Portland suicide prevention walk promises guidance, support

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SCARBOROUGH — Ashley’s Garden straddles two properties in the Oak Hill section of town.

On a hot August afternoon, it was a good place to find a cooling breeze and a good place for Margie Johnston and Cathy Streifel to reflect on the pain of suicide and their work to help people overcome it.

It is a “special kind” of pain, Streifel said Monday about the 2015 death by suicide of her brother, Jason Farthing.

Johnston, whose daughter Ashley died by suicide in 2013, said the new garden at her home provides some comfort. So will the Sept. 8 Out of the Darkness Walk at Fort Allen Park on the Portland waterfront.

Johnston, Streifel, who lives in Windham, and Portland resident Anne Falk are co-chairs of the walk, one of four in Maine held by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Johnston said organizers are hoping to have 400 participants; registration is available at afsp.donordrive.com.

A walk around Fort Allen Park may not take long, but during the event from 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m., with live music and food from Texas Roadhouse, there will be support for those who are grieving and resources and guidance for helping someone in danger of taking their own life.

The Yellow Tulip Project, the Center for Grieving Children, Steps for Souls, Grief Share and the Point Community Center are among groups Johnston said will be at the park.

According to AFSP, almost 45,000 suicides occur annually in the U.S. The overall rate per 100,000 people is 13.42. In Maine, the adjusted rate in 2016 was almost 16 per 100,000.

Johnston’s daughter was 23 when she died. Jason Farthing was 43 when he died. Their deaths came as a shock to friends and family members who were not aware of how troubled they were.

“To us, Ashley was the stronger one,” Johnston said. “She was always the one her friends went to.”

Yet a combination of events – including the deaths of two friends, the end of a relationship and a struggle with substance use disorder, all within several months – resulted in her death in 2013.

“She couldn’t see the hope beyond her sadness,” Johnston said.

Streifel recalled celebrating the Patriots’ Super Bowl win just days before her brother died in 2015.

“It is all hindsight now, those thoughts don’t enter your mind, it is crazy to think,” she said. ” … He was the life of the party, everybody’s buddy, but behind closed doors, it was different.”

Streifel and Johnston went to AFSP to help with their grief, first joining annual walks and then helping to organize them. In their experiences, they said, they have seen too many people who do not step forward to talk about suicide, fearing stigma and underlying mental health issues.

“My brother didn’t come to me because he was ashamed of his condition,” Streifel said.

The high-profile deaths of people like Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade may open more communication about suicide, but Streifel said anyone worried about a friend or family member can take steps in a compassionate way.

Signs include a person being detached, moody, or careless. They may be self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. They may say they feel like a burden to others, express a desire to escape, or be numb to their surroundings, Streifel said.

“The way you make that person talk to you is to use more generalized terms to bring up whether they are thinking about suicide,” she added. “You have to dare to ask the question, it won’t plant that in their brain. It’s a myth, they may be thinking about it already.”

Johnston said it is equally as important for families and friends to come to grips when a suicide occurs.

“People need to go to some kind of grief counseling when this happens,” she said.

AFSP also encourages people who have tried to take their own lives to take part in the walks, she added.

“We can’t go back in time and do things differently, but the most basic thing we want to put forth is for people to talk and be aware of what is happening,” Streifel said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Margie Johnston of Scarborough and Cathy Streifel of Windham, who had loved ones die by suicide, are helping organize the Sept. 8 Out of the Darkness Walk in Portland to help prevent suicide.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.