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Roughly 200 people ran in the Suicide Prevention Collaborative's first-ever Together It Gets Better 5K Run/Walk at Hamlet Park in Cottage Grove.

Raising awareness, having fun

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"These people really do get it," said Renee Penticoff, a psychologist and founding member of the Suicide Prevention Collaborative.

Roughly 200 people ran in the Suicide Prevention Collaborative's first-ever Together It Gets Better 5K Run/Walk on Saturday, July 30, at Hamlet Park in Cottage Grove. Additionally, over 40 volunteers gave their time to help the cause.

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"I'm excited about the turnout," said Penticoff. "We were expecting about 100. It's amazing for our first race. We've heard from a lot of people who have lost a brother, or son, or daughter, or parent to suicide and they were so glad to have a place to come and walk or run in memory of that person and to be supportive in the community."

In response to the suicides of four teens in south Washington County last year, area mental health professionals, churches, and youth volunteers joined forces to form the Woodbury-based Suicide Prevention Collaborative, which is dedicated to raising awareness, offering educational and informational forums, and providing a consistent presence in the community.

"This is a topic that touches almost all of us in some way, but it's a topic that we don't talk about very much," Penticoff said. "I think to offer people a place to go that is safe and positive is comforting to people, so they come out and participate. It's a difficult issue that we need to talk about."

The SPC is a non-profit organization made up of pediatricians, psychologists, social workers, educators, churches and teens from Washington County -- including volunteer students from Woodbury, East Ridge and Park high schools. Its mission is to prevent teen suicide in the community through education, awareness, collaboration and advocacy. The newly formed SPC is committed to increasing awareness about depression and other mental illnesses, the warning signs of suicide and the need for professional treatment. The SPC believes by educating the public about suicide, individuals at risk can be identified and treated, and the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide can be reduced.

"We want to increase awareness and start the conversation going in the community," Penticoff said. "If we don't talk about it and sweep it under the rug nothing gets better. We need to talk about it, elevate our awareness and come together. Hence our theme 'Together it gets better.'"

Penticoff said a suicide prevention group operating in Forest Lake since 2000 has been the model for the SPC in south Washington County. She said she hopes her community can be similar to Forest Lake, where it is common to talk about mental health issues.

"The topic of mental illness, teen depression and suicide risk is built into their educational curriculum and is the norm there," Penticoff said. "Because of that, their suicide rate has significantly decreased."

Robert Briggs, 17, will be a senior at Park High School this fall. He took second place in the SPC 5K, which he said he used as part of training for upcoming cross-country season.

"It's a great cause," Briggs said. "What these people are doing and their efforts to raise money for what they think is right is a great cause. That's definitely part of the reason I ran today."

Earlier this year, the SPC held the first "Together It Gets Better" suicide prevention and discussion event at Woodwinds Heath Campus. Its next big event will be at Woodbury Days at the end of August.

At the 5K, various local companies donated prizes, equipment and food. Also, the bands The Human Empire and The School of Rock's Road Crew put on a free rock concert during and after the race.

"Everyone is really nice here," Briggs said. "Everyone is saying hi to each other. It's a great atmosphere and a fun race. It was a really good experience."

Penticoff said money raised by the 5K would go toward education in the community.

"The next part of our plan is to do basic training at venues that work with youth -- like training youth directors and leaders, parents and employers how to talk about depression, what do say and what to do," Penticoff said. "We want to be able to provide that for free. The money raised here will help do that."

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