It’s 6:30 in the morning, pitch black and the thermostat is flirting with the negatives, but many people still brave the cold to remember loved ones lost to suicide at the first annual Run for Life on Oct. 14, 2018.

Participants huddle inside and outside the Simmons Building in East Village, awaiting the start of their races. The atmosphere, though admittedly somber, is also one of camaraderie.

“In Alberta, more than 500 people die by suicide every year,” says Mara Grunau, executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention, whose organization is putting on the event. She says this number is higher than the national average and also notes that there are more deaths by suicide than car crashes in the province.

The event is made up of both a five-kilometre and 10-kilometre race, as well as a memorial walk, which takes place as the sun rises over the Bow River. All these are followed by a reception with snacks from charbar and coffee from Phil and Sebastian’s — both located in the Simmons building — afterwards.

The sunrise walk holds special significance, symbolizing the shift from darkness and despair to light and hope as participants remember lost loved ones.

Though Grunau says there is no “magic wand” when it comes to suicide prevention, the Run for Life will play an important, four-fold role in promoting mental health and preventing suicide.

How to exercise your mental health

Participants run from darkness to light.Participants run from darkness to light in remembrance of loved ones lost to suicide at the first annual Run for Life. Photo by Blaise Kemna.

The event hasn’t taken the form of a run simply because it’s a seemingly trendy way to raise support for a cause. On the contrary, running — the activity itself — can be a positive contributor to mental health and, subsequently, suicide prevention.

“Being physically active is a mental health promotion activity,” says Grunau. “That’s for a lot of reasons, but obviously the most-felt is the endorphin release.”

She refers to— among a number of other studies — a 2009 report which found that sports participation increases the release of endorphins (or feel-good chemicals) in the brain, thereby decreasing depression by 25 per cent and suicidal thoughts by 12 per cent in adolescents.

Fresh air to clear the head and soothe the soul

StartlineParticipants huddle at the start line of the first annual Run for Life on Oct. 14, 2018. The atmosphere, though admittedly somber, is also one of camaraderie.  Photo by Blaise Kemna.

Yet another facet of the event is that it is held outdoors which only adds to the positive hormonal effects.

“Lots of people find it very cathartic to be outside,” says Grunau. “It’s kind of double to be [both] outside and active.”

The outdoor element is important enough to the Centre that they created this event, which was previously combined with another on Survivor of Suicide Loss Day, a month later in November. Capitalizing on warmer October weather was part of the goal, says Grunau, though she chuckles and says she feels foolish as she looks outside at the snow Calgary has already experienced.

Better together

The intended mental health promotion provided by the Run for Life does not end with the hormones and brain chemistry of any given individual who attends. The event is also designed to foster a “sense of inclusivity” and community around a common cause — whether that be running or mental health — where people can share experiences and support one another, explains Grunau.

“So that, with the exercise and then the outside piece, all that is mental health promotion,” says Grunau.

How should you address suicide in everyday conversation?

Finally, she says, the run is an important tool to begin the conversation surrounding suicide and to bring awareness to the issue.

“Suicide is still highly stigmatized,” explains Grunau. “People have a difficult time talking about it. It’s not that they don’t want to know about it necessarily, but it’s very uncomfortable so they shy away from it.”

The Centre’s executive advisor, Diane Yackel, adds that it is critical to keep the memory of lost loved ones alive by talking about them and saying their names, but that she also sympathizes with those who find it difficult to bring the topic up.

Grunau says the run is a great way to initiate this sort of discussion.

“If you can say things like ‘Oh I’m doing this run, will you sponsor me?’ It’s a little bit of a safer way to bring up the conversation.”

Distress Centre Calgary (403) 266-4357 

Editor: Colin Macgillivray | 

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