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In a mix of photos, words, music and memories, families and friends came together on Saturday to share a trauma so often kept out of sight and out of conversation.

“So many people know someone, but they don’t talk about it,” said Tracy Gardner, a volunteer with SSM Health Dean Clinic, who were handing out wristbands of nine different colors, representing different experiences such as loss of a spouse or partner, loss of a child, loss of a parent, loss of a sibling, or loss of a relative or friend to suicide.

It was Gardner’s first year volunteering at the Walk for Hope, held at the Portage High School track, coming with a record number of participants for the event’s sixth year.

Although Prevent Suicide Columbia County organizer and county public health nurse Kristal Rykiel did not have a final tally as the walk began, she said participation was on track to surpass last year’s 130 people, with all 165 Walk for Hope T-shirts taken at the entrance.

Among the other first-time visitors was Kate Boomsma, 32, of Madison, who had brought her dog with her. Charlie, a fluffy Australian shepherd mix, wore a red vest with the title “support animal,” while Boomsma had her own vest, marking her as a “support human.”

“I watch him and the way he is with people and I aspire to be that loving —unconditionally loving,” said Boomsma, who lost a friend to suicide in July. “And so I wanted to match him today. I thought he should be here today and I would come along.”

The two have been together since Boomsma found Charlie (or the other way around) as Charlie was alone on a road outside Garfield, Arkansas, as Boomsma was giving a ride to a friend. Boomsma explained that she first thought she was meant to find a family for Charlie, but when she contacted authorities, there were no owners to be found, and so they have been together for the past year or so.

Over that time, Charlie was registered as a support animal, and it was at a six-day training to become a peer counselor that Boomsma met participants with the Walk for Hope and decided to join the walk in Portage.

In the next week Boomsma plans to meet the father of her friend who died in July, hoping to lend support … ”and Charlie will be there too. And we’re a team.”

“I think that people need to feel understood and somehow he looks into your eyes and has a lot of compassion and a lot of empathy. So I’m his person.”

As the ceremony portion of the walk began, Columbia County Administrator of Behavior Health and Long-Term Support Clint Stark told the group that the county has an above average suicide rate, with roughly one per month.

In addition to that, there has been a recent increase of suspected suicides and related deaths, according to Columbia County Health Officer Susan Lorenz.

“Based on the reports we have seen from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office of drug overdoses and other suicides as well,” said Lorenz, “we have unfortunately probably seen more suicides these past few months than usual.”

For that reason Lorenz sees increased urgency in training residents in QPR —question persuade refer. The training teaches people to look for red flags, which includes moments of clear, and clearly uncomfortable moments of honesty, then to act on those warning signs to ask the person if they are seriously considering suicide, persuade them not to, and to refer them to sources for help.

An example of a failure of this came when Sauk County Public Health Educator and former Prevent Suicide Columbia County organizer Sara Jesse told the story of her sister’s death in November 2006.

Although she has talked about her sister’s death many times before, she opened up more fully in a public place for the first time, describing the factors of family and health that surrounded her sister’s death, the more complicated aspects of her relationship with her sister and other siblings, and how it led to a spiritual crossroad for her. She thanked the group for “providing a safe space” to tell her sister’s story.

Jesse also explained the ACES measure that public health advocates have developed with 10 potential factors of abuse or an overall unhealthy environment for children that correlate with long-term mental health problems, such as abuse, addiction, and a lack of positive adult connections.

“This is where I get on my public health soapbox and I think we should be talking about this a whole lot more,” said Jesse. “If there was a quick and easy test to score if you were at risk of future mental health problems, wouldn’t you want to know that score and your doctor would want to know that number for you?”

She also admitted that for all of the research-backed validity to such correlations, that there are limits to what they can say, and there remains moments of happenstance and personal choice. At a time when her sister was withdrawing from many friends and family, she apparently did make her intentions known, Jesse explained.

“At least one of her friends told me afterward, ‘I’m so sorry,” said Jesse.”’ I didn’t know what to say to her when she said that, I told her: have another drink and let’s go party.’”

It is free and it only takes 60 to 90 minutes—contact Kristal Rykiel,” said Lorenz of QPR training, which followed Saturday’s event, emphasizing that if organizations like businesses, schools, or just about anyone else is interested in hosting a session, Prevent Suicide Columbia County come out and give a presentation. “Since 2012 we have trained over 4,000 people in Columbia County and we want to continue to train more.”

The trifecta of suicide risk, Jesse told attendees, is drugs or alcohol, a motivation, and a means for carrying out a suicide. With that in mind, Prevent Suicide Columbia County was also distributing free gun locks at the walk, which can also be found at Columbia County Health and Human Services, where they offer them for free distribution at other sites.

When Jesse finished telling her sister’s story, Stark read from a list the names of those being specifically remembered by family and friends at the walk. After the last name was read, balloons were released, rising from the field at a white cloud, with each balloon carrying a name or a message from a loved one.

“It is a beautiful day, the sun is shining, the mosquitoes didn’t come, we have a wonderful turnout and a very touching speaker with Sara Jesse and great words of encouragement to help others,” said Lorenz. “The balloon release is always very emotional to watch and I think very freeing for some people, and it’s good to have others here—loved ones and families—to see that they’re not the only one who has lost someone.”

Follow Jonathan Stefonek on Twitter @StefonekNews or contact him at 608-745-3510

Reporter, Portage Daily Register