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‘A lifeline:’ Forsyth Central student to hold first Out of Darkness Suicide Awareness walk in Forsyth County
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Stephen Norris with his sisters, Ali and Carolan. Photo courtesy of the Norris family.

Ali Norris lost her older brother to suicide when she was 14.

Before his death, Stephen Norris had attended the University of Georgia, and his family described him as brilliant. He not only excelled in school, but he had close friends, family and a girlfriend of eight years.

His family said they could have never expected that he was struggling with his mental health.

They said they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around such an incomprehensible loss at the time. But as the reality of what happened settled in, they weren’t sure where they could turn to for help.

“A lot of the people around me didn’t know how to talk to me, so they just kind of resorted to not talking about it at all,” Ali said. “That’s a thing that I really struggled with for a while.”

A freshman at Forsyth Central High School at the time, she felt isolated.

But after two months, her mother, Mary, took her and her sister, Carolan, to an Out of Darkness Awareness walk in Atlanta hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Not only did they get to learn more about the cause surrounding suicide awareness, but they had the chance to meet other families who were struggling.

Suddenly, they didn’t feel so alone.

“We really needed a lifeline,” Mary said. “And that walk — getting friends, his fraternity brothers, the community together — it was one of the first times there was a smile on my face.”

That day, they said the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention had a huge impact on their family — one they will never forget.

Now three years later, Ali plans to bring the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to Forsyth County for the first time to help other families and her peers who may be struggling.

Story continues below.

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Stephen Norris.

Uniting ‘a campus and community’

Thanks to her partnership with Forsyth Central and the AFSP Georgia Chapter, Ali plans to hold an Out of Darkness Forsyth County Schools Campus Walk on Saturday, March 26, inviting each of the county’s seven high schools to participate.

The walk will take place on Forsyth Central’s campus at 10 a.m. where participants will be led on a “journey of remembrance, hope, support and a walk that unites a campus and community,” according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website.

Ali emphasized that while it is a Forsyth County Schools walk, “anyone and everyone” is invited to take part regardless of where they live or how old they are.

Those interested can register online through the AFSP website at bit.ly/35oahkZ.

Chelsea Piatt, the Associate Area Director for the Georgia Chapter of AFSP, said that the foundation has chapters across the nation that host these walks every spring. There are currently five walks in Georgia, including the upcoming walk in Forsyth.

Since they are usually hosted alongside volunteers, Piatt said each walk looks a little different, but there are a few events at each walk that always remain the same. One of the most important events that always takes place is the Honor Bead Ceremony.

“There are colored beads that are available at each walk, and each color represents a different connection to the cause,” Piatt said.

For example, white beads mean the individual lost a child to suicide, and orange beads mean they lost a sibling. Mary said one of the most important colors is green, indicating that the individual is struggling with their own mental health.

During the ceremony, participants hold up the beads color-by-color. Piatt said the action creates a strong connection between the participants and the community.

For those who have been impacted by suicide, she said it is important to see others in the community struggling with similar impacts and experiences.

“It’s a connection you don’t really want because you hate to hear someone has been impacted, but once you have that connection with someone, it’s really special,” Piatt said. “That’s really the main goal of these walks is to connect people, let them know that they’re not alone and that there is help out there.”

After the ceremony participants will be guided on a walk where they can get together with their teams or with others they met at the event and take a moment to reflect on why they are there and the importance of suicide awareness.


Community support

While Ali and her family prepare to host the walk on March 26, they are also working to raise money for the AFSP to hold more awareness events and provide resources for communities.

As of Feb. 25, Ali has raised nearly $17,000 for the foundation, and with a month left until the walk, she is confident she will be able to reach her fundraising goal of $25,000.

Those interested in donating can do so through the AFSP website.

Mary said she is shocked by how much support the community has shown to Ali and this cause.

“The first four sponsors she went to, each of them gave $1,000,” Mary said. “I tried to explain to Ali that this is not normally how fundraising goes. Normally, you knock down 50 doors, and you get maybe one hit.”

But Ali said many community members and local businesses have been excited to hear the Out of Darkness walk would be coming to Forsyth County, especially now as many more have begun to struggle with their mental health during the pandemic.

Not only are residents offering to donate, but Ali said many have offered to help promote or set up for the walk itself.

“I think it’s such a topic that a lot of people don’t know how they can help,” Ali said. “But this is a way that you can, and I think it’s such an amazing opportunity for the people who feel helpless but want to do something.”

With the number of individuals registered and the amount raised so far, Piatt said this walk in Forsyth County is one of the biggest walks AFSP has had in the U.S.


‘Well worth it’

Ali originally came to her mom with the idea to begin an Out of Darkness walk after hearing that one of her peers at school died by suicide last spring.

She didn’t know him personally, but a couple of her friends were close to him and asked her to come with them to attend a celebration of life for him.

After she got home, Mary said she was hysterical.

“She said, ‘Something has to be done. I can’t just go to a celebration of life and walk away,’” Mary remembers. “And that’s who she is.”

Ali approached the administration at Forsyth Central about holding the walk, and she said they were just as excited to host what they knew would be an important event for the students and community.

She and her family all hope that this addition of a walk to Forsyth County can help to start a further conversation around mental health and suicide. These conversations can not only help individuals who may be struggling, but they can also help break down current stigmas surrounding suicide.

Ali believes one of the most important stigmas to break is one where people tend to believe only a certain type of person can die by suicide.

“It’s this really quiet person that doesn’t have much going on for them, and that’s not the case at all,” Ali said. “My brother, he was brilliant. You would never in a million years think that he died by suicide. It’s appalling.”

She said some still also believe that suicide is a sin or a behavior chosen by “bad people.”

“You would never blame someone for having breast cancer,” Ali said. “As a society, we would never think about doing that. But there is still this sense of blame for individuals who die by suicide, and it’s absolutely wrong because they are sick.”

By breaking down these stigmas, beginning a conversation and creating connections, Ali hopes to help individuals in the same way AFSP helped her family after they lost Steven.

“If I can just help one person struggling, that has been my goal,” Ali said. “If I can help one person struggling, then all of the work that Chelsea and my mom and myself, all of the work we’ve put into this, it will be well worth it.”

Those interested in starting an AFSP Out of Darkness Campus walk in their community can do simply by reaching out to the foundation. Community members can reach Piatt for more information by calling (470) 514-7667 or emailing kpetillo@afsp.org.

If you or someone you know is ever in a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting "talk" to 741741.