Content warning: suicide.
Call your mom once a week, promise it won’t be boring. Don’t let anyone talk you into something that you are unsure of. If you’re going to use big words, make sure you know what they mean. These are some excerpts from Olivia Canak’s book of advice she wrote for her future daughter before taking her own life Feb. 23 last year.
UC Berkeley alumna Sarah Brown, Olivia Canak’s older sister, said when someone loses another to suicide, they become that individual’s personal historian, tracking every interaction, scrolling through old social media posts and treasuring memories. Sarah Brown spoke at the annual UC Berkeley Out of the Darkness suicide prevention walk April 10 to honor Olivia Canak’s memory and the memories of all those lost to suicide.
Sarah Brown’s speech spoke to the mission of the virtual event, hosted by You Mean More in collaboration with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or AFSP. The goal of the walk was to raise funds for AFSP, finance mental health research and raise awareness about mental illness and suicide prevention, according to campus senior and You Mean More walk chair Jason Ash.
Guest speakers, including the founder of You Mean More, discussed mental health resources and the importance of fostering community for suicide prevention. The event was livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube, and it included a virtual walk on a 2D browser game.
“I want everybody that’s listening today to understand just how powerful of an advocate and ally you are in suicide prevention,” said Andy Breunig, AFSP Greater Bay Area chapter director, at the event. “Suicide prevention doesn’t start in a therapist’s office. It starts with you and I. It starts with the conversations we have today.”
Sarah Brown added that people can “close the gap” by making connections with one another that will lead to trust and emotional intimacy. She emphasized the importance of community by thanking all of her friends who sent texts of support and unexpected food and gifts when she was grieving the loss of her sister.
Sanjala Chitnis founded You Mean More, a mental health and suicide prevention awareness group at UC Berkeley, in 2011 after witnessing the stigma surrounding mental health and lack of available resources on campus. The idea for You Mean More originated with the placement of Post-it notes all over campus stating that “you mean more” than your midterm grade or job interview.
In addition, the feeling of isolation is one of the main factors contributing to suicide, according to Ashley Maliken, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital psychologist.
“When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary,” Maliken said at the event. “The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone. Building awareness about these issues by naming them, making them mentionable, is fundamental to changing them.”
From her professional experience, Maliken said she knows that medical treatments can prevent suicide. Dialectical behavior therapy, for instance, uses mindfulness and positive mindset changes to help constantly suicidal patients.
At the end of the event, attendees were able to choose between participating in the virtual walk or learning about campus mental health resources. Users were able to control a customizable avatar during the virtual walk, move to multiple stations with documents containing mental health resources and video chat with other users.
Campus mental health resources include student-to-student peer counseling, which uses active listening and empathy to help fellow students. Additionally, UC Berkeley’s Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, offers short-term counseling from medical professionals.
CAPS psychologist Aaron Cohen noted that students should call the counseling center whenever they feel they are in a crisis. He added that a crisis encompasses any situation where a student feels they need to talk to someone within the day.
“In this year of unprecedented separateness and loss, I’ve also known incredible kindness,” Sarah Brown said at the event. “As we move bit by bit out of our pandemic bunkers, I hope we are just a little bit kinder, a little bit braver and a little bit more connected to ourselves and others.”