Reston suicide awareness walkathon seeks to fight stigma around getting mental health help

Hands merge together in a show of support (via spurekar/Flickr)

Four years ago, Family Counseling Center of Greater Washington volunteer Cindy Han had an idea for how to improve awareness and support of mental health, particularly among Asians and other minority groups.

She shared it with Fairfax County Health Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, who voiced her support and suggested that Han’s organization — a Vienna-based nonprofit focused on serving the local Korean community — spearhead it.

Her proposal will become a reality tomorrow (Saturday) when the first Fight Suicide Walkathon kicks off at 8:30 a.m. at Lake Fairfax Park (1400 Lake Fairfax Drive) at Shelter J. People are encouraged to preregister at the center’s website.

“Many people shy away [from] seeking the help that they need at the onset,” Han, who now chairs the center’s board, said, adding that she hopes the walkathon will help normalize getting assistance.

Suicide remains a leading cause of death in the U.S., taking the lives of 44,834 people last year, 47,511 people in 2019, and 48,344 people in 2018, according to a recent report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers.

It was the 10th leading cause of death until last year, when it declined by 5.6 percent, as COVID-19 killed 345,323 people across the country.

The walkathon was slated to occur last summer but was postponed due to the pandemic.

Anthem HealthKeepers Plus of Virginia, a health plan that facilitates services for Medicaid recipients, is sponsoring the walkathon.

Anthem Director of Marketing Thomas Rayner says its members, who range from low-income families to pregnant women and older adults, were particularly affected by the coronavirus in nursing homes and service industries.

As hotels and restaurants faced state-mandated closures, their workers’ lives were thrown into upheaval by lost income and jobs.

“So, they were impacted not only financially, but mentally,” Rayner said.

To supplement its 24-hour NurseLine (1-800-901-0020) and other national suicide resources, HealthKeepers expanded its telehealth capabilities and also contracted with more medical providers for mental health services.

Han, whose husband retired from practicing medicine, says mental health is unlike other ailments, where medical providers can use temperature checks, an MRI, or other tools to help diagnose an individual’s condition.

Communication is a key component of addressing mental health experiences, she says, and so, residents who might not speak English fluently might not get the help they need if a provider doesn’t have any multilingual capabilities.

The Family Counseling Center of Greater Washington, which has bilingual staff, catering to Koreans and other Asian Americans, has seen a threefold increase in the number of people seeking its services during the pandemic, Han says.

The nonprofit has expanded into telehealth and provided around 1,900 health sessions and counseling services in 2020, according to its website.

Because of stigma associated with mental health, people can avoid getting help, which can only worsen situations. The American Psychiatric Association says talking about issues and connecting with others with similar experiences can help overturn harmful narratives.

“This kind of stigma is truly…the thing that I’m hoping and our organization is hoping to eradicate,” Han said. “[I] hope the American public would seek help from mental health service providers just like when they have a tummy ache or the flu.”

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is considering harming yourself, help is available. The free, 24/7 call center network National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can provide assistance at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Photo via spurekar/Flickr

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