KINGSTON, R.I. – October 8, 2015 – The lead story in the Sept. 4 Chronicle of Higher Education says that 89 percent of college campuses across the country have seen a rise in clinical depression, 8 percent of students in the past 12 months have seriously considered suicide and 69 percent of counseling center directors have seen hikes requiring immediate response.
The University of Rhode Island is not immune to this health threat in its community, but for the seventh year, it will hold an event this month to bring awareness to campus mental health services and suicide prevention. During the past six years, the University’s American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of the Darkness Walk for suicide awareness and prevention raised a total of $37,500 for the national organization.
On Sunday, Oct. 18, registration for the newly established URI “Be 5K Race/Walk” begins at 2 p.m. on the Quadrangle and the race starts at 3 p.m. Registration is now open. A Facebook page has also been created for the event. The entry fee is $15, and the first 200 people to register will receive a free T-shirt.
All proceeds will benefit the Heather Fund, which was established by Josephine and Roger Vennewald and the entire Vennewald family to support services and programs in the prevention and treatment of depression and suicide run by the URI Counseling Center. The Vennewalds started the fund in 1996 after they lost their daughter, Heather, to suicide while she was a senior at URI.
“My wife and I will be there for the event,” Roger said. “We started the fund to provide more resources, to print literature and provide training for resident assistants. We know it has helped a great many students along the way. We are thrilled about the upcoming event, and we are so happy that this is being done in Heather’s honor.”
“Heather was the youngest of our three children and followed our son Roger to URI (class of 1994),” Josephine said. “Heather’s major was speech pathology. She was funny, compassionate and very outgoing, but she hid her depression from everyone. We were all blindsided by her suicide. It will be 20 years on January 12 since she died, and we miss every day.”
Those who can’t participate in the upcoming event can make out a check to the URI Foundation/Heather Fund, or by a note, designating The Heather Fund as the recipient of the gift, and providing your name, address, amount of gift, credit card number and expiration date. Please do not send credit card information via E-mail. Donations may be sent to: The Heather Fund, c/o The URI Foundation, 79 Upper College Road, Kingston, R.I. 02881.
“I have met with students who would love to see this as a University event that showcases the supportive community that we all know exists here at URI,” said Sarah Miller, coordinator of URI’s Feinstein Center for Service Learning, who developed the original walk on the Kingston Campus in 2009 and who has been coordinating the event ever since. “The Be 5K Race/Walk will include remembrance activities and information from support groups and organizations.”
The National Institutes of Health and numerous national mental health organizations say that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students nationwide, claiming 1,100 lives a year.
“Countless students are dealing with depression themselves or helping a friend or loved one with depression,” said Erin Kaye, a kinesiology major from Colchester, Conn., a student intern for the Feinstein Center and a former civic engagement leader who is helping coordinate this year’s program. “Students need to know there are services here for them.”
A 5K run, (Marc’s Awareness and Research to Combat Suicide) MARCS Run was added to the walk last year, thanks to the efforts of URI alumni Robert “Bob” and Joy Abrams, who wanted to honor and memorialize their son who died by suicide and to support the community effort at URI. Bob and Joy are sponsors of this year’s event and are participating again this year.
Since the walk began six years ago, hundreds of students, faculty, staff and area residents have supported each other, raised money and had discussions around mental health and suicide. Many students and faculty have made the event their service-learning project for URI 101, the required freshman seminar course. Last year, the event raised $7,000.
“We invite everyone to join us for this event again this year, and we thank our generous sponsors, especially the Heather Fund and MARCS Foundation,” Miller said. “There will be plenty of smiles, hugs and, of course, tears, as we come together to honor those we’ve lost and work toward making URI as supportive and compassionate as possible.”
Despite the seriousness of the topic, this year’s event, like those of the past, will feature music, food and fun community building activities and expressions of love and support throughout.
“Through this event, which emphasizes being in the most active sense, we are encouraging our campus community members to Be Compassionate, Be Aware and Be Supportive. This is the kind of community we are building at URI.”
A WALK WITH PURPOSE: This is just one of the many groups that participated in last year’s suicide prevention and mental health awareness walk at the University of Rhode Island. URI photo by Jessica Vescera