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Saint Mary’s students to participate in Out of Darkness

Katie Kohler | Friday, March 9, 2007

Every 16 minutes in the U.S., someone commits suicide. This overwhelming statistic was just the motivation two Saint Mary’s students needed to take action.

On June 9-10, sophomores Dana Gatziolis and Pamela Lazaroff will travel to New York City to participate in the Out of Darkness Walk, a 20-mile overnight walk to collect funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and to create awareness and sympathy for people affected by suicide and depression.

Though each participant is required to raise a minimum of $1,000 in donations, Gatziolis has extended her goal to $10,000 in her second year participating in the walk. She has raised $2,710 so far. Lazaroff has raised $535 to date.

While suicide is not often discussed on the Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame campuses as much at other colleges, Gatziolis and Lazaroff said they hope to spread awareness through their personal stories.

Two years ago, Gatziolis was diagnosed with severe depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. During her freshman year at Saint Mary’s, her depression relapsed and she was forced to take a semester of medical leave after a suicide attempt.

“All of a sudden, this illness crept its way into my body and became an active part of my identity,” she said. “During my freshman year, I changed from the peppy, bubbly, outgoing, fun girl I once was into someone who felt unworthy of happiness.”

After returning to Saint Mary’s to complete her sophomore year, Gatziolis hopes to help other students who may be going through the same experience.

“I have turned this experience into something positive,” she said. “My vocation has never been more clear. Being personally intimate with depression has given me a deep compassion and understanding for those who are suffering from the same thing.”

Lazaroff has battled depression as well. She was hospitalized her senior year of high school for anorexia and depression.

“I have finally come to the realization of how serious this illness is,” she said. “Over just a year and a half, I have discovered how common depression and suicidal feelings are. It was very disheartening to come to terms with this.”

While Lazaroff said she recognizes how deeply personal these illnesses are, she hopes by participating in the walk in June, she will be able to inspire others suffering from depression.

“I think that many people, in this condensed environment of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, may have experienced depression,” she said. “In the attempt of helping other victims and their families, I have truly helped myself.”

She said the purpose of the walk is to educate students to eliminate the “stigma” surrounding depression.

“I heard about the walk a couple of years ago and knew it was something I needed to be a part of,” Gatziolis said.

This will be Gatziolis’ second year participating in the walk. Last year, she walked with her mother, a friend who lost a brother to suicide and a friend whose father succumbed to the same condition.

“This walk is an extremely intense event, but it is filled with so much compassion,” she said. “Everyone is there to support each other.”

The walk takes place from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Throughout the night, participants are encouraged to share their stories and the stories of members in their communities, Gatziolis said.

While both students already began fundraising drives at home, they are not limiting their efforts to those demographics. At Saint Mary’s, Lazaroff has sent out letters to family and friends and sold T-shirts to spread the word.

“My goal is $1,000 as a first-time walker,” she said.

Gatziolis is using her experience from last year to gauge her fundraising tactics.

“After finals are over, I am planning to organize a garage sale, carwash, speaking at churches in my area and contacting local businesses,” she said.

Over the past few months, she has also sent letters to close friends and family.

“Any help and any donation is greatly appreciated and will make a difference,” she said.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is the only national non-profit organization funding research and educational programs on suicide prevention and assistance to families that have fallen victim to this tragedy.

The suicide rate increased last year from one victim every 18 minutes to one victim every 16 minutes.

Gatziolis and Lazaroff plan to continue their fundraising efforts until June to bring in as much revenue to the AFSP as possible.

“I just think that based on mine and Dana’s personal experiences, that it is integral to our Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s community to recognize how common this is,” Lazaroff said.

Gatziolis echoed Lazaroff’s call to action, praising her friend’s commitment to the cause.

“Both Pamela and I feel passionate about this cause, and I am so happy she will be participating with me this year,” she said. “It will be great to have each other’s support.”