HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Tuesday, WHNT News 19 partnered with the Huntsville Hospital Foundation for its SPEAK program to hold an event encouraging suicide awareness and prevention. It was called Me to We: A Day of Unity.
SPEAK stands for Suicide, Prevention, Empowerment, Awareness, and Knowledge. The program's website explains that it was established to address suicide in the community and increase awareness about mental illness.
Organizers, who included mainly college interns from around the Tennessee Valley, passed along the message to the middle and high school students invited to the event: speak up and unite.
"You can't do suicide prevention without talking about it," said Anna Manning, SPEAK Coordinator. "If we don't talk about it, if no one is brave enough to come up and say how they are feeling or say they're worried about how someone is acting or how they seem like they're feeling, then no one is going to know."
The point of the event, Manning said, is to let people who are struggling know that there is help, and there is hope.
"Even if you aren't struggling yourself, maybe after tonight you will be more aware of those who are," she told the crowd.
The Day of Unity was free, including guest speakers, activities, free T-shirts, and live music from the band Free Range. The crowd built unity as they learned more about one another and connected over commonalities.
Virginia Pruett, 13, who is homeschooled, said she has struggled in the past and came to the event with her mom to meet people and maybe make a new friend.
"Last year, I had really bad depression," she explained, "and I started having bad thoughts. I know some of my friends had bad thoughts and also went through bad times. I don't want to lose anybody to this," she said of suicide. "This is really important to me."
During an ice-breaking exercise, she connected with the girl across from her: Olivia LaRose.
"I thought, maybe I could get more friends here. And it helped, because I met her! She's the only one I've been able to talk to much!" said Pruett during a hug from LaRose, 13, as she talked to WHNT News 19.
"Initially, I walked in here awkward not thinking I could make many friends either," confessed LaRose, "I met her! And we're like, almost exactly the same! And I thought, 'Oh my goodness, I met a mirror!'"
The two exchanged numbers and said they discovered how many interests, including music, they had in common.
During another exercise, the crowd stepped over a line drawn on the ground each time they could answer "yes" to a series of questions. It's an example of just how much strangers can share, without even knowing one another.
Pruett said it helps to know someone understands and can break through her anxiety.
"Sometimes you just want to shrink into a little hole," she said. "I never realized that many people went through what I did."
This kind of unity is exactly what Manning, and the SPEAK ambassadors, were going for.
"Let's get out! Let's get out in front of each other, face-to-face, and connect! And remember, that just because somebody's Instagram looks like a happy, perfect day doesn't mean they're not having serious thoughts about serious things on the other side," she explained.
Another big part of the event was education. The group learned more about how to help those who are struggling, or how to help themselves.
SPEAK provided this list of what to do if someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
- Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
- Text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free 24/7
- Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from medical professional
Manning hopes people remember these guidelines, and download the SPEAK North Alabama App, to prevent suicide.
"Know that you don't have to feel hopeless. There is always hope. Reach out. Talk to somebody. People care," she said.
"Hopefully, this can at least bring the statistics down, even if it's just by a little bit," explained LaRose. "I just want to let everybody know that there's somebody here for them."
Pruett said she can stand as proof that life gets better.
"You're not alone. Tell somebody you trust. I trust my mom and my dad with everything," she said.