By KATIE CHAPA
St. Albans Messenger Staff

ST. ALBANS — In Vermont, 118 people died of suicide in 2016.

On average, that’s two people per week, giving Vermont the 18th highest rate of suicide in the nation.

St. Albans native Betsy LeBlanc, a fitness instructor at The EDGE in Essex, has made it her mission to put a story behind those numbers and show the community this is an epidemic that can be stopped.

This July, LeBlanc’s calendar is booked for a 272-mile long hike, just her and her dog, Sam. She will raise money for the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center while offering support for those struggling with mental illnesses, depression or suicidal thoughts, she said.

“There’s this stigma surrounding these issues, and I wanted to do something to bring awareness to it, just to really foster a healthy, open and stigma-free conservation about it,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc describes herself as diagnosed with a chronic mental illness. She remembers the first signs when she was just 5 years old.

“I had these little plastic decorative balloons in my bedroom, and I remember finding a black marker and writing all over them over and over again, ‘I want to die,” she said.

Just a half-year later, LeBlanc started to abuse herself. When she was in elementary school, her family doctor noticed bruises and bite marks all over her arms. The self-harm worsened as she entered high school, when she had her first “major crisis.”

“Fortunately, I was then able to get help through therapy,” she said.

LeBlanc doesn’t know why she felt this why. All she knows is she felt worthless, as if she was a burden to everyone around her.

“It wasn’t until I was 27 when I was properly medicated for the first time that I was able to experience anything different then depression,” she said. “It truly had been the driving force in my existence to that point and it was mind-blowing.”

Part of this hiking mission, LeBlanc explained, is to make it easier to talk about mental illnesses, particularly the questions of “why” that inevitably come when someone dies by suicide.

“For years I struggled with the shame of the illness, until just a couple of years ago when I started talking more openly and realized there are lots of people who struggle with mental illness,” LeBlanc said. “It wasn’t until then was I able to work through some of that shame.”

This was the motivation behind “No One Has to Walk Alone,” which LeBlanc has christened her hike. She has launched a Facebook page for the event, is sponsored by Northwest Community Counseling Center and hopes to raise a significant amount of funds to support the suicide prevention center.

“The hike itself will be, in a way, a meditation for me. A lot of my issues will come up, and I plan to use it as a way to work through some of my emotional struggles and gain perspective,” she said. “This hike is not just a fundraiser but also personal work for myself.”

She came up with the idea with the help of Dr. Christine DiBlasio, director at Stone House Associates in South Burlington. LeBlanc said DiBlasio helped her narrow down an organization to support, and the two selected the VTSPC because of the organization’s public education.

The public can help pick LeBlanc and Sam’s trail names and can submit suggestions via the Northwest Community Counseling Center’s Facebook page until June 15. LeBlanc will then pick five names to be voted on a week before her journey.

“It’s a way for the community to get involved and learn more about the project,” LeBlanc said.  She’s already seen some of the names and is impressed.

So far, No One Has to Walk Alone has raised $2,000. LeBlanc says her goal by the end of the project is $6,000.

The public is encouraged to follow LeBlanc and Sam’s progress by visiting the No One Has to Walk Alone Facebook page, which will be updated along with her Instagram, @elisabeth_betsy_leblanc, throughout the trip.

LeBlanc hopes to encourage others struggling with a mental illness by showing they truly aren’t alone.

“I’m a person with a chronic mental illness – big deal!” LeBlanc said. “It doesn’t make me a lesser person. It doesn’t make me a less effective person, and there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed about.”

For those who are struggling with depression, thoughts of suicide or another type of mental illness, LeBlanc encourages people to reach out to NCSS. Help is available 24/7 from NCSS at 524-6554 or (800)-834-7793.