What started in the central peninsula when a small group of community members got together and decided to do something to thrust the issue of high suicide rates into the light has made its way down the Homer in the form of the Suicide Awareness and Prevention Ride and Drive.
The inaugural event in Homer was held on Saturday starting in the parking lot of Homer Christian Church on East End Road, with speeches from organizers and mental health professionals before a ride up to the Baycrest Lookout on the Sterling Highway.
Homer resident Josh Harrington was inspired to get the event off its feet after attending the first iteration of the Suicide Awareness and Prevention Ride and Drive in June on the central Kenai Peninsula, where 38 bikes and 20 other vehicles drove from Kenai to Nikiski and back. He said he was impressed by the community turnout and immediately felt that the Homer area needed a similar event.
Depression and suicide are things that Harrington himself has struggled with, and they’ve also affected him through the loved ones he’s lost to suicide.
“I’ve gotten better,” he said. “You know, motorcycling has gotten me there.”
Along with Robert Armstrong and Allen Stover, both of Homer, Harrington began organizing the ride. It was hosted by both the Homer team and the original organizers of the Kenai event. Together, the groups hope to both raise awareness of suicide as an issue in Alaska communities and provide another avenue through which people can seek help from professionals.
At the Homer event, representatives from South Peninsula Hospital Behavioral Health, SVT Health and Wellness, the local Veterans Affairs clinic, Green Dot Homer, the Chris Kyle Hospital, and Invitation Wellness were all on hand with information on just what resources to combat depression and suicide are available in the area.
A combat veteran himself serving from 2009-10 in Afghanistan, Harrington knows how far and wide suicide can spread through the veteran community.
“I’ve lost a lot of brothers to suicide,” he said. “I’ve lost a lot of friends to suicide. I’ve lost a couple people with the club I ride with to suicide.”
Harrington said the event aimed to provide support in two ways — through the professional services represented there and through the group of bikers and likeminded individuals who just want to support others going through what they’ve struggled with themselves.
“We’re not professionals,” he said. “We’re just the guys who wanted to get this going. … We’re here to help. We’re those normal guys that, you know, come up to us. You see us walking through the store, tug on my shirt, tap me on the shoulder, introduce yourself and let’s see what we can do.”
Armstrong and Stover both have enough experience with depression and losing loved ones to suicide that they were inspired to join the cause. Armstrong, who attended the Kenai ride event with Harrington, has struggled with depression himself and has close friends and family who have been affected by suicide.
Stover said he wants to reach out to help others now that he’s come through a hard time of his own.
“I was going through a rough patch myself about a year ago, and I saw Josh was getting involved in this, so I reached out to Josh and asked how I could help out,” he said. ” … I think this will definitely help things for the community.”
Stover and Armstrong said they weren’t aware of the magnitude of the professional resources available locally for people struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide.
“I knew of the Chris Kyle Foundation, I knew of the national hotline,” Armstrong said. “But I didn’t know how many resources were available, how big it actually was, how easy it was to get in touch with these people and get them involved.”
At the same time, there’s something to be said for just being there for another community member on a non-professional level, Stover said.
“When I was going through my stuff … I never reached out to anybody,” he said. “And the only thing that really kept me from doing anything extreme was the people that came to me. … And so I realized that the people that are reaching out is what really helped me, and unfortunately I didn’t have any of the resources to call. I didn’t feel comfortable enough, either. … You don’t have to go to a professional. If you need to, you need to, but you don’t have to. There’s other people here in Homer that care, that really want to see people exceed what they’re going through.”
Together with the Kenai Suicide Awareness and Prevention Ride and Drive group, the Homer organizers plan to continue taking their ride and message on the road throughout Alaska. The next awareness ride is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 31 in Seward. For more information, visit their Facebook page, “Homer, AK Suicide Awareness & Prevention Ride and Drive.”