Teens concerned about their peers and the pressures they face walked Saturday afternoon in Naperville to raise awareness about suicide prevention. The Alive Center in Naperville, 500 W. 5th Ave., was the starting and ending point of a mile-long Walk 4 Life benefit proposed by Naperville Central graduate Angela Adamo, who is now attending Illinois State University.

Participants hurry to check in for a one-mile walk held through downtown Naperville on Saturday to raise awareness regarding suicide prevention and mental health. A Naperville teen proposed the idea for the event nearly a year ago. (David Sharos / Naperville Sun)

Adamo said she was stunned last year by reports in social media regarding teen suicide locally and elsewhere and wanted to do something about it.

“It was May of last year and I was sitting in gym class reading this article about suicide and I turned to my friend and said, ‘This isn’t OK,’” Adamo recalled. “I said that we needed to do something about this.”

That same afternoon, Adamo said, she contacted the Alive Center and made a connection with teen program director Jared Mason, who helped bring Saturday’s event to fruition 11 months later.

“In terms of the teen events and programs we have — this one is right up there near the top,” Mason said. “It’s cool that instead of a social event like open mic night or a dance, that we have gotten the community involved and it’s allowing kids to speak their mind and have their voices heard. My sense is that kids don’t always feel they’ve been involved or that people hear what they are saying.”

Angela’s mother, Sheila Adamo, was on hand during the check-in portion of the event and said she was not surprised by her daughter’s initiative.

“Angela has always been a self-starter and the aim of this is not a quick fix but letting people know there is someone to help,” Sheila said. “We’ve had some suicide issues in our own family and so we’re sensitive to that and this has been sort of a healing thing for the whole family.”

Angela Adamo, 18, and her mother, Sheila Adamo, share a moment together Saturday before the start of a Walk 4 Life suicide prevention and mental health awareness event held Saturday afternoon in Naperville. (David Sharos / Naperville Sun)

Jules Prokop, operations director at the Alive Center, said due to social media and technology, teens today are more aware of issues and that regarding suicide, “this is the first generation to talk about it.”

“Today’s younger generation is really faced with a lot of ‘firsts,’ which include having all this information available at their fingertips,” Prokop said. “Despite that, the things I’ve been hearing from them is that they don’t know where to go in terms of resources or how to go about it.”

Prokop spoke about the genesis of Saturday’s event coming from teens and said it reflects the way youth “hear” a message.

“I think being actively involved in a march and doing something is more effective than the traditional way of telling kids what to do,” she said. “My sense is that they like to experience an event and are more comfortable and learn more that way than talking about it.”

The event included a walk of about a mile through downtown Naperville, followed by an event at the center that included games, a bounce house, food trucks and service organizations offering information.

Participants included Olivia Duffin, 17, a senior at Naperville Central High School, who said she thought it was good “to give kids a voice about something they are passionate about and as sensitive as” suicide awareness.

“The issue of suicide is bigger now as kids feel more pressure with social media and the rude things people can say about their body or their image,” Duffin said. “For some kids, it’s heartbreaking and they feel that suicide is the only option. It’s not as easy as just turning off your phone because there are still people out there that are impacted — even though it shouldn’t overtake your life.”

Naperville’s Emma Smith, 19, said she herself faced some dark moments a few years ago during her freshmen year at Naperville Central and that she wanted others to know there are resources.

“I went through depression and bullying and, at the time, things were not addressed and I felt there was no support,” Smith said. “It’s important that people find others they can relate to as well as find counseling, as I did. I know what’s it like to go through this and it’s important people speak up and find help.”

Saturday’s event drew nearly 300 participants, which Adamo said far exceeded her expectations.

“I wasn’t sure when we started this if we’d even get 100 people,” she said. “When I left for school in the fall I kept in touch by calling Jules [Prokop] every week and I still have family and siblings here who kept an eye on things. It was difficult being that far away, but we made it work.”

David Sharos is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun