Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Hike for Mike raises awareness about depression

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Beth and Jeff Alt
At first, the hike didn't have a name, a Web site, or a special purpose.

Jeff Alt of Glendale simply planned to spend several weeks of his summer vacation hiking the John Muir Trail, a rugged but beautiful 211-mile trek through California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Alt, a 36-year-old speech therapist for Mason City Schools, expected to hike alone. After all, he had never been able to convince his wife, Beth, 29, to accompany him on long backpacking excursions.

But then last fall something happened that neither of them expected: Beth's 32-year-old brother took his own life. Mike Richards was married, the father of a 3-year-old boy and 12-year-old stepdaughter. He was a successful clerk at the Chicago Board of Trade.

He was also, his family now believes, a man who suffered from undiagnosed clinical depression.

As the family grieved, Jeff Alt decided to turn his upcoming trek into Hike for Mike, a campaign to raise awareness of depression. Beth, he figured, would serve as his support team. Instead, she said she would hike with him.

On Tuesday, they began the journey in Yosemite National Park. Together.

"I know Mike would be so proud of me for doing something like this," Beth Alt, a speech language pathologist for Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, said before leaving. "He's the reason I decided to do it."

Couple has Web site

The Alts set up a Web site. It offers information on symptoms of depression, which can include feeling sad, anxious or empty; sleeping too much or too little; crying excessively; experiencing appetite problems; and difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions. Links are provided to related Web sites, including the National Mental Health Association, the Depression Resource Center, the National Foundation for Depressive Illness and others.

"I'm really hoping that by doing this hike, and with our Web site and various articles and word of mouth, that we'll help others so they don't have to go through this," Beth Alt says. "If someone looks at our Web site and reads about depression, they may recognize that they have it, and take the initiative to go see their doctor."

That's important, because the condition can be treated.

Although her family has a history of depression, Beth Alt says her brother apparently didn't know he was depressed. If he had, he would have dealt with it appropriately, she believes.

Talking openly about suicide

She and her family have chosen to deal with the aftermath of Mike's death by talking openly about it, even though there's a stigma attached to suicide.

"It's hard, but it's helping us," says Beth, who attends a support group, Survivors Against Suicide.

Tying the hike to an awareness campaign for depression makes sense, Jeff says, because research has shown that brisk outdoor walking increases antidepressant chemicals in the brain, reduces tension and anxiety and raises energy levels. Still, he says, anyone who might be clinically depressed needs to see a doctor.

For Jeff, hiking is second nature. In 1998, he trekked the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail. He wrote about the experience in his book A Walk for Sunshine (Dreams Shared Publications; $15.95) and has appeared on ESPN2's Inside America's National Parks.

Beth is no less athletic, having run three marathons. But until now she avoided long-distance hikes because she likes showering and climbing into a bed each night. Of course, that won't be possible over the 15 to 18 days they're on the John Muir Trail.

"It'll be a big adjustment, but I'm looking forward to it," she says.

The Alts will post occasional updates on their trek at their Web site.


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