Need help? September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and organizations like Speak Up are trying to make conversations about mental health and suicide more normal, now and throughout the year.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text HELLO to 741741, the Crisis Text Line. Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.
There was a sea of green at this years 6th Annual Speak Up Walk as more than 550 participants came out to support Ellen and Mike Riley and honor their 14-year-old son, Aidan, whom the Rileys lost to suicide in May.
Everyone on “Team Aidan” was asked to wear green shirts in homage to the Irish heritage the Rileys say Aidan inherited with his bright red hair.
The larger Speak Up event was created in 2015, aimed at helping reduce the stigma around mental health and the silence around teen suicide.
The funds raised by the annual event go directly into local communities to educate teens and their families about navigating mental health challenges and learning about suicide prevention.
For the walk each year, people can either sign up to create a team or join one.
The Rileys said they never expected for Team Aidan to be so large, especially since it was a bit of a last-minute effort.
“A mother of Aidan’s friend came to us and asked just a few weeks ago, really, if they could form a Team Aidan in his honor. And, so, that was organized literally just within a few weeks,” Ellen Riley said.
After the decision to form Team Aidan was made, the Rileys, who are both educators, told their respective school communities. They also told their younger childrens’ school and the high school Aidan would have attended, Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, about the walk.
Through word of mouth, the team formed. And it turned out to be the largest single support team the Speak Up walk rally has ever seen.
It consisted of not just adults but also children who walked in honor of Aidan, whom the Rileys describe as fiercely loyal and friendly.
“I think as a mother, it was so amazing, and it also breaks my heart because we wish that those five to six hundred people and their positive connections with him could have overwritten a couple of negatives,” Ellen Riley said.
More than just a walk
The Rileys said there is a larger importance to events like the Speak Up Walk.
“It gives voice for families, for teenagers, for anyone to feel safe to talk about mental health and about signs of suicide,” Mike Riley said. “Let’s not make it a stigma or something taboo, let’s talk about it and have dialogue.”
Being educators themselves — Mike is a principal at a local Catholic school and Ellen teaches in Kansas City, Kan. — the Rileys have made it their mission to use their experience to help others.
Mike said the last few months have shown him the importance of his own school’s suicide prevention program, called “Signs of Suicide,” and made him further want to advocate for teens and adults to be educated on the subject matter.
Though she knows it would be a challenge, Ellen said she would like to see more funding for counselors in schools across the area.
Also, she said, it would be great to have programs that teach kids that they are not their mistakes, and they can overcome any that they may make.
“We need opportunities for redemption when kids make mistakes,” Ellen Riley said. “The goal is to allow them to make mistakes in ways that they can move forward, positively, redeem themselves, do better, and maybe even educate peers.”
The Rileys said they do not know what is next in their efforts to use Aidan’s story for a greater good.
For now, they say they are taking it a day at a time, but have hope that in the future they can continue to impact their community.