or nearly a decade, Richmond’s Robin López has been volunteering with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) national Out Of The Darkness Community Walk series.
His work, he says, was inspired by the death of his best friend, Mark Nawman, who took his own life in 2010. The news impacted family and community, and caused López to reassess the next steps in his life.
López decided to go back to college, and during a final project for a political science class he began researching resources for dealing with depression and grief. He found the AFSP, a “voluntary health organization” that was founded in 1987 to make up for the lack of federal resources for suicide prevention and mental health.
“It’s no surprise that our government doesn’t prioritize funding for that type of research,” says López, noting that suicides and mental health crises happen to be some of the leading causes of death in the country.
In 2019, the United States had the highest suicide rate out of any wealthy country, according to the Commonwealth Fund. California invests the most in mental health resources out of any state in the union. Last year, Contra Costa County voters passed Measure X, enacting an half-percent increase in the county's sales tax rate that's expected to bring “an estimated $81 million per year for essential services including the regional hospital, community health centers, emergency response, safety-net services, early childhood services and protection of vulnerable populations.”
But still, López sees that his community needs more resources.
“Unfortunately, our community of Richmond, California, and other neighboring communities of El Cerrito, San Pablo, El Sobrante, North Richmond are some of the most historically oppressed and marginalized communities in the East Bay, and we haven’t had anything like that,” says López over the phone.
On Sunday, Oct. 3, López is working to organize an event to bring awareness to suicide prevention and sustainable mental health practices for his community. It’s a part of the AFSP’s national Out Of The Darkness Community Walk series. But this one is focused on Richmond, and the surrounding areas of western Contra Costa County.
The AFSP has a Bay Area office, but López says he felt the need to “put some pressure” on the organization to make sure the resources reached his neighborhood. “We deal with mental health issues as well, no one is immune to it,” says López. “But unfortunately, in our community it’s considered taboo.”
The focus of López’s event is to make sure people know they’re not alone, and to encourage more open discussions about mental health issues. That’s aside from raising funds for organizations that offer resources to people in crisis.
“After he passed away, I realized I only had like three photos with him,” López regrets. “So one day I picked up a camera and just started shooting away to capture other people’s memories. And that’s where it got me today as a photographer and a scientist.”
It’s through following Lopez’s photography that I saw his Instagram video about his work in suicide prevention. The video, although brief, was very vulnerable and open about his experiences.
“What very few people know about me is that I have a lot of social anxiety,” says López of sharing such an intimate story.
People see him as a photographer and a scientist; a bit of a social butterfly. “Internally it’s different than that,” says López. “It’s exhausting posting something like that. Every word is spoken with intent.”
Despite the weight that it carries to speak publicly about something with such magnitude, López tells me, “If I’m thinking about it, and I haven’t seen anyone else engage in this topic critically, then when is it going to happen? Do we have to wait another 10 years for someone in our community to speak up? I’m not saying I need to be the face of it, but I can be the spark.”
The benefit of bringing this conversation “out of the darkness” is that it can help normalize discussing mental health, and overcome feelings of isolation. And the only detriment López foresees is the language we use when discussing it. “We never say ‘completed’ or ‘committed' suicide,” says López. “We say ‘died by suicide.’ Changing that language helps a bit, because it doesn’t make it seem like someone was in competition to take their own life.”
This year’s walk will be a virtual gathering due to concerns around COVID-19, which López says is another layer to the discussion around mental health nowadays. “Going virtual means there’s an opportunity to keep our community safe,” López tells me. “But going virtual also means those that probably need to be around other people and have that fellowship are not going to have it.”
Nonetheless the event will have a series of speakers who look like the community they serve and come from the same neighborhoods. López reiterates that this is a space for gathering and healing—not to trigger people’s traumas and pains. And again, it’s for people to understand that they’re not alone.