Courtesy Daily News Record, April 2, 2012
Julie Hersh stood in front of hundreds of people Saturday morning and explained how she tried to commit suicide three times while suffering through a long bout of clinical depression.
The vast majority of the crowd was made up of local college students. Some came up to Hersh after her speech to relate similar struggles experienced by family members, close friends or in some cases, themselves.
Hersh, who graduated from Harrisonburg High School in 1978 but now lives in Dallas, said this is what events like Saturday’s “Walk for Hope” are all about.
“This is, unfortunately, something that people are afraid to talk about,” said Hersh, an author who travels across the country telling her story. “Freshman year is a very, very common time for a first mental break. I believe if more people understand that … we would have fewer suicides.”
Hersh was the main speaker at “Walk for Hope,” the first ever held in Harrisonburg, and the response was surprising to many.
“This is the first year ever that we know of that all four schools united for something like this,” said Pam Comer, director of the counseling center at Eastern Mennonite University, referring to EMU, James Madison University, Bridgewater College, and Blue Ridge Community College. All of the schools were represented at the walk.
The Austin Frazier Memorial Fund, set up in memory of a JMU student who committed suicide in October of 2009, paid for the event, which was held to raise awareness of mental illness and suicide, educate the community – and to show those suffering from psychological disorders that they do not have to suffer in silence.
The walk’s planning committee would have been happy with about 400 students, she said.
“We got double,” she noted, explaining that there were more than 800 people at the event.
A short walk from different parts of the city through downtown to the grassy area beside the Harrisonburg Farmers Market started off the event.
At least one band from each college then entertained participants while they took part in various activities, such as signing mirrors with encouraging phrases or networking with various community resource vendors.
One woman sitting behind a table was Grace Engle, a senior EMU student majoring in social work who works for the Collins Center, which provides a range of counseling and family services in Harrisonburg.
“I think it’s really good to have awareness,” Engle said. “Suicide really affects the community, not just the person who commits suicide.”
She said she has had friends who have struggled with depression and other mental health disorders.
Other students who participated in the walk expressed surprise at how many fellow classmates showed up.
“To see that many students willing to show their support off campus was motivating,” said Logan Fellenstein, a sophomore music major at Bridgewater College. “It was a good concept. I hope they can continue [the event] in the future.”
Comer said she expects that to happen given the success of the inaugural event.