Suicide awareness walk aims to break silence

The annual “Darkness Into Vineyard Light” walk will be held this Saturday. 

Islanders gather before dawn in honor loved ones who died by suicide. —Darkness Into Vineyard Light

This weekend, Islanders will gather in the darkness before dawn at Bend in the Road at State Beach to walk in honor of those lost to suicide and others experiencing depression and mental health crisis. 

John Murray and Maria Ventura, the organizers behind the new nonprofit Darkness Into Vineyard Light and the six-year running fundraising event, say the mission is to raise awareness and break the silence around talking about suicide. 

Funds raised are donated to mental health related organizations, like the National Association for Mental Illness Cape Cod & the Islands, a resource for islanders in crisis.

A community led initiative, Murray and Ventura intend for the walk to serve as a community gathering where people can feel safe to talk about their challenging emotions, depression, suicide, to remember loved ones lost to suicide, and to support loved ones currently fighting depression.

“We’re just local people from the community who want to help bring awareness to the challenges that people have and mental health issues that people have on the Island,” said Murray. “It also takes away the stigma of suicide; now people can talk about it openly.” 

The 6th annual Darkness Into Vineyard Light Suicide Prevention and Awareness Walk will take place this weekend on Saturday, September 23, 2023. A rain date is planned for Sunday. Volunteers, organizers, and participants will meet at 5 am where there will be space heaters, a fire pit, a special speaker, and a light breakfast of coffee and pastries following the walk. Over the course of the 5 kilometer candle-lit beach-side march, people are encouraged to speak with one another, about departed friends and loved ones or their own personal struggles. Musical guests are expected to perform on Saturday. The walk begins before sunrise and continues through daybreak, which the event organizers intend to be symbolic of emerging from the darkness of depression and mental illness into the healing light of hope and a new day.  

“The idea is, I encourage people to talk amongst themselves, remember their friends, talk about the struggles they had, or your own struggles,” organizer John Murray told The Times. “On the beach, we have a banner of hope. We leave markers there for people to write notes on the banner, notes of support, or remembrance of somebody. Some of them are really emotional to read.”

Per the Center for Disease control, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States after unintentional accidents. Last year, there were 49,449 deaths, up from 48,183 in 2021. 

An estimated 1.7 million American adults attempted suicide in 2021, while 12.3 million Americans seriously considered suicide but did not attempt, per a report by the CDC. The two age groups most likely to attempt or die by suicide are between the ages of 25 and 34, and 85 and older. Per the CDC, suicide rates have been on the rise since 2000, apart from a marked decrease from 2017-2020. 

Islanders, like the rest of the nation, are vulnerable to suicide. According to a 2022 report from the state department of public health, Massachusetts has a relatively low suicide rate compared to the national average, but every life lost is “a largely preventable public health issue,” per the 2022 report. In 2019, 642 people in MA died by suicide, a 41 percent increase since 2003. People working in construction and extraction occupations were found to be at the highest risk. According to the report, the type of occupation can be a significant determinant of overall health.  “There are numerous risk factors for suicide, many of which relate to work. Work is an important social determinant of health, and work-related factors such as work-related access to lethal means and job stress (including low job control and high job insecurity) have been found to be associated with increased suicide risk,” the report states. 

Other risk factors include existing mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, personality or behavioral disorders, serious physical health conditions, chronic pain, substance abuse, and environmental factors like access to lethal means through work (like machinery, firearms, or prescription medications), prolonged stress, harassment, bullying, significant personal relationship changes (like divorce or the loss of a family member), a family history of suicide, childhood trauma, and more. 

Protective factors, on the other hand, can go a long way in helping, including access to quality mental health care, and strong social ties. Darkness Into Vineyard Light walk — promoting connection to family, friends, and community — is an attempt to foster those preventative measures.

The two organizers, Murray and Ventura, met in 2017 through Community Services when they both had a similar vision of an event to raise awareness around suicide. Murray, a strong fixture in the community as the facilities manager of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, wanted to kickstart the event to support friends and loved ones who were mourning their own losses. The Darkness Into Light walk also originated in Ireland, Murray’s home country. 

Maria Ventura came to the idea after losing her father to suicide in 2006. “I had just watched over the years, seeing how it was something that had so much stigma around it. It was sort of frowned upon to speak of emotions and suicide and anything like that,” she said. 

In summer of 2018 they met to begin planning, and had the first walk going for September. 

Murray said he expects a sizable crowd this year, partly in thanks to the banner installed on Main Street in Edgartown, and partly because of the lingering trauma from the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic. The walk has garnered up to 400 attendants in past years. 

As of spring 2023, Darkness Into Vineyard Light is a 501c3 nonprofit. After last year’s walk, Ventura and Murray focused on putting together bylaws, confirming a mission statement, and forming a board. They started the process in January, and by April they had become a non-profit. There are currently six elected board members, John Murray, Maria Ventura, Sheetal Grande, Chrissy Deoliveira, James “Jim” Wallen, and Lisa Belcastro. 

Murray says though the purpose was not to raise funds, every year they have received between $12,00 and $20,000 in donations. In years past ,the money has gone towards covering event costs with the rest going to local mental health organizations. But now with their newfound nonprofit status, the organizers hope to make more contributions to Island mental health resources. 

Their only offering as of now is the annual walk, but both Murray and Ventura would like to use their non-profit status to increase the Island community’s access to mental health care, bring more psychologists and psychiatrists to the Island, and provide funds for free counseling. They also spoke of someday having a mental health treatment center right here on the Island. 

“Right now, I think it’s still dreaming,” said Ventura. “We want to have opportunities for the community year round, and keep that one powerful event,” she said of the walk. Ventura hopes to show the community that Vineyard Light has a year round presence of support. ”We’ll come together at the table after the walk and see where we can move forward with this.”

Now in its 6th year, both organizers can attest to the conversations, connections, and life-affirming support that happens at the walk. 

“Every year we hear at least one testimony from someone who was deeply affected in a positive way,” said Ventura. 

“That’s what we look for,” she said, “at least one life touched.” 

To register for the walk or become a sponsor, click on the link below:

If attending, event organizers request attendants park at the Edgartown Park & Ride Parking Lot, at 12 Dark Woods Road. Shuttle transportation to Beach Road will be provided.