvor said.

Registrants stopped at a table to choose from a selection of nine different bead necklaces, each necklace color representing an experience of loss through suicide. White stood for the loss of a child, purple for the loss of a relative or friend, silver for first responders or military, green for personal struggles or attempts, and so forth.

Before the crowd of 278 people walked the block from Airport Road to Oak Street, AFSP area director Ryan Price initiated the “honor bead ceremony” by introducing locals who were in attendance that day.

Haley and Kelsey Wray wore gold beads, representing the loss of their father, James Wray, who took his life in May 2017. All those in the crowd with the loss of a parent raised their gold beads in the air, then put them around their neck.

Dave and Anita Butler wore white beads, symbolizing the loss of their son, Brandon Butler, who also took his life in May 2017. Those in the crowd who lost a child to suicide raised their white beads, then put them around their necks.

Cheryl Willburn lost her son, Will Willburn, in 2012. She placed a white bead necklace around her neck during the honor bead ceremony, while her daughter, Clemetis Watt, wore purple. Willburn hosts a support group for survivors of suicide loss, and has wanted to start an awareness walk in Lebanon.

“I’m glad that they’re taking it seriously,” she said about the event and number of people who showed up.

After all the colors of the honor bead ceremony were recognized, Price asked the crowd to hug the people around them, and then invited them to begin the walk.

According to AFSP, the national average of suicides per year is 44,965, which is a rate of 13.42 per 100,000 people.

In Oregon, the average number per year is 772 suicides, which is a rate of 17.79 per 100,000 people.

The Lebanon Police Department reports the following number of confirmed deaths by suicide within its jurisdiction over the past decade: zero in 2007, two in 2008, two in 2009, three in 2010, two in 2011, three in 2012, five in 2013, zero in 2014, zero in 2015, one in 2016, and seven in 2017.

With seven confirmed suicides inside city limits last year, Lebanon ranks 3.5 times higher than the national average.

The Linn County Community Health Assessment for 2017 draft reports that “depression is the most common underlying cause of suicide, and many individuals who take their own lives have a diagnosable mental or substance abuse disorder, and most have more than one disorder.”

The report also includes factors such as: a family history of suicide, living in an area where there is a local epidemic of suicide, isolation or feeling cut off from people, and encountering loss (relational, social, financial, or work).

Mike and Tammy Van Epps wore white beads in memory of Mike’s son, Brad Van Epps, who passed away in 2002. Brad was a 16-year-old who weighed 340 pounds and stood 6 feet 7 inches tall; he was always made fun of, Mike said.

“You hear on the media all the hype and the hoop over the bullying, but it’s true. It’s really true,” he said.

The Van Epps walked that day to maybe get a little healing, but also to remember Brad, Tammy said.

“We want to honor him, we don’t want to forget him,” she said. “He was a gentle giant whom we loved and who had a wonderful, wonderful outlook on life.”

Dave Butler went to the School Board Sept. 20 to encourage the district to take bullying seriously.

“I lost my son last year to suicide,” he said. “I take it very seriously. I hope that this board does too, and if there is bullying going on, we’re not pushing it under the rug and putting it aside.”

He said he heard a story where a girl stood up to a bully and a staff member said it wasn’t her place, and he’s heard more stories like it. He was particularly concerned about the slang, “Go kill yourself.”

Noting that details regarding bullying incidents aren’t available to the public, Board Chairman Tom Oliver said, “We want to make sure our responses are appropriate and consistent and we are addressing the concern.”

Board member Mike Martin said it was the girl’s place to stand up.

“I’m not saying a physical challenge,” Martin said. “I think that’s what stops bullying – is when you challenge them. It may be in the way of reporting that you go to staff and you say this is happening, ‘this kid said to go kill yourself.’ The fact that we’ve had so many hard-hitting cases where people did go kill themselves then it really makes it inappropriate.”

The district should “equip and train our kids how to deal with this and what constitutes bullying,” said Richard Borden. “I think all of us would agree that bullying is not healthy. It’s not where we want to be as a society, as a culture, as a community.”

– Sean Morgan contributed to this story