Steve Iselin served in the Navy for 20 years. He retired 13 years ago, and started looking for another job. That’s also when he began feeling despair.
“I had a great sense of dread every day. Agony is another word that comes to mind," he said. "I didn’t want to do anything that I would normally like to do. I had no interest in seeing other people. I actually got a job, but after one week I quit my job because I was telling myself I couldn’t do it. I had no self-confidence. Anything I did was hard. Every decision I had to make was just impossible, including what would I wear that day or what would I eat for lunch.”
Iselin was suffering from depression, which is very different from being sad or having a bad day.
“In the U.S., about 20 million people are diagnosed every year with clinical depression," said Bob Gebbia, who heads the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "It is something that could be a combination of genetic influences, changes in the chemistry of our brain, but also it can be influenced by external environmental factors. You may be somewhat prone to depression, but may not have the kinds of experiences in life that bring it out. Let's say you lose your job, get divorced, [suffer] a loss of someone.”
Iselin was fortunate his wife recognized the symptoms of depression and helped him get the professional help he needed to manage it. Unfortunately, that was not the case with his nephew, who suffered from depression a few years later. The condition went undiagnosed and he eventually committed suicide.
“He went from being a healthy, happy 27 year old to being dead in about six weeks,” Iselin said.
A year after his nephew’s death, Iselin visited his brother in San Francisco, where he learned about the Out of the Darkness Walk organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Both men took part in the event.
“That was the first day my brother realized that maybe his son’s death wasn’t his fault," Iselin said. "Because there were over 2,000 people at that walk, he saw that suicide was affecting so many people, that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in this country, and oftentimes there's a mental illness that underlies the suicide.”
Since then, Iselin has volunteered with the AFSP, organizing similar walks in his neighborhood.
“I’ve done seven community walks," he said. "We had 500 people participate [at the most recent walk]. We raised $65,000 for the cause.”
Sheri Cole, co-chair of the Out of the Darkness Walks in Colorado, lost her 16-year-old son, David, to depression almost four years ago.
“I felt that something wasn’t quite right with David, but I had family and friends tell me, 'That's just normal teenage hormones,'" she said. "Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Once I learned that suicide is the second leading cause of death of young people in Colorado, I was astonished and I felt like I needed to do something to help his friends.”
Volunteers like Cole and Iselin are organizing more than 300 walks across the nation this season and each one will include some sort of remembrance activity.
“Sometimes it’s a memory wall where they can post photos or sign a banner with a message to a loved one," said Nicole Dolan, manager of the Foundation's walks."We have different activities which vary by event. Some events will have speakers, whether it's someone telling their personal story, whether it’s an activist or advocate or a local TV or radio personality. Sometimes there are family activities and food and refreshments.”
While AFSP volunteers are most active around this time of year organizing the walks, they work all year as suicide prevention advocates.
“What we do is provide them with the information about legislation, for instance, both within the states and federally out of Washington, that they can advocate for," foundation director Gebbia said. "All kinds of policies that could really help, for example, we know that we need to advocate for more funding through the National Institute of Health for suicide research, so we have better interventions and better treatments.”
Talking, walking and advocating, he says, make depression and suicide a visible cause, fight the stigma and help save lives.