While Jake Smith’s recent 24-mile trek through the streets of Manteno was, for all intents and purposes, a solo endeavor, the mental health advocate is quick to point out nothing about the life-altering experience was done in solitude.
Smith had been planning a community walk for September, which happens to be National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, but COVID-19 made a gathering of any sizable amount next to impossible.
“With COVID going on, and all the restrictions, I didn’t want to take any chances,” Smith said. “But I still felt motivated — I wanted to do something, even if it was on my own.”
Once the decision was made, Smith said one piece of the puzzle came together after another.
“Never have I organized my own walk before for something like this,” he said. “It had been in the back of my mind, and finally I decided to just act on it.”
When he laced up his walking shoes and put on his athletic attire for what turned out to be an 8 hour and 20 minute marathon on Sept. 13, Smith said he aspired to provide an outward symbol of working through mental illness — weathering the pain and persevering, one step at a time.
As he ventured out on the trek early that late summer Sunday morning, Smith said he was pleasantly surprised by the acknowledgement he received through all corners of the community. At times, participants intermittently joined him on his journey through Manteno.
“(Supporters) would honk when they’d drive by or acknowledge me when they were at their house or in their driveway,” Smith said. “A lot of people waved at me and said, ‘Hey, Jake, I support you.’ They knew who I was. It amazed me that people were aware of my walk and what was going on and what I was walking for.”
For Smith, advocating for mental health awareness is a cause that hits very close to home. The Manteno resident frequently speaks openly about his own struggles with mental illness, which includes bouts of severe depression and anxiety.
While opening up about an affliction and exposing vulnerability can be challenging, Smith said he has felt a calling to do so because he wants others in similar circumstances to know they are not in isolation.
By removing the cloak of mystery around mental illness, Smith said he also wants the broader community to know the condition is more than skin deep.
“It’s perfectly OK to not be OK,” Smith said. “There are more people out there struggling than you think. They could be your happy friends. It can be your friends that are talking all the time. It can be your family members, it can be your neighbor, it can be your best friend. Nobody’s alone.”
The walk might be behind him, but Smith said his advocacy for mental health is far from over. He is using a number of mechanisms — including social media channels — to build community. One of his most visible efforts is a Facebook page: Manteno Community Public Mental Health Support Group.
Smith regularly takes to the page to share bits of wisdom and inspiration as he continues his own journey.
On Sept. 22, for instance, he wrote, “If you’re reading this, you have lived to see another day. Another opportunity to improve yourself. Keep it up. I’m proud of you. Do something great today. Keep #Winning; Stay #HumbleAndKind.”
“I want to continue getting the word out there, advocating and providing daily reminders or a daily motivation type of thing,” Smith said. “It’s important to continue to talk about mental health and keep the subject going when I’m not walking for it. It’s all about starting conversations — that community engagement.”
In a year filled with so many challenges, Smith said he is glad he took a leap of faith and embarked on the 24-mile trek.
“The community noticed and they realized mental health and suicide awareness are finally being prioritized around here,” he said. “It really stuck with people.”
If all goes as planned, Smith said his goal is to make the mental health walk an annual tradition in Manteno.
“Hopefully, in the future, there will be a walk through town with several members throughout the area,” he said. “I’m working on trying to get shirts made with a group name on it, so that’s one way of advertising the group. People can support the group and get the word out that way.”
All of the efforts, he said, are a reminder no one is suffering in solitude. Instead, as he puts it, the overtures are “a way of normalizing mental health.”