BUFFALO, N.Y. - The color yellow as a symbol of suicide prevention began in Colorado two decades ago. The parents of 17-year-old Mike Emme, who died by suicide in 1994, launched a yellow ribbon program in honor of his love for the yellow Ford Mustang he drove.
On Monday, National Suicide Prevention Week begins. In Erie County, you will likely see yellow everywhere you turn. Outside the Rath Building on Franklin Street in downtown Buffalo, the county will fly a yellow flag of hope all week long. Next Saturday, the Peace Bridge will turn yellow from dusk until 1 a.m., and Niagara Falls will turn yellow at 10 p.m.
Olivia Retallack, the coordinator of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Erie County, has been placing yellow signs all around Western New York in honor of Suicide Prevention Week. The signs include the message, "There is Hope," as well as the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273--TALK; the Erie County Crisis Services number is 716-834-3131). Five coffee shops are partnering with the coalition to provide information about suicide prevention this week, as a part of the "Tough Enough to Talk" campaign. Electronic billboards will flash updates as well. On Saturday, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will host the "Out of the Darkness" walk at Delaware Park from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
On Tuesday afternoon, a "Raising Hope" ceremony will take place outside the Rath Building near the flag pole, where that yellow flag will fly. The event is open to the community, and in the eyes of the suicide prevention coalition, it's a sign that Erie County is beginning to recognize the serious threat suicide poses to public health.
"It's a historic event for us," Retallack said, "in that the county is all coming together."
Erie County's suicide rate decreased in 2015 for the first time in three years, Retallack said, but rates remain high among middle-aged white men, teenagers, veterans and members of the LGBTQ community. Nationally, suicide rates have increased by 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, according to CDC data released this summer.
"Suicide is a public health crisis right now. It's a big problem right now for us here in Erie County, as well as in our country," Retallack said. "So we really want to recognize there is hope around suicide."
In March, 2 On Your Side reported that rural counties in Western New York face a particularly high rate of suicide. Across New York, nearly 5,000 people died by suicide between 2011 and 2013, including more than 500 people from Western New York's eight counties.
In Erie County, the "Tough Enough to Talk" campaign aims to eliminate the stigma surrounding suicide and educate people about the warning signs.
Breaking down the stigma of suicide is one of the most difficult tasks for suicide prevention coalitions.
"I just recently did a training where I said, if someone were bleeding, and they had an injury, they would walk into a room immediately and say, I need help, I just hurt myself. But we don't emphasize that the same thing really should be going on if somebody's having a mental health crisis," Retallack said.
That's why the yellow flag will fly in a public space, in front of the Rath Building. That way, the whole community can see it.