By Naomi Creason, Sentinel Reporter, April 17, 2009
Last updated: Friday, April 17, 2009 10:51 AM EDT
Jessica Reed remembers how tight-knit her family used to be.
They gathered almost every weekend, and a sweet 16 birthday party for her cousin was just another excuse to come together and play a little poker a favorite pastime for the family.
Her uncle Todd Bayhart was, as always, the life of the party. The husband and father of three children joked around and kept everyone in good spirits.
But on the night of that sweet 16 birthday party in October 2007 as the family partied until well after 2 a.m., Bayhart got into an argument, went home and shot himself.
All Reed remembers after getting the phone call later that morning was a sense relief that Bayhart’s children did not wake up during the incident, and guilt that she hadn’t recognized the signs.
Recognizing the off-hand jokes and the shrugged-off comments about dying was something she had promised herself she would be vigilant for, especially when it came to family especially after her father took his own life in 2002.
Bayhart’s death slowly unraveled the family. The following Thanksgiving and Christmas was an awkward reminder of his absence, and Reed said many family members were torn between accepting and denying what had happened to a man they thought was always easy-going.
Reed was determined to do what she could and make sure her uncle’s kids did not feel alone in their grief.
That’s when she became involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and its national fundraiser Out of the Darkness Overnight, an event where thousands take to the street to walk 18 miles overnight for suicide awareness. Reed will take part in her second walk this year in Chicago between June 27-28.
“There are thousands of walkers (at the event) who have lost family members, who suffer from depression or who have tried to commit suicide,” said Reed, of Enola. “It covers all the people involved, and there are hundreds of volunteers to cheer you on while you walk. It’s unbelievable – and a long walk, too.”
Reed joked that while she would always treasure the pictures taken of her and her family before the 2008 walk in New York City, the photos taken at 4 a.m. were not as complementary to their looks. However, the “overnight” part of the walk was an important element for those at the AFSP, which created the event in 2002.
“The idea behind (an overnight walk) is to be symbolic on a number of different levels,” said Wylie Tene, public relations manager at AFSP. “The issue of suicide and mental illness is sort of kept secret and kept in the darkness. It is symbolic of walking from darkness to light. It’s also symbolic for those who are suffering from depression, who describe their symptoms as living in the darkness. It’s the same concept for them as well.”
AFSP estimates that it will raise $1.5 million at this year’s fundraiser, which requests each walker to raise $1,000 each before participating Reed is shooting for $6,000 after her family raised $8,000 for last year’s event. That money will be used for research on suicide prevention and depression, studying effective preventative measures, supporting those in need of help, and overall education and awareness on the subject matter.
Tene said there are a number of misconceptions about suicide that could be erased if people were educated about the issue.
“I think bringing awareness of the issue will remove many of the misconceptions surrounding suicide,” Tene said. “Some of the big ones are that people who die by suicide are in some way weak or selfish, and they should just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get on with it. But more than 90 percent of the people who commit suicide have a sometimes unknown lying illness, usually depression. They’re not thinking rationally or logically at the time. They’re not weak, and they’re not selfish. It’s to make people aware of suicide and to get people treated to prevent it.”
For Reed, preventing suicides means providing the support needed to those who suffer from depression.
The Enola resident believes that some of the contributing factors to the suicides of her father and uncle were that both drank alcohol the night of their deaths, and both had just started taking antidepressants, which doctors warn could lead to suicidal thoughts at the start of treatment.
That kind of reaction is a warning doctors provide when prescribing antidepressants, and they urge patients to contact them if they feel that type of depression. Reed said she thinks the reason why two of her family members are dead was that neither of them asked for help.
“I think the biggest thing that people can do is get help when they have these thoughts,” Reed said. “I think people lose hope, saying ‘well, this is just how it is.’ There are a lot of people who suffer from depression. Our family keeps wondering why and what if. Why didn’t he just call somebody? It’s a never-ending nightmare. We were all very close, and we would’ve helped him, if he had only asked us. There’s no shame in asking for help.”
Readers can follow Reed’s fundraising journey by visiting AFSP online at www.theovernight.org and searching for her name and story.