Melisa Gelmini was six months pregnant and living in Florida when she got a call from her mother with the devastating news that her younger brother had taken his life.
That was 12 years ago, but Gelmini, 35, said she will always feel grief. Now she is turning her loss into a journey of helping others understand the warning signs and to eliminate the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness.
She is heading to New York City on Wednesday to participate in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk. The event Saturday is sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to highlight awareness and the need to focus on prevention and continued research.
This is her second walk, as last year’s 16.3-mile event was in Dallas.
Suicide is “one of those things that people don’t want to talk about,” she said.
“There is a huge stigma attached to it. The same is true for mental health. People look at you funny when you tell them how your family member passed away.”
As she sat at a picnic table in Bob Eden Park where she walked the trails to prepare for her trip, Gelmini spoke proudly of her brother.
Alan Gelmini, 20 when he died, was “a wonderful kid.”
“I could talk about my brother and what a great guy he was,” Gelmini said. But “he struggled with mental illness and never found the right treatment that worked for him.”
So he turned to illegal drugs to self-medicate — the prescription medications he was given for depression made him feel “sick and weird.”
On a November day in 2003, another brother found him in their mother’s back yard. “He was holding a long dog leash around his neck to make marks,” Gelmini said. “He ended up passing out and killing himself.”
“It’s not like there was a note or anything that said why he was doing it; it was really just completely unexpected, out of the blue. It is nothing I would ever wish on anybody in the whole entire world.”
Increase in suicides
When asked about a recent report showing that suicide is increasing in the United States, Gelmini said she believes that society is placing more pressure and demands on people and there is not enough emphasis on the importance of mental health and well-being.
Gelmini wants people to understand that it is OK to talk about mental illness. “If somebody has diabetes or a heart condition, no one is going to look at them and say, ‘Oh gosh, that’s horrible.’ There’s a huge stigma with the mental health system; I want to change that.”
Gelmini said the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk is an “amazing experience” and she is looking forward to spending time with people from all over the country who understand what it is like to be a “survivor.”
The 16-18 mile walk starts at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum and continues past some of New York’s most famous landmarks, including the financial district, Greenwich Village, SoHo and Union Square.
Gelmini turned the pages of a photo album devoted to her brother’s life, saying she feels better when she can talk about him. It helps her heal and move forward.
“I remember thinking about it every day and asking myself, ‘When am I not going to think about it every single day? When am I not going to get that pain in my stomach?’ The research, fundraising and education the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention wants to do is really important. The only way you are going to bring awareness to something is to make it OK to talk about.”