Walking by the Quad or the Student Fitness Center, you will have seen encouraging quotes like “you make today better,” “you matter,” chalked on the sidewalks. This is a mental health awareness effort of physical education major, Emily Yacko.

“Last summer on June 29, 2018, I lost my cousin, Molly, to suicide,” said Yacko. “She was only one month older than me, so we were really close, and she was my best friend. I started advocating for mental health after that, not only because I didn’t want another family to feel like we did after losing a loved one, but more importantly because I don’t want anyone else to feel like their life isn’t worth living.”

Emily Yacko shares inspiring notes across ISU campus

Exactly one year after losing her cousin, Yacko organized her first Run Today for Tomorrow, a 5K walk/run to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Her goal was to bring a ray of hope and help to a community affected by suicide. “Run Today for Tomorrow was created to help show everyone that tomorrow has so much potential for great things to happen and tomorrow needs them here to see it,” she said.

Participants of the 5K organized by Emily Yacko

Participants of the 5K organized by Emily Yacko

Yacko set a goal of 100 registrants which was surpassed as 350 registrants showed up for the run. Yacko raised $17,757 for AFSP. At the race, resources were provided for people who needed help- a counseling company was present, each participant received a beaded empowering bracelet. “Each color bracelet resembled something different for why you were attending the 5K. For example, orange represented loss of a child, pink represented loss of a sibling, green represented personal struggles, and so on.” Yacko said the essence of this was to encourage people by letting them know they were not alone in their struggles, as participants with specific colors could identify with one another. Yacko, with the help of her friends, also lined the route in inspirational signs for people to read as the ran by. First responders—two policemen, four firemen, one nurse and one Ottawa River Rescue member—also ran in their full uniforms to show the significant impact suicide and mental health had on first responders.

Alongside other AFSP advocates, Yacko has also traveled to Springfield to share her story and discuss important bills that promote mental health and suicide awareness. To kick off National Suicide Awareness month in September, Yacko participated in the “Let’s Chalk About Mental Health,” an annual event created by mental health advocates globally. “I wanted to bring the event to ISU because I know how hard of a transition it is from living at home to moving to school away from your family. It is so easy for students to get lost in all these changes happening and to feel alone. We spent 4 hours covering the quad on August 31, even having a few people passing by stop to add their own inspiration,” Yacko said.

Rachel Smith

Another mental health advocate, School of Kinesiology and Recreation Professor Rachel Smith, is using her personal experience to create awareness for mental health. After losing her father to suicide in 2007, she has incorporated mental health screenings into her coursework and connects struggling students with the resources they need. She shared her personal story at the “Why We Walk Walk” which raised over $18,000 for AFSP. Addressing her involvement in the walk, Smith says “My friend Susan lost her son to suicide and began the walk in Macomb. She knew my father had died as well and knew I shared openly in class about mental health and asked me to speak.”

Smith is committed to creating a safe space on campus for students. Focusing on anxiety and depression, Smith organizes a depression screening as part of her inclusive and therapeutic recreation classes. “The students are learning how to use these techniques as future recreational therapists, but it helps them with personal experience and apply the learnings to their own lives,” Smith said. In the age of perfect selfies, fancy vacations and happy announcements, Smith wants people to understand that “life- between birth and death, is full of good but is also full of bad, hurts, disappointment, loss and grief, bad hair cuts, coffee stains, speeding tickets, breakups and ugly selfies. And this too we must share.” Smith is empowering others to live their truth by sharing the story of losing her dad to suicide and how she has navigated the journey of losing a loved one.

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” Smith said, shared steps every one of us can take to protect our mental health. First, she advises it is important to recognize the lies that everyone has a perfect life, and is always happy and that you can’t talk about anything other than perfection. Secondly, replace the lie with a truth every time it pops into your head. The world is a scary place sometimes, but it won’t always be this way. Thirdly, share the truth and your stories about your ups and downs in life. Talk to someone and if you don’t know who to tell or what to say, text TALK to 741741 to chat with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7.

Emily Yacko and her cousin, Molly

Yacko believes it’s important to keep talking about mental health. “It is important to have these conversations and show others that it is okay to receive help. If we don’t talk about it, those who struggle with mental health believe they are the only ones going through this and won’t reach out to get the help they need.” Yacko believes it is important to always be kind to others even when they seem happy as her friend took her own life hours after smiling wide in a photo together. Show gratitude to people and finally, engage in mental health awareness events in your community.

If you ever need to talk to someone or know someone who needs help. Illinois State has a number of resources that we encourage you to visit here.