Salem to light bridge in honor of West Salem teen ahead of community mental health events

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Week, this weekend the Salem community will host several events to honor youth lost to suicide and those who struggled with mental health challenges. 

The city of Salem will light up the Union St. Bridge in purple every night starting Wednesday through Oct. 11th in memory of Serena, also known as Zack Brenneman, who was found deceased by drowning after they went missing Sept 16. Police have not identified a manner of death, but said there were no signs of foul play.

The city is lighting the bridge with the permission of the Brenneman family, city spokeswoman Courtney Knox Busch said, and the lighting is not tied to any other community events.

Brenneman was a West Salem High School junior who played in the band. They struggled with mental health challenges, according to the family, and were on the journey of understanding their gender identity. 

This Saturday people will walk through Salem for the annual Out of the Darkness Community Walk, hosted by the Oregon Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Those who participate will join the national movement of people walking for more than 550 organized events throughout the U.S. to draw attention to the need for suicide prevention.

Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, with rates showing it is equal to one death about every 11 minutes, according to the CDC. Oregon ranked number 18 out of all states for its rate of youth and teen suicides in 2020, and the state has a five-year comprehensive prevention plan to address it. 

The Salem community has sadly felt the weight of these statistics recently. Last year, students at Sprague High School did their part to honor Aaron Brown, a junior and choir student who died by suicide in the fall of 2018, by giving out pumpkins and fundraising for the Aaron Brown Memorial Scholarship with the theme of encouraging students to “Choose to Stay.”

This Saturday, the Brown family will host the annual Choose to Stay Fall Festival, from 2-5 p.m. at Sprague, where people can pick out pumpkins with uplifting messages on them, and make a donation. 

Brown’s parents established the memorial scholarship at Sprague for a graduating senior in choir who’s staying in Salem to attend college or trade school. This year they hope to raise at least $3,000 to support multiple students, according to this year’s GoFundMe. Last year they were able to provide six scholarships to students totaling $4,500, and they are aiming to do the same this year.

“Suicide touches one in five American families. We hope that by walking we will draw attention to this issue and keep other families from experiencing a suicide loss. Our ultimate goal is to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide,” said Erin Weldon, Oregon area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in a statement.

Last year, the walks raised over $21 million nationally for suicide prevention, according to a press release. Organizers are expecting about 400 people to attend this year’s walk in Salem, which starts at 11 a.m. at Riverfront Park. 

If you are experiencing a crisis, help is available. You can call the Northwest Human Services Hotline at 503.581.5535 or 1.800.560.5535. The National Suicide Prevention hotline is 988. Oregon teens can contact Lines for Life’s YouthLine daily from 4-10 p.m. to chat confidentially with a trained teen by texting 839863, calling 877-968-8491 or chatting online.

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Jordyn Brown is an Oregon journalist who formerly worked for the Eugene Register-Guard.