As about 90 people stood in front of the Benton County Courthouse in Corvallis Saturday morning, a father climbed the building’s stone steps, stepped to the microphone and shared his pain.
“My son Kevin killed himself a year ago on Monday,” Jeff McDaniel told the crowd gathered for a march and rally to draw attention to youth suicide in the mid-valley, where an estimated nine teens and young adults have taken their own lives in the past year.
Many of those in the audience knew Kevin, or someone just like him. Those in attendance included staff and clients from Yes House, a residential treatment facility for young people battling addiction and other issues, as well as clients from other local treatment programs and family and friends of suicide victims from Linn and Benton counties.
McDaniel recalled his son as funny and charismatic.
“I loved him tremendously, and I miss him tremendously,” he said.
He also talked about the stigma surrounding suicide — and how stigmatizing mental health issues only makes the problem worse.
“I was ashamed,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to say it. I would have much rather kept it a secret.
“Nobody wants to talk about it,” McDaniel added. “Everyone wants to keep it a secret — and when we do that, we give it so much power.”
He urged the young people in the audience not to keep suicidal feelings bottled up, but find someone to talk to.
“Make it so it’s not a secret any longer,” he said.
March organizer Vanessa Frias grew tearful as she recalled the names of some of the young mid-valley residents who had made the irreversible decision to take their own lives.
“They were really special people,” Frias said. “They meant a lot to other people, and we’re going to remember them today.”
State Rep. Sara Gelser, who helped pass a bill last year to add a second statewide youth suicide prevention services coordinator position, thanked the group for focusing public attention on the issue.
“We really don’t talk about it enough,” she said.
Gelser noted that efforts were underway at both the local and state level to make more services available for young people in crisis, but families still often face a three- to six-month wait to get help.
“We have a lot more work to do,” she said.
From the courthouse, the participants marched three blocks to Central Park, where they planned to make 10 circuits around the grassy open space.
“We wanted to do one for every life lost (in the past two years),” Frias said, “but we couldn’t get an accurate number.”
The march was organized by Yes House and the Oregon affiliate of Youth Motivating Others through Voices of Experience, known as Youth MOVE Oregon. Staffed largely by young people, the group has drop-in centers in Lane and Clackamas counties and has launched a program called Silent Watch aimed at raising awareness of youth suicide.
Frias said she’s working with Youth MOVE Oregon to establish a chapter in the Corvallis-Albany area and hopes eventually to establish a local drop-in center.
Several organizations, including Youth MOVE, Yes House and the Oregon Family Support Network, set up informational tables near the gazebo at Central Park, where more speakers addressed the marchers.
One of them was Nikki Stagner of Blodgett, who talked about losing her 14-year-old daughter, Lilly, to suicide last October. She described her daughter as kind, thoughtful and loving and said she never saw any signs that Lilly might have wanted to take her own life.
“I don’t believe Lilly wanted to die that day. I just believe she wanted the pain — whatever pain it was she was feeling — to go away,” Stagner said.
If her daughter were still alive, Stagner added, she would have a message for those she left behind.
“I think she would tell us to speak out — speak out about suicide, speak out about how final it is,” she said.
And then Stagner added a message of her own.
“If you’re hurting, talk to somebody,” she pleaded.
“Suicide is final, and silence is deadly.”
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