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Out of Darkness Walk April 28 to Raise Mental Health Awareness

Sunshine breaking through heavy clouds.

Out of Darkness Walk April 28 to Raise Mental Health Awareness

April 24, 2024

Warning: this story mentions suicide

NORMAN, OKLA. – Three cycles around the University of Oklahoma’s South Oval will take you one and a half miles. When students make the trek on Sunday, April 28, their laps will be for the symbolic purpose of raising awareness of suicide.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of Darkness Campus Walk at OU will be the first of what organizers hope will become an annual tradition centered around suicide awareness and prevention.

The fundraising event’s target audience of youth and young adults is by design. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention ranks suicide as the third leading cause of death among traditional college-age students. As of 2021, the National Institute of Mental Health ranked suicide as the 11th leading cause of death in the United States. Oklahoma ranks seventh in high-suicide rates nationally with 22.1 deaths per 100,000 total population.

Evan, Abby and Sheli Smartt.

Suicide’s impact on families and communities varies but for Sheli Smartt, a student hiring coordinator at OU and the organization’s advisor, she and her family were directly impacted when she lost her son Evan, 18, to suicide in 2020.  

“If you have read the statistics,” Smartt said. “Then you will know that the college student demographic is one of the most affected groups (of suicide). I am passionate about speaking for those that can no longer tell their own stories.”

Since Evan’s death, Smartt and her daughter Abby, the campus AFSP student group’s president, sought to dig deep to find ways to raise discussion about a dark topic that can affect many. 

Evan’s death occurred prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which afforded Shelli the time necessary to formulate a positive path forward. She earned a certification as a Peer Grief Educator to help others affected by suicide. Smartt channeled her grief into a strength to share with others who would no doubt go through a period of struggle.

AFSP’s reputation as a nationally recognized research and education provider of suicide prevention helps bring attention and dollars to the table. The AFSP, which serves communities across the country, first came to Norman in November 2023. Thanks to the Smartts’ determination, the campus walk was then added to OU the following January.

“Abby and I thought it would be a nice idea to honor him at OU if ever given the opportunity,” Smartt said. “This year was that opportunity. I transferred to the Norman campus from the Health Sciences Center and Abby is a freshman at OU. I am on the board of AFSP and know how valuable their community walks are.”   

Evan was accepted into the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication prior to his death. The Smartts’ role within the AFSP and their influence in helping bring it to campus helps keep Evan’s spirit alive at OU.

“The common theme I normally hear is that their loved one seemed happy, or so kind, or was so impulsive,” Smartt said. “When we support our friends that are going through some kind of struggle, we tend to see the happy ones as being OK. That needs to change. The world needs to be kinder and more accepting of mental wellness discussion. 

“It is a hard conversation have,” Smartt continued. “But it is so worth the reward of having it and being alive to tell your story.”

Out of Darkness has raised over 60% of the $10,000 goal prior to the event’s launch day. With nearly 80 participants and seven teams, the event will consist of a purposeful walk and on-site activities to encourage open and honest discussion.

“The campus walk brings such an amazing opportunity to start a dialogue about suicide prevention/awareness and mental wellness,” Smartt said. “Our hope as a committee is to bring hope to those who feel alone. On a campus of this size, there is always someone to reach out to or who knows how you feel. It is just not something we openly discuss, and we hope to work on changing that.”

Onsite registration time is set for 1 p.m., with the walk beginning at 3 p.m. For more information on the event or how to register/get involved, click here.

About the University of Oklahoma

Founded in 1890, the University of Oklahoma is a public research university located in Norman, Oklahoma. As the state’s flagship university, OU serves the educational, cultural, economic and health care needs of the state, region and nation. OU was named the state’s highest-ranking university in U.S. News & World Report’s most recent Best Colleges list. For more information about the university, visit

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