By Camille Furst
Students and faculty found themselves on April 19 talking less about the COVID-19 pandemic and more about resilience in the face of it.
“By joining in today, you are sending a message that our cause of suicide prevention will never be canceled,” said Elizabeth Clemens, the New Jersey area director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). “We cannot let another day go by without showing that mental health is and always will be as real as physical health.”
In partnership with the AFSP, the College hosted its second “Out of the Darkness” Suicide Prevention walk completely online, with speakers including College President Kathryn Foster, Vice President of Academic Affairs Sean Stallings and others who advocated for mental health awareness and suicide prevention. The day began with an opening ceremony video call over Zoom, which was followed by participants taking walks around their neighborhood and posting pictures with the hashtag #TCNJootd2020. The event, which had over 150 participants and raised over $19,000, marked a point of resilience for many in the trenches of social distancing.
On the morning of April 19, health and wellness specialist at the College Rafia Siddiq was hopeful they would have “20 to 25” attendees at the virtual event. Instead, over 150 people logged on to listen to the speeches in the opening ceremony.
For a moment, however, Clemens and Siddiq considered cancelling the event entirely.
“I felt more comfortable knowing what we were getting into with a virtual walk,” Siddiq said. “I’d rather have a really good event as opposed to something that we’re not sure of. I just wanted to make sure that we’re able to provide a good experience for those who were able to attend. The idea of canceling it (was) there but it was not as much as … having it moved virtually.”
But after attending a few virtual walks held by other institutions and seeing what it looked like, Clemens and Siddiq both came to the agreement that a virtual walk could provide a sense of hope and support for those struggling and an outlet for those who needed one.
While the AFSP took care of the logistics, the College was in charge of advertising the event, and students as well as organizations did not shy away from getting involved. Out of all the teams registered for the walk, the College’s Delta Phi Epsilon sorority raised the most funds at over $4,600.
After suffering from the death of their sister, Jenna DiBenedetto, in February 2019, the sisters of Delta Phi Epsilon walked in remembrance of their “sunshine, Jenna, and everyone else who has been affected by this,” according to a post on the sorority’s Instagram page.
The money raised funds AFSP’s “bold goal to reduce the annual U.S. rate of suicide at least 20% by the year 2025,” according to an email sent out to the campus community on April 13 by Siddiq and Jordan Draper, the assistant vice president of student affairs and dean of students.
“It was amazing to see how everyone was just sharing their experience or sharing a message of hope,” Siddiq said. “I think I was relieved but also very happy that people benefitted from that experience and cherished that time we had together for that hour.”
To begin the sequence of speeches on the morning of the event’s opening ceremony, President Foster shared a message of hope for those attending, urging students to fight against the stigma surrounding mental health issues that cause many to remain silent.
“We don’t feel comfortable generally expressing pain. That’s a hard thing to do. It takes a lot of courage,” Foster said. “So the purpose of these walks, this walk today … is to reinforce the message: please don’t wait to talk to someone.”
Stallings then explained the different colored beads, which are incorporated into every AFSP walk for suicide prevention. Each colored necklace signifies a specific experience of the person wearing them — whether it be that they have a relative who died by suicide, or that they struggle with mental illness themselves. Each participant wears the beads in an effort to raise awareness and let others know that they are not alone.
“All of you courageous people represent our dedication, our commitment, and our strength as a community,” Stallings said. “As we join together today, we join as a community. We are united in our goal to save lives. And no matter how dark it may seem when struggling with mental illness and suicide, the light of hope is always present.”
Senior sociology and public health double major Haley Pellegrino, the intern for the Health and Wellness division of the Dean of Students office at the College, shared self-care tips to utilize during the coronavirus pandemic. She also stressed the importance of resilience in a time of self-quarantine.
“Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, or significant sources of stress,” Pellegrino said. “And we have found that resilience levels of individuals greatly impacts their mental health.”
Siddiq, proud of how the event turned out and its impact on people who may be struggling during the self-quarantined days of the novel coronavirus pandemic, hopes the walk will become an annual event. Currently, she anticipates no difficulties with this, since she finds that the event has sparked a new sense of awareness of mental health in the College’s campus culture, and has ignited a sense of advocacy for those struggling.
“I really do think that the walk has made (the) TCNJ community stronger, and made mental health a priority,” she said. “I feel like just by moving it to a virtual walk just made that feeling stronger, and knowing that this is what TCNJ really cares about and what they want to prioritize, and nothing like this corona pandemic could have stopped that.”