Out Of The Darkness San Francisco: Suicide Walk Draws Thousands, Highlights Bay Bridge Problems (PHOTOS)

06/12/2012 05:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- At the Golden Gate Bridge 75th Anniversary last month, tens of thousands of participants gathered on Crissy Field and the Marina Green for day-long celebrations, music and dancing and a dazzling nighttime firework show.

But on a quiet set of steps beneath the iconic span sat 1,558 pairs of shoes--a representation of the number of confirmed deaths by suicide at the bridge. According to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, an estimated 37 people leapt from the bridge in 2011 alone.

Two weeks after the anniversary festivities, more than 2,000 people from around the nation gathered at Fort Mason for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention National Out of the Darkness Community Walk to raise funds and awareness for suicide prevention.

(SCROLL DOWN FOR PHOTOS)

The annual walk, one of the nation's largest fundraisers for suicide prevention, raises critical funds for research, education and prevention. This year's walk raised a staggering $2.3 million, and donations are still coming in.

On Saturday, participants walked 18 miles through the streets of San Francisco, from sunset to sunrise in the middle of the night. Walkers wore colored beads and bright t-shirts and carried pictures of loved ones lost.

Among the participants was Nicole Macias, who lost her mother to suicide 11 years ago. Though Macias lives in San Francisco, she traveled to New York for last year's national walk to honor the tenth anniversary of her mother's death.

"Suicide is such a horrendous experience," she told The Huffington Post. "So being able to do something positive on that anniversary was very special for me." This year, Macia was joined by her husband and friends.

A LOOMING PROBLEM

Recent advocacy for a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge--an approved, but yet underfunded project--sheds light on a potentially bigger problem looming in the years ahead: the new Bay Bridge Eastern Span.

"The new span is a pedestrian bridge with a 52-inch railing and no suicide barrier," Jennie Gisslow, who lost her 15-year-old nephew to suicide earlier this year when he stepped in front of a train, told HuffPost.

The Bay Bridge Public Information Office confirmed the claim.

"At this point, there are no suicide prevention measures designed into the bridge," said Bay Bridge spokesman Bart Ney. According to Ney, the alleged oversight may be attributed to the timing of the plans.

"The design for the new span was approved a decade ago, before suicide prevention was a hot-button issue in San Francisco," he said. But with the span's already skyrocketing costs, the addition of a new suicide barrier might not be an option.

"It's like we're not learning from our mistakes," said Gisslow. "For those who are despondent, suicide can be an impulse. That's why we need to be proactive, not reactive."

ELIMINATING THE STIGMA

This year's event was a first for Gisslow. And despite the bridge's safety issues, she found the walk to be not only inspiring, but an important mechanism to bring attention to oft-overlooked issues.

"It was a wonderful experience," she said. "To walk together through the darkest point of the night and to come out in the dawn was extremely symbolic."

Gisslow believes her nephew, who attempted suicide three times before his death, suffered unaddressed problems which underscore AFSP's goal of eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.

"He died from a fatal mental disease that was kept secret for fear of judgment and lack of understanding," she said. "And the way he did it--I believe he chose that as a means to say, 'You need to hear me.'"

According to Gisslow, this year's choice of venue was especially poignant.

"From the starting point at Fort Mason, you have a clear view of the Golden Gate Bridge," she said. "I know some people who have lost their children at that bridge, and just being near it is extremely painful. But we walk anyway."

For more information on suicide prevention, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. And for photos from San Francisco's recent Out of the Darkness walk, check out our slideshow below, courtesy of Vasna Wilson:

Suicide Prevention Walk

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