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UMBC’s Out of Darkness walk promotes “healing, hope and emotional health”

Editor’s note: This article contains mention of suicide.

Last spring, 30.5 percent of college students said that their mental health negatively impacted their academics. According to the American College Health Association, suicide is the second leading cause of college student deaths. To spread awareness, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) sponsors an annual college walkathon. On April 24, the Office of Health Promotion at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County virtually hosted its annual AFSP Out of the Darkness: Suicide Prevention Campus Walk. 

The Office of Health Promotion has set a goal to raise $5,000 by June 30, the last day to make a donation. As a result of the pandemic, the AFSP has also set a physical activity target separate from fundraising. This year, the goal is 47, 511 minutes; each minute represents a life lost to suicide in 2019. 

“The goals are meant to spread the message and get rid of the stigma around mental health,” said University Health Services Health Educator Alex Nguyen. “We are raising awareness for physical activity, too.”

If you cannot donate, said Nguyen, you can record your minutes of exercise instead.

This year’s walk was the second one held virtually. Nguyen said that registration and participation over the last two years have been lower than average. As a result, Maryland colleges and high schools are now united under one Maryland AFSP chapter, although each campus still hosts its own walk. 

Participating schools include UMBC, the University of Maryland, College Park, Towson University, Johns Hopkins University and various high schools. The idea is to have a combined Maryland fundraising goal of $50,000. So far, $38,000 has been raised. UMBC is still maintaining its individual goal of $5,000.

Nguyen explained that the money is directed through three major outlets: research, policy advocacy and education. One of the most successful Office of Health Promotion programs, she said, is an annual mental health film screening and group discussion that is partially funded by the AFSP walk. The program focuses on the transition from high school to college, a period that is often filled with anxiety.

While open discussions on mental and emotional health are always necessary, Nguyen said the pandemic has highlighted just how critical community awareness is.

People feel overwhelmed, confused and anxious,” she continued. “Maybe they have a high risk of COVID-19 or feel powerless about other world events surrounding shootings and race.”

A study by Boston University researchers states that anxiety and depression rates tripled due to the pandemic. The spread of videos like the murder of George Floyd caused a further spike in reports of depression and anxiety specifically for Black Americans and other POC.

Nguyen said that the shared experiences of the pandemic have helped to de-stigmatize mental health. Her office has led social media campaigns about emotional health and staying connected to campus under the slogan #umbctogether.

“We are raising awareness for not just suicide, but also for promoting healing, hope and emotional health,” concluded Nguyen.

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