A rainbow of brightly colored necklaces adorned the necks of many northwest Kansas residents during a Saturday event.

But this event was a solemn affair. Each strand of beads represented a tragedy — but also a hope for things to get better in the future.

Approximately 50 people gathered at Hays’ municipal park for the first northwest Kansas Out of the Darkness suicide awareness walk. The events are part of a national initiative by the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention to help raise funds and awareness.

“It’s important to see you’re not the only one going through it. You’re not alone,” said Kyle Carlin, a Hays school psychologist who helped organize the event. “Mental health should be as important as physical health.”

The event is intended to help break stigma surrounding mental health disorders. The Hays event was a grassroots initiative planned by several locals who have been affected by suicide, including organizations such as High Plains Mental Health Center, National Alliance on Mental Illness, FHSU’s Kelly Center and HALOS support group. The organizations offered educational resources, and the event also can help those affected by suicide find peer support.

This week is suicide prevention week, and similar events are taking place across the state and nation. This was the first walk in western Kansas.

Suicide is a leading cause of premature death, with an estimated 39,500 victims in the U.S. annually. State representative Eber Phelps, D-Hays, discussed the importance of adequate funding for community mental health services.

Phelps said he personally has known people killed by suicide.

“It affects us all. And at the end of the day, we all ask why did that happen,” he said.

“It’s a really tragic thing for a family to go through. You have to admire anybody who can come and talk to it and try to help somebody else with one of their loved ones to further prevent that.”

He said he believes it is imperative for the state to restore funding it previously cut from mental health services so those in need can get adequate help. He cited a national news story that indicated in some areas, those with mental health disorders intentionally get arrested just to obtain needed medications.

“Funds have been cut for community health centers, but they can go to prison and get the medication,” he said. “That is a very disturbing model. And we’ve done that here in our state of Kansas, cuts to High Plains Mental Health and the work they can do through the northwest Kansas counties.”

He said there is a growing number of legislators who are working to restore funding for community mental health services.

The Hays event started with Ashton Gebhard, who lives in Long Island. He has attended similar events in Omaha after losing a cousin to suicide, and decided to bring the initiative to rural Kansas.

He said he was “blown away” by the amount of attendees and the community support the event received in its first year. All funds raised by the event benefit national research, as well as education and awareness initiatives, both nationally and locally.

After moving from Omaha back to his family farm, he said he was surprised to see the amount of need for mental health services in rural Kansas.

“Mental health services haven’t changed much since I was growing up,” he said. “High Plains Mental Health Center has a center in Hays, and they try to get people out to the more rural areas. But there’s just such a need.”

Connie Cox, also of Long Island, volunteered to help Gebhard with the event. She sat at a table offering the colored strands of beads, each of which had a specific meaning. Attendees could choose blue to show support for awareness, orange for the loss of a sibling, red for loss of a spouse, or silver for first responders -- who are likely to suffer PTSD after traumatic events.

Those who personally struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts could take a green necklace -- and several people did.

“Everyone should have teal, because we all know a family or friend (affected by suicide),” Cox said. “This is non-verbal. You can see someone from across the room and know their colors, and know that they may possibly be struggling but they’re not going to ask for help. They took the first step and chose a green, and that itself might be all they can do today.”

In addition to the “honor beads,” participants also could participate in the “forever flames” activity by decorating a votive candle holder in honor of a loved one.

Across the park’s shelter house, Barb Mares was selling fundraising t-shirts. She wore two white necklaces around her neck, along with photos to honor the two sons she lost to suicide.

Her personal tragedy led her to establish the Greater Kansas chapter of AFSP, and she now travels through Kansas and parts of Missouri to help with awareness initiatives.

“Education is key to preventing suicide,” she said. “I lost two sons. This is my way of giving back.”