Allysa Dittmar

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Two weeks before Allysa's sophomore year of college, she lost her mother to suicide. In 2012, Allysa joined the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and participated in her first Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk, a 16-18-mile overnight journey to raise awareness and funds for suicide research, advocacy and prevention. Since her first walk, Allysa has shared her story as a field advocate on Capitol Hill and raised more than $25,000 for the organization. 

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College major: International studies; global environmental change and sustainability 

Current role: Advocate for the AFSP; Graduate student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Why is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention a cause close to your heart? The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is a cause close to my heart because I suddenly lost my mom to suicide two weeks before my sophomore year in college. She had struggled with severe depression and anxiety in the last year of her life. Losing my mother, my confidante, my best friend, was indescribably devastating. But with the support of my family and friends, I decided to go back to school because I knew that was what she would have wanted me to do. I won't deny that the first year without her was extremely difficult. I struggled with anxiety. I'd cry in public if something reminded me of mom. My heart would hurt terribly if I saw a mother and her child. Holidays were the worst. But slowly, I started to find myself again. I started focusing on my grades, earning a 4.0 GPA every semester until I graduated from Johns Hopkins. I discovered the healing powers of writing. I became an Alpha Phi. And then I joined AFSP. Being a part of a unique community that understood each other's struggles, grief, confusion and pain was incredibly healing. It wasn't until I joined AFSP that I truly started to heal. Until I lost my mom, I never realized how common suicide deaths were. Today, suicide deaths have surpassed deaths from motor vehicle crashes in the United States. There are more suicides than homicides. Out of all the top 10 causes of death, suicide is the only one that continues to increase while other causes of death such as cancer, stroke and COPD have all dropped. 

In working with the organization, what accomplishments are you most proud of? I'm most proud of being a voice for my mom and others who are suffering and going through the struggle by themselves. It takes courage to fight the stigma that is often attached with suicide. So far, I have participated in two Overnight Walks, have written several articles for AFSP's newsletter and annual report, have volunteered as a field advocate and have raised more than $25,000 for the organization. But I won't take all the credit: my public advocacy success was also because of who my mom was. She was a vibrant, caring and loving woman who impacted many lives. She was the best cook anyone had ever encountered, played the piano beautifully, had the voice of an angel and was such a loving mother and wife.

What is the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk? Held by the AFSP, the Overnight Walk is a 16-18-mile journey throughout the night that walkers embark upon to raise awareness and funds for suicide research, advocacy and prevention. Each year, the location of the Overnight Walk is in a different city in the United States. Walkers come from all stages of life, from teenagers to grandparents. Many, like me, are survivors of suicide loss. Others battle with suicide, depression and other mental illnesses. And others are simply supporters of the cause. We all have one common goal: to prevent a tragedy from occurring that is far too common. 

What have you learned about yourself from participating in the Overnight Walk? I've learned that I am not alone and I never will be. Knowing that I wasn't alone was a really important lesson; I had struggled with that for a long time, being someone who lost a loved one to suicide. A daughter without a mother. I felt really, really alone. From participating in the Overnight Walk, I realized that I am always surrounded by thousands of others who are all bonded by the same mission: to bring the light out of the darkness. They have also experienced the grief, confusion and pain that my family and I wentand still go through. And I've learned that my feet can withstand 18 miles of walking on concrete and hills without breaks! 

We read that you're pushing for change on Capitol Hill in honor of your mother. While the Overnight Walk is designed primarily to raise awareness and funds for suicide prevention, AFSP's field advocates push for political change on Capitol Hill. As a field advocate, I reach out to my state's senators and representatives to share my story and to educate our leaders and communities. By opening up the dialogue on suicide, field advocates can help shape new laws and policies. Recently, we have especially worked on accurate reporting of suicides, mental health policies in schools and military suicide prevention policies. 

What's the best advice you've ever received? "It never gets easier; you just get stronger." I've always thought that saying was a bit cliché, but it's true. Our experiences, both good and bad, shape who we are. Losing my mom during college changed my world. I became more capable of handling difficult times. I became wiser. I became more grateful: always appreciating the little things. I became more compassionate. I became resilient to change, knowing that things are never certain and impermeable. I became stronger.

What do you tell yourself after a tough or stressful day? One step backwards, two steps forward.

How do you define success? To me, success is staying true to yourself while doing the things that make you happy. I would be true to myself and happy if I could help others. Because of my mom, I hope to pursue a career in the public health field that will help others' health and well-being. I also hope someday to volunteer in a country that is in need of educators for the deaf, who are often marginalized and left behind.

How have you overcome adversity? I've always had to deal with many challenges ever since I was born. I was born profoundly deaf into a hearing family. To be without hearing in a hearing world is socially isolating and just plain difficult. I struggle on a daily basis, from trying to keep up in school to simply understanding the cashier at the grocery store. Nevertheless, I successfully mainstreamed into a hearing school with the aid of sign language interpreters and lip reading. I graduated high school as the valedictorian of my class. I also was the first profoundly deaf student to attend Johns Hopkins, graduating with two bachelor degrees alongside university and departmental honors. All the while dealing with the grief and pain of losing a parent during college. It's been quite a ride. My advice is not to let the adversity define you. I always try to seek out the positive in every experience. When I recently found out that I was losing the rest of my hearing this past year and consequently had to defer graduate school for the time being, I promised myself not to dwell on, "Why me?" because it doesn't do me any good. I'm not going to dwell on the fact that this is another major challenge that I will have to face once again and battle for the rest of my life. I thought I was done with my life's biggest trial, which was losing my mom to suicide during college. But now, I'll be receiving a cochlear implant. A cochlear implant is a serious, lifelong process. It'll take me years to understand sound and I'll have to re-learn language all over again, a process that has taken all 23 years of my life. But the fact that the cochlear implant may give me some of my life back is enough for me. By focusing on the positive, I know that I can be so much more.