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Out of darkness

John M. Steiner / The Sun Delayne Ballard reflects Wednesday about losing her brother, Kurt Schreiner, to suicide on his 27th birthday. Ballard and others are organizing Out of Darkness walks in Jamestown and LaMoure County to raise awareness about suicide and reduce the stigma surrounding it.1 / 2
John M. Steiner / The Sun Sandi Rupp of Edgeley is co-coordinating LaMoure County's Sept. 18 Out of Darkness T-shirt walk. Rupp has 16 ties on her shirt, each of which symbolizes an acquaintance lost to suicide.2 / 2

Matt Finck was an athletic 18-year-old who loved to run and worked best with his hands.

Professionals labeled him a genius, but Matt struggled in school. As homework, he'd write his book reports on how-to manuals instead of novels and rather than math or science, his favorite class was shop. Matthew had received the 2011 Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills Challenge Award and, dubbed "my inventor," by his mother, Karen, Matt planned to design driverless cars and vehicles of the future one day.

But that day won't come for Matt.

After years of struggling with mental illness, Matt killed himself on May 23. He was a senior at Jamestown High School.

In Matt's memory and to prevent future deaths by suicide, his mother and several others are planning Out of Darkness walks throughout the state. Out of Darkness seeks to raise awareness about suicide and reduce the stigma surrounding it and mental illness. Half the money raised benefits the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the other half stays within local communities for education, training, support groups or any need a community chooses.

"We need to talk about it so we can make a difference," Finck said. "One life is too many."

Out of Darkness walks are held throughout the nation. North Dakota held its first one in Fargo in 2006. Now, in addition to Jamestown and La-Moure County, communities including Fargo-Moorhead, Bismarck-Mandan, Valley City and Tioga all hold them.

"It (the walk) sort of exploded on its own just out of pure need for it," said Brenda Weiler, who helped organize the first event in Fargo with her mother, Mary, after Brenda's sister died by suicide in 2005.

North Dakota ranks 11th in the country for suicide deaths per capita, said Micki Savelkoul, suicide prevention program director for the Division of Injury Prevention and Control at the North Dakota Department of Health.

And although the state has resiliency messages to help build self-esteem in youth, in the last three years, rates of death by suicide have increased in youth ages 10-24.

"The youth has been a high-risk factor for many, many years and that's a national statistic as well as a North Dakota statistic," Savelkoul said.

Three months after losing Matt, his mother said she still gets emotional talking about him.

Two years after Kurt Schreiner killed himself on his 27th birthday, his sister, Delayne Ballard said she sometimes struggles to find words to talk about him too. Ballard and Finck are helping coordinate the Sept. 10 Out of Darkness Walk in Jamestown.

The life of the party, Kurt regularly spent every dime he had on travel, Christmas gifts for his family or taking them out for dinner, Ballard said.

The two lived together while studying at North Dakota State University. Ballard, who described herself as the studious one, said she'd turn to her fun-loving brother if she needed a night out.

"He thrived serving people and being around people is what he loved the most," she said, acknowledging a framed photo of her brother, who had posed for a picture during a trip to San Diego, Calif.

Both women agreed: their loved ones struggled with mental health issues and exhibited many of the warning signs professionals recommend looking for including feeling hopeless, anxiety and talking about wanting to die. Kurt struggled with substance abuse. Increased alcohol or drug use is also a warning sign, according to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Matt's first attempt at suicide was in seventh grade. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline said one or more prior attempts is another risk factor.

"In hindsight, Kurt kind of exhibited some of the warning signs and I wish I could have been educated enough at the time to know that," Ballard said.

Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in North Dakota. Diseases of the heart, cancer and Alzheimer's are the top three, Savelkoul said.

Sandi Rupp said suicide affects everyone. Rupp is co-coordinating LaMoure County's Sept. 18 Out of Darkness T-shirt walk along with Donene Feist. Both women are from Edgeley.

Rupp participated in another city's walk last year.

"I've got 16 ties ... And sadly I have to say I have to add three more," she said, displaying her blue Out of Darkness T-shirt with 16 slits cut through the bottom and tied in knots. Each knot symbolizes an acquaintance lost to suicide.

In rural areas like La-Moure County, professional help is typically miles away. Rumors many times exacerbate the pain and in cowboy country, the local attitude is many times: get over it.

"There's still the mentality to suck it up. Just suck it up," Feist said, saying all suicide threats should be taken seriously.

The location in which a person lives doesn't impact suicide risk, Savelkoul said, because several factors influence a person's decision.

"Culture plays a big part in why we reach out," she said. "Whether it be the cowboy attitude or different ethnic cultures."

Gender, race and socioeconomic status don't necessarily preclude suicide either although men are more likely to die by suicide. Women, however, are more likely to attempt it.

Weiler said she doesn't believe her sister wanted to die. Instead, Weiler feels she was blinded by the pain. Finck and Ballard say they feel the same was about their loved ones.

"They don't want to die either. They just can't see any way out of it," Ballard said.

The Out of Darkness walks cost nothing to participate. Organizers do ask for a freewill donation.

For more information, visit OutOfDarkness.org.

Sun reporter Katie Ryan-Anderson can be reached at 701-952-8454 or by email at kryan-anderson@ jamestownsun.com

Jamestown Out of Darkness Walk

* registration begins at 9 a.m.

* Sept. 10

* McElroy Park

LaMoure County Out of Darkness Walk

* registration begins at 1 p.m.

* Sept. 18

* LaMoure Civic Center, LaMoure, N.D.

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