Nationally, more than 36,000 people die by suicide each year, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the country, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The foundation has chartered a new chapter that will bring suicide prevention and awareness programs to the central part of the state.
The idea is not completely new, however.
Lycoming County began holding an Out of the Darkness walk in October 2009, said Joe Miller, chairman of Lycoming County Suicide Prevention Coalition and a member of the Suicide Prevention Task Force of the United Churches of Lycoming County.
Since 2009, walks have been held annually to bring together for mutual support and encouragement those who experienced a loss to suicide.
"We needed a local organization that could oversee the management and dispersement of our share of the walks' funds," Miller said. "In addition, we started seeing a steady increase in the number of suicides in Lycoming County, and the coroner's office, headed by Chuck Kiessling, desired to take steps to see this trend reversed."
The chapter will be based in State College, said Brenda Fry, co-chairwoman of the Central Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
"The State College Suicide Task Force has been working for the last six years under the auspices of the (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention), holding annual walks, survivor events and educational presentations," Fry said. "Our 2011 walk raised $67,000 and had over 1,000 walkers."
More than $20,000 has been raised through the three Lycoming County walks, Miller said. Half of the proceeds
are used by the foundation for research, education and advocacy efforts.
"Our partnership with (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) allows for half of the proceeds to be kept locally to fund training, education and conduct prevention activities to reduce the stigma of depression and suicide," Fry said. "When someone tells you about their feelings, it is a frightening and intimate moment. We want folks to know what to do with that information and where to turn for help. These efforts bring suicide out of the darkness."
The decision for which areas should be included in the central Pennsylvania chapter primarily was based on geography.
"Our chapter advisory board will expand to include members from other regions who are conducting (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) activities and hopefully we can learn from one another about efforts that will assist in the prevention of suicide," Fry said. "The Central Pennsylvania chapter includes about 18 counties, but currently there are activities in Lycoming, Blair and Centre. Beginning efforts will be to shore up these three areas and then expansion will continue with local interest to other areas."
One survivor who participated in the Out of the Darkness walk is Valerie Weaver, a board member of the Central Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She survives her daughter-in-law, Nina.
She read about the walk in Centre County in a letter to the editor.
"I cried when I saw it and knew I wanted to be a part of the walk," Weaver said. "I was the food and beverage co-chair and participated in the walk. My family donated to (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) to have 'In memory of Nina' printed on the back of all the Out of Darkness T-shirts. I can't describe the feeling of seeing hundreds of walkers, all with her name on the back of their shirts, all walking to take the issue of suicide 'out of the darkness.' "
Weaver became a Lifesaver Memorial Quilt organizer, one of only two in the state.
"I facilitate the information and materials for interested survivors to craft a quilt square in memory of the loved one they have lost to suicide. We are on target to have our first quilt completed and displayed at our April 15 walk in Centre County."