Retired professor helps raise awareness in upcoming suicide walk
Jimmy Zerda was the life of the party.
He was an actor and a comedian; he moved to Los Angeles for five years, then to Austin for filmmaking.
In 2006, Jimmy took his own life at the age of 24. Kathy Zerda, retired UH professor and secretary of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention board, said her son never let on that he was depressed.
Shortly after his death, she read an article that compared suicide to jumping off a tall burning building to avoid the pain of being burned, despite death waiting below.
“I don’t think my son wanted to die; he just didn’t know what else to do,” Zerda said. “He just wanted to make (the pain) stop.”
The family received counseling afterward, but Zerda said she wanted to do more. She joined the AFSP and helped bring the Out of the Darkness walk to campus, which raises money to promote awareness about mental health and suicide prevention. This year, the walk brings added significance as the UH community has grappled with multiple suicides in the past year.
Zerda said common terminology can be misleading, with the phrase “commit suicide” sounding like a crime, so the organization uses the phrase “die by suicide.”
She also began to have a CAPS representative to come to class and discuss possible counseling.
“I just looked out at the room and thought, ‘Any one of my students here could have troubles,'” Zerda said.
It was not uncommon for a student to speak to her after the CAPS visit.
“I would ask them if they felt comfortable going to CAPS,” Zerda said. “I’m not a doctor, so I don’t feel comfortable discussing this with them. So I would walk them over to CAPS.”
Zerda retired from her post as director for the Program for Mastery in Engineering Studies last summer.
In previous walks, beans were placed in front of collages of those who passed away. The bags represent a 73-day period, and contained around 7,000 beans — an estimate of how many people died from suicide during within those days.
On Saturday, there will be beads in various colors, each representing someone a participant has loss.
Zerda said although the funds from the walk will go toward resource, the organization’s main focus is to raise awareness.
“I think my son would be proud to see the efforts our family has undertaken,” Zerda said.
The walk will be at 8 a.m. March 7 at Lynn Eusan Park. Anyone can register up until noon on Friday. People can also register on the day of the walk.
For more information, contact Zerda at 713-204-6342 or email at [email protected]