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Thousands Walk Through San Francisco All Night For Suicide Prevention

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Participants in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's annual  Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk.

Participants in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s annual Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk.

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Thousands were walking nearly 20 miles through the streets of San Francisco Saturday night and into early Sunday morning to promote awareness about suicide prevention.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds the annual Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in different cities as part of their national efforts to raise money for suicide prevention research, advocacy and education and awareness programs.

KCBS’ Mark Seelig Reports:

This year the 18-mile trek, which begins at Fort Mason at sunset and continues through sunrise back at the former U.S. Army post, will be back in San Francisco after it was last held here in 2006.

AFSP executive director Robert Gebbia said more than 2,000 people have registered for this year’s walk, each pledging to raise at least $1,000. Participants from the Bay Area, the state, and across the U.S. have signed up to walk in memory of someone lost to suicide or for their own struggles with depression or mental disorders.

Hundreds of volunteers will keep walkers hydrated, nourished and safe as the crowd winds through city streets, past AT&T Park and back toward the Marina District by early morning.

Gebbia said the foundation expects to raise more than $2.1 million by the end of the walk, some of which will go toward education programs including screenings at college campuses and efforts at the high school level.

“We want to create a lot of awareness that there’s a huge problem with suicide in our country,” the executive director said.

According to the foundation, each year 1 million people make a suicide attempt and nearly 37,000 die by suicide in the U.S.

The fundraising walk is healing for the walkers, Gebbia said, especially since there is a stigma around suicide, which is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S.

The Overnight aims to reveal that suicide is like any other complication of illness, Gebbia explained. Things can go wrong with the lungs or heart — with suicide, something is going wrong inside the brain.

“You can walk for suicide like you can walk for breast cancer, HIV or AIDS,” he said. “We are taking it out of darkness and out of secrecy.”

A key point in educating about suicide is learning that “this is not somebody’s fault,” Gebbia said. “You don’t blame people if they have diabetes.”

Walker Ken Wang, 46, is walking for his sister who killed herself in March 2010. This is his first Overnight trek, but he managed to raise $7,000, far exceeding the $1,000 goal.

Wang, a stay-at-home dad in Menlo Park, said he had been looking for an outlet to help with more suicide research. His sister was a doctor and he noted the unnerving trend of physician suicides and how little is known about its cause.

Wang will wear a shirt with his sister’s picture ironed to the back as he treks through the city and although he says her suicide was hard to talk about initially, it’s important for him to be part of this walk and involved. He said suicide is often “spoken about in hushed tones, secretly” which he hopes will change, perhaps as he symbolically walks each mile as the sun starts to rise.

The overnight journey begins with opening ceremonies at 6:30 p.m. at Fort Mason with guest speakers including KGO radio host Brian Copeland, who has struggled with depression. A brief closing ceremony at Fort Mason early Sunday morning will announce total fundraising numbers before the walkers get some rest.

For anyone in a crisis call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255). Other resources are available at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at afsp.org.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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