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Walk to fight mental illness

Jillian Barwick | Tuesday, September 25, 2012

For Saint Mary’s junior Alex del Pilar, the statistics on suicide are a painful reminder of a personal tragedy. As a sophomore in high school, del Pilar lost a brother to suicide, which compelled her to get involved in its prevention.

“It was only [once] I learned the seriousness of mental illnesses that I knew I wanted to make a difference in other peoples lives by spreading awareness,” she said. “Since his death, I believe he has given me the power and courage to reach out to those in need. Everyone has a story, and I believe everyone should be heard.”

Del Pilar got involved with Project Hope: Get Grounded, a suicide prevention walk, in the hope of using her experience to help others deal with the issue of suicide.

“If suicide is 100 percent preventable, then why is it ranked the third leading cause for death?” del Pilar said. “I decided to become a part of this event to share my experience with others who are suffering and to make it known to everyone that they are not alone.”

The walk, which will be held this Sunday at Notre Dame, is intended to honor those lost to suicide, support those dealing with suicidal thoughts and raise awareness for the issue.

Notre Dame senior Amanda Bruening, event chair, was also drawn to the project by personal experience.

“Someone once told me that mental illness is something you learn about only because you have to,” she said. “I probably would not have started this crusade if my life had not been turned upside down by suicide.”

Like del Pilar, Bruening suffered the loss of a sibling to suicide before coming to college.

“Two weeks before I graduated high school, my little sister took her life at the age of 12. There were no signs of mental illness – just a girl struggling to navigate through seventh grade, Bruening said. “Losing my sister sparked my own spiral into depression and battle with suicidal thoughts throughout my freshman year.”

After taking part in an American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) walk in Miami, Bruening was inspired to devote herself to the cause.

“After I transferred to Notre Dame as a sophomore, it seemed like no coincidence that Notre Dame was the only school in the state of Indiana to be without a student organization dedicated to supporting those with mental illness,” she said. “Until last year, there also had never been an AFSP suicide walk in South Bend.”

This year’s walk will benefit several local mental health-related nonprofit organizations, Bruening said.

“I was inspired from a Social Concerns Seminar where students went to Portage Manor and visited with residents who are homeless due to chronic mental illness,” Bruening said. “Memorial Epworth Center and the Oaklawn Foundation are two mental health facilities students may use as resources if they ever need to use resources off campus.”

As suicide affects people of all ages and backgrounds, del Pilar said she hopes the event will connect the colleges and local community behind a single cause.

“I think this will give a good opportunity for Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s, Holy Cross and our surrounding community to come together and support one another,” del Pilar said. “People who suffer from mental illnesses or have lost loved ones from suicide are not alone and the purpose of this event is for everyone to know that and to give those who are struggling hope.”

Bruening said the event is meant to remind those struggling with mental disorders or suicidal thoughts of the support resources available, and to highlight the need to expand upon those resources.

“By creating a community around these issues, we can generate a conversation that lead to more prevention programs, more lives saved, and more illnesses in control,” she said. “Many resources from the community and on-campus will also be at the event to answer any questions and provide information on their services.”

Registration for the walk will begin Sunday at 12:30 p.m. outside the Rockne Memorial Gymnasium.