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Suicide Prevention Advocates Plan ‘Hike to the Hill’

Jeff Alt is an avid hiker and outdoorsman whose commentaries on numerous treks through the wilderness have been published far and wide. But Alt’s travel narratives, which usually contain reflections on life-and-death issues, have always been about more than how to build a fire or spot poison ivy.

Alt’s latest effort, “A Hike for Mike,” is no different. The book chronicles his journey along the John Muir Trail, where he struggled to cope with the emotional trauma of his brother-in-law’s suicide. Most of his readers, even as they follow Alt along trails snaking through this 211-mile stretch of the Sierra Nevadas, know they’ve never really walked a mile in the author’s shoes.

They can, however, walk alongside him as he leads a gathering of suicide prevention advocates, celebrities and students on a 1-mile jaunt down Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday.

“Hike to the Hill” is sponsored by the Suicide Prevention Action Network USA, which has, for 10 consecutive years, marked World Suicide Prevention Day with a 1-mile march through the nation’s capital. This year, participants will congregate at Freedom Plaza, between 13th and 14th streets Northwest, and proceed to the Capitol, where they will again present a petition to Congress outlining SPAN’s public policy objectives.

“We normally draw about 100 to 200 people,” said SPAN USA Executive Director Jerry Reed, who praises the hikers for their “selfless act of trying to help the families who are still struggling with suicide.” Many of them, Reed said, have overcome the temptation to commit suicide themselves.

SPAN USA urges national policymakers to spotlight suicide as a public health issue “because it is a public health issue,” Reed said. “More people die from suicide in this country than from homicide or HIV/AIDS. When we apply a public health lens to this issue, we see that many of these deaths are preventable, and that there is usually a mental illness or substance abuse component.”

The centerpiece of SPAN USA’s policy agenda is increased funding for the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which originated as part of a package of suicide prevention legislation introduced by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) in memory of his son, who committed suicide in September 2003. The act allocated $82 million to youth suicide prevention programs, a figure SPAN USA calls insufficient to meet the challenge at hand.

“It’s a very broad effort,” Reed said of his organization’s campaign to raise awareness about the causes of suicide and depression. “We lean on the government, but we also lean on the private sector and the philanthropic sector whenever we can.”

Alt agreed: “Awareness is the key to this disease. Some folks just don’t know they have depression.”

Also on hand for the Hike will be Dianna Baitinger, Miss Connecticut 2005, to sing the national anthem and speak about suicide prevention, her platform issue during the Miss America Competition. “When I was a freshman in college,” Baitinger said, “I nearly lost my sister to a suicide attempt, and it really changed what I thought was important.”

Baitinger often delivers her anti-depression message at schools, cautioning students against “striving for unrealistic goals of success,” and instead encouraging them to “focus on being good people.”

“Hike to the Hill” also marks the launch of Alt’s newest book, and beginning at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, the author will sign copies at Barnes & Noble on 555 12th St. NW.

Alt said the John Muir Trail experience “empowered” his grief-stricken wife and “gave her family something to do, instead of just being hopeless,” and he hopes “A Hike for Mike” will help other grieving families overcome their sorrow. The book presents Lance Armstrong and other inspirational figures as role models for families struggling with suicide and depression. “It’s an uplifting book,” Alt said. “It’s not all doom and gloom.”

The book is also chock full of quotes from the John Muir Trail’s namesake. Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, was an accomplished hiker who logged thousands of miles exploring every nook and cranny of America’s national parks. Like Alt, he published books and other travel narratives, suffused with his own reflections on life. Like his literary mentor, Alt said “some of my best thoughts occur while taking a walk in the woods.”

When he’s not roughing it in the wilderness, Alt works as a speech language pathologist in an elementary school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, coaching students who have trouble not only pronouncing words, but also articulating their thoughts. He brings a similar mission to his role as an author and advocate: helping depressed people explain how they feel, so they can receive the treatment they need.

This is no easy task, Alt said, because “there is such a stigma pinned to suicide and depression. People don’t realize it’s a medical condition. This can be treated, just like any other disease, and people who are treated can go on to live normal lives.”

Alt continues to believe he can salvage some good out of the tragic end to his brother-in-law’s bout with depression.

“You can’t change the past,” he said, “but you can help someone else out.”