Out of the darkness: Hilton Head mother who lost son to suicide to lead prevention walk Oct. 25

Vanessa Riley is now the board president for the South Carolina chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Vanessa Riley is now the board president for the South Carolina chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Submitted

Vanessa Riley knows the devastation of losing a loved one to suicide all too well. She has lost a son and a nephew in the past 20 years.

Riley's son Sean had been struggling with depression when he committed suicide on April 21, 2006. He was 21 years old.

He was shy and struggled socially in school on Hilton Head Island. Battling depression, he moved back home, where Riley and her husband took him to counseling and paid for his medication. They believed he was on the road to recovery when Sean died, Riley said.

"He had a really hard time finding his niche," she said. "I never in a million years could have imagined this. I thought we could save him."

Eight years before, Riley's 16-year-old nephew Nathaniel had taken his own life.

Riley struggled to cope after Sean's death. It took her two years to build up the courage to speak about her son's death. By then, she knew she needed to help others so they would never have to feel the way she did.

"Sean's death changed my life forever," she said. "I knew I had to do something to help prevent suicide, so I got involved. No parent should have to bury their child."

Riley, now the board president for the South Carolina chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, will lead the group's sixth annual "Out of the Darkness" Walk Oct. 25 at Jarvis Creek Park on Hilton Head Island, one of six similar events around the state.

Riley has worked with the AFSP for six years and served as the board president for the past three years. She and another area woman who had lost a son to suicide brought the walk to Hilton Head.

South Carolina has about 700 suicides a year. Nationwide, there are a little over 41,000 suicides each year, but over a million attempts, Riley said.

The AFSP's overall goal is to lower the suicide rate 20 percent by 2020.

Money raised at the event will go toward several initiatives the AFSP is leading statewide, Riley said:

  • Suicide prevention training and certifications for school personnel.
  • Research on the brain to better understand depression, suicide and warning signs.
  • A screening program at the University of South Carolina that rates incoming students' risk of depression and suicide, one they hope to expand to five other colleges in the state.
  • "We've saved a lot of lives in Columbia through the program," she said.

    The walk begins with registration at 12 p.m. and opening ceremonies at 1 p.m.

    Musician John Bruner will play soft music as the attendees walk around Jarvis Creek Park and photographer Tonya Perry will take portraits of the walkers, Riley said. The photos will be available for purchase, along with hotdogs and refreshments. A silent auction will be held and face painting will be available for children, Riley said.

    A counselor will also be on hand to speak with people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, and will offer a list of places where people and their families can get help, Riley said.

    Riley will be one of the speakers. She'll talk about the AFSP and her personal story about suicide. A father who lost two children to suicide will also speak about his life, she said.

    In their closing ceremony, attendees will release butterflies to symbolize hope for the future, Riley said.

    In the previous five years, about 150 to 200 people have attended the walk, Riley said, but the group hopes to improve that number. Most of the attendees have a personal connection: people who have lost a loved one to suicide, attempted suicide, or are struggling with depression, she said.

    "There's a huge stigma with suicide, so it's incredible to see the amount of people who come out and want to talk about it," she said. "This is a place they can talk about it where they're not alone. There are not a lot of places where you can talk openly without being judged.

    "It brings your feelings out of the darkness. It's really a very powerful event."

    For more information on the event, go to outofthedarkness.org or AFSP.org.

    If you go

    The sixth annual Hilton Head-Bluffton Area Out of the Darkness walk for suicide prevention will be held Oct. 25 at Jarvis Creek Park on Hilton Head Island.

    Registration for the walk begins at noon Oct. 25 and opening ceremonies start at 1 p.m. Participants will walk around the park while reading inspirational signs, accompanied by the music of John Bruner. The event will also include a silent auction, hot dogs, and face painting for children. At the end of the event, butterflies will be released to symbolize hope for the future.

    Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

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