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‘Stop this today’: Crowd walks at sunrise for United Way’s mental health walk

SALISBURY — As the sun rose Saturday morning, a crowd of participants walked toward the Wallace Educational Forum for the first Into the Light Suicide and Mental Health Awareness Walk.

The event started at the corner of South Main and Fisher streets with the walk and ended with a breakfast program at the Rowan-Salisbury Schools central office.

Speakers for the event included Janet Johnson; Crystal Hobbs; David Whisenant, Salisbury Bureau chief for WBTV News; Salisbury Fire Department Chief Bob Parnell, United Way campaign chairman; John Struzick, of Innospec; and Jenny Lee, executive director of Rowan County United Way.

Johnson, Hobbs, and Whisenant all gave their story on loved ones they lost to either suicide or mental illness.

Crystal Hobbs, who lost her son Tristen, 15, to suicide shortly before a winter storm in January 2018, said her son was an avid hunter and someone who loved the outdoors. Tristen’s family also described him as a loving person and some who put others first.

“When I graduated from high school and I wanted my life, I never wanted to be anything special. I just wanted to be a mom and a wife,” Hobbs said. “When we don’t have a healthy mental state, that is when it becomes a mental illness.”

For anyone that feels like they are alone, and others around them don’t understand, taking your own life is not the answer, Hobbs said.

Hobbs also gave words of motivation to the audience and those who have lost loved ones.

“We’re on a journey and we’re going to stop this today. Your voice has already been heard, because you’re here and you care,” she said.

Janet Johnson — mother of Philip Johnson, an East Rowan High School graduate and former track star — spoke about how her son came home from Thanksgiving break after his first semester of college to say he couldn’t return because of depression.

“I assured him that with medications he would live a somewhat normal life,” she said.

Johnson said Philip was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, where those affected exhibit schizophrenia and mood disorder symptoms.

“Philip ran and won many cross country races in his career but the hardest race he ever ran was the last 12 and a half years of his life,”she said.

Johnson said she was excited about the United Way’s new funding model and its potential to fund programs related to mental illness.

“But at the same time I’m saddened to know that mental health is such a big issue in our county,” Johnson said.

Whisenant spoke on the loss of his father, Jake, who committed suicide in 1987.

“We started this walk this morning almost directly across the street where he took his life,” Whisenant said. “I just want people to know that it shouldn’t be an option. Don’t do it, don’t let suicide be an option. Please understand that you’re loved and you’re valued.”

Whisenant said he believes suicide leaves an ugly path in its wake that does not get better.

“I hate having to be this guy that’s associated with this issue. I feel like God wants to use me to tell you don’t do it, don’t let suicide be an option,” he said.

Lee said the goal of Saturday’s event was to generate awareness about suicide and mental illness.

There are not supportive services, and not enough money to generate programs for family members of the ones that are suffering from mental health disorders, Lee said. The United Way hopes to change that.

“Your time and your commitment does not leave this county,” she said. “It goes to your neighbors, your brothers, your sisters, your parents, your children, and I can promise you as a representative of United Way, we will do all we can to generate those services here in Rowan County.”

According to the Rowan County United Way, Rowan County has suffered more than 1,000 emergency responses due to mental health, suicide, and substance abuse during the first 8 months of 2019.

And the current goal for the organization’s annual fundraising campaign is currently at $1,526,117.

Whisenant on Saturday encouraged people to tell stories about mental health and substance abuse — to not be ashamed.

“Embrace it, acknowledge it … and let’s get something done about it,” he said. “What the United Way is doing in this county, I think, is going to make a difference. It’s going to save lives. So let’s be involved with it and let’s do it.”

Funds raised through the event will be used by the United Way for local mental health programs.

Help is available 24/7 for those struggling with suicide via the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 1-800-273-8255.

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