ORLEANS — The aftermath of a death by suicide can be immobilizing for family and friends. Some can't even talk about it, yet others believe they must.
“In October of 2016, we lost our youngest son Jeremy to suicide,” said Dr. Kim Mead-Walters, who practices family medicine in Orleans. “He was 16, a junior at Nauset (Regional High School). Over the following six months, we spent a lot of time with our family, with Jeremy's friends. We decided as a group we wanted to honor him.
“He was the kindest kid, he truly was, with the people he knew, the people he didn't know, with animals. The best way to honor Jeremy's life is to share kindness.”
To do that, Mead-Walters and her family created an organization called Sharing Kindness dedicated to increasing awareness of suicide risk, decreasing the stigma of mental illness, educating communities to reach out to those who are struggling, advocating for a mental health curriculum in schools, and supporting families who have had a loss like theirs.
All that can be summed up in the theme of the 2018 Cape and Islands Suicide Awareness Walk set for Saturday, April 28, at Eldredge Park in Orleans: “End the Silence.”
“It started for us as sort of Jeremy's walk,” Mead-Walters said of last year's event. “We wanted to do something positive for his friends. I thought maybe we'd have 50 or 100 walkers; we had over 400. The number of stories that were shared the day of the walk, families finding their voices, talking about how suicide affected them...I was just blown away. It was so needed by the community. It was so therapeutic. They knew they were not going to be judged.”
In addition to the walk, whose cosponsors this year are The Samaritans of Cape Cod and the Islands and the Cape and Islands Suicide Prevention Council, Sharing Kindness has been working with local schools to increase suicide awareness and opportunities for social-emotional awareness.
“Jeremy was on the autism spectrum,” Mead-Walters said. “A part of his school life was social skills classes. He and his friends have always said, 'You know, everybody ought to have social skills classes, not just the special needs kids.' What happened with Jeremy as he got older was that he learned so well what he was taught about social-emotional learning. He would frequently handle complicated situations better than neurotypical kids.”
Sharing Kindness “started by working with Nauset, Jeremy's school,” said Mead-Walters. “We supported all of the seniors having an hour and a half suicide awareness session professionally facilitated in small groups. In December, we supported a similar session for the LGBTQ kids at school; they're at much higher risk.” A session for 10th graders was canceled by a blizzard, and will be rescheduled.
The organization bought 500 licenses for two-hour on-line learning programs that can be used by Nauset teachers for continuing education credits but are available also to other staff. “Sometimes it's a cafeteria worker noticing a kid not eating because he's depressed,” Mead-Walters said. Sharing Kindness has also reached out to Monomoy Regional Schools and Cape Cod Regional Technical High School as well as Truro's community school.
The need for such work is significant here. Nantucket Police Sgt. Kevin Marshall, a co-chair of the Cape and Islands Suicide Prevention Coalition, says the Cape has a higher rate of suicide than the state. On his island last year, there were seven suicides.
“What we've been doing in the past has been reactive,” he said. “What we're really wanting to do is be proactive. We want to remind people that there are services available to them.” Those services include suicide prevention gatekeeper training; details can be found at www.suicideispreventable.net.
Young people will play important parts in the April 28 walk in Orleans. “Some of the high school kids and the young adults now in college will be kindness ambassadors,” said Mead-Walters. “They'll present information and statistics so we can all as a group be better informed. The bottom line is, we think there's so much stigma around suicide. We need to break that down, break the silence. If we can't talk about it in our families, in our communities, we can't get things changed.”
A “Smash the Stigma” fund-raising event the night before the walk will be held from 5 to 7 at Hog Island Beer Company in Orleans. “They offered us their space,” Mead-Walters said. “It's really generous.” All ages are welcome.
Registration for the walk can be made online at www.sharingkindness.org or on the day of the walk starting at 8:30 a.m. Everyone's encouraged to bring a photo, which will be returned, for a memory wall. Following the walk, which begins at 10 a.m. at Eldredge Park, there'll be music and hot dogs.
“If somebody has been impacted, I'd love for them to come out,” Mead-Walters said. “If they haven't been, I'd love for them to come out and become better educated about suicide loss and support their friends and neighbors, and for Sharing Kindness, to help us get into our schools to our young people with the resources they need.”