Walk creates awareness of suicide and self-harm

Walkers dressed in yellow walked in contemplative silence for the first part of the 5km walk along the Sea Point promenade. As they returned to the lighthouse after the half-way mark, the sun rose over the distant mountains so the entrants could walk into the light. PICTURE: ANDREA POWELL

The walk was hosted by Pieta House, an organisation which provides free help to people who are in suicidal distress and those who engage in self-harm.

It forms part of the global Darkness into Light initiative run in more than 21 countries across the world.

Starting at the Lighthouse in Mouille Point, the participants walked over five kilometres.

Organiser and chairperson of Darkness into Light 2019, Debra Sowter, said the aim of the walk was to raise awareness about the stigma surrounding mental health, suicide and self-harm. She said the walk offers a place for people to feel comforted. “The first kilometre is a commemorative, reflective kilometre, where everyone walks in silence passing through the lit candles and it gives people time to remember. For many people, this is an emotional day,” she said.

Ms Sowter said suicide is a major crisis across the world, not only in South Africa. She said they are hoping to create a lot more acceptance and trying to get rid of the stigma so that people can speak about it instead of feeling shame. “There’s a lot of shame attached to suicide and even people that experienced loss by suicide still don’t want to talk about it because they feel guilty, almost in some way that they should have known, that they weren’t good enough parents or friends and it’s not like that, this is a very complex subject.”

She said loss by suicide is a devastating grief that needs a specific process to overcome. “Every loss is a devastating process but suicide is particularly an excruciating one and very often, no one sees it coming, sometimes there are signs but very often there’s nothing,” she said.

Ms Sowter said when it comes to suicide, education is important and it needs to start at school. She said children need to understand how to manage their emotions. “The suicide rate in teenagers is also high and that’s also a multi-faceted issue because it almost becomes a viable life option because, for them, it happens so often and they are not yet equipped to handle such complicated emotions yet, they need to be able to learn how to manage emotions that are difficult,” she said.

Touching on one of the many issues that lead to suicide – cyber-bullying – Ms Sowter said it’s impossible to stop it because it’s hard to monitor people’s cellphones.

“Technology creates a platform that we can’t control. It’s easy for people to fire off messages behind their screens and the only thing we can do is to educate kids and people how to reach out, where to find help and to get to the point where people are not ashamed to go and seek help.”

She said we have lost connection and the sense of community. “People are isolated, we no longer do face to face anymore, we’ve disconnected as the society.”

She said people are struggling to cope with issues such as corporate bullying, divorces and economic stresses.

Fern Robertson from Pinelands said she woke up early to support this walk because she understood the loss of a loved one to suicide. “In the last year alone, I’ve lost three people from different ages to suicide. I think the pain that they felt at that moment was so terrible that they couldn’t think about the future, they just wanted it to end, forever,” she said.

An emotional Geraldene van Schalkwyk from Bellville said she almost lost her youngest son to suicide last year. “Luckily, we managed to resuscitate him and he’s still with us today. I’m very grateful for that,” she said.

The beneficiary partner of the Darkness into the Light is Lifeline, which provides support to callers and clients facing a crisis in their lives. Chairman Alan Knighton-Fitt said: “We walk together to meet the silence with our voices towards the promise of every new dawn.

“We walk on with unshaken purpose, undivided strength, with every step, we connect to acceptance, we connect to hope, we connect to life.”