When Fenway Jones’ buddy took his own life in 2017, the then 15-year-old Fenton, Michigan freshman lost her Dungeons & Dragons “partner in crime,” and best friend. Months later, she mourned the suicide of another close friend.

“Gaming was a place my friend Jasper could find an escape from depression,” says Jones, now 16. “When I lost a second friend to suicide within 10 months, it was very difficult to push through. I know the feelings of grief don’t go away. I wanted to raise awareness and hopefully keep others and their families from feeling the same pain of losing a loved one and or feeling alone with their own mental illness.”

Realizing that gaming was an opportunity to bring teens together to talk about mental health issues, Jones, with the help of her father Aaron, started “Jasper’s Game Day,” at a local Michigan gaming store. The May 2018 event was supposed to be a one-time gig, a gathering of a tiny community of virtual gamers that Skyped in to play Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Instead, it drew the attention of the Wizards of the Coast, the mega-giant parent company of D &D and Magic: The Gathering with its 20 million worldwide fans, whose organizers signed on to support dozens of events over the next year-and-a-half.

Founders’ Circle: Fenway Jones, Founder of Jasper’s Game Day with Charlie and Hannah Lucas, Founders of the notOK app. 

The love for legendary stories, striking art, and innovative gameplay took on a life of its own, raising $8,000 that first event, and more than $25,000 from a dozen more by 2018 year-end. The momentum continues to grow with another dozen events planned across Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Phoenix over the next six months. All proceeds go to support the local American Association of Suicidology support groups.

Jasper’s Game Day is one of a handful of youth-led initiatives across the country, and as far away as Belfast, Ireland, that partner with and underscore efforts by the American Association of Suicidology, (AAS) to change the conversations about teens and suicide and engage and empower youth partners in a grassroots suicide prevention effort.

Suicide Rates Rising

The timing is crucial. Suicide rates for US teens and young adults are “skyrocketing,” as the second leading cause of death for people between 10 and 34, says Colleen Creighton, executive director of AAS, the nation’s largest suicide prevention membership and charitable non-profit. With suicide rates the highest on record, suicides for young people between the ages of 15 and 24 have jumped 30% between 2000 to 2016 in the United States, researchers reported in the June 18 (2019) issue in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.1 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, in 2017 suicide claims 47,000 lives annually and is the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54.2

“There was lots of research and data about mental health issues for youth, but across the country, we started seeing this energy bubbling up from youth who were trying to make a difference in their communities from their lived experience,” says Creighton, the executive director of AAS. “What was missing was giving a voice to those who had lived through or attempted suicide and bringing that energy of hope to tell the stories, to work with youth to build bridges and break down barriers.”

Belfast Beltway Boxing Project main event and fights at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC.

To that end, AAS has marshalled the Jasper’s Game Day and other innovative teen-led initiatives to launch The AAS National Center for the Prevention of Youth Suicide, a resource web site in partnership with AAS’s Youth Suicide Prevention Committee, including partnerships with the Boys and Girls Club of America, GoGuardian, Jasper’s Game Day, (Fenway is a member of the teen advisory board) and the notOK App, among others. The group is dedicated to the belief that through early detection and outreach, suicide can be prevented. Intervention is possible, says Creighton, because many young people give warning signs if they are considered killing themselves, and intervening can save their lives. Learn more here.

“Our goal is getting the voices of the young people to their peers who can say ‘they are just like me, I am not alone, I can be okay,” says Creighton.

In an effort to give rise to youth as the voices who can help stop the suicide crisis, AAS is committed to letting teen-led initiatives drive their own efforts that ultimately will help them create lives worth living. Some of these efforts include: The Belfast-Beltway Boxing Project

The Belfast-Beltway Boxing Project

Belfast Beltway Boxers on a recent excursion to Croagh Patrick, known as Ireland’s Holy Mountain

After learning from family members in Belfast that the suicide rate for youth in Northern Ireland was increasing at an alarming rate, Emmanuel Quinn rallied a group of friends from across the pond in Washington D.C. and called on the group: “We need to do something.”

Quickly they realized that youth in both countries raised in underserved neighborhoods endured much of the same misery losing family members to murder, suicide, and drugs. Boxing was a way to stay out of trouble and that the lessons of discipline and structure went way beyond the ring.

For the last 12 years, Quinn and his circle of friends have been running the Belfast-Beltway Boxing Project, an exchange program from the Washington area and Northern Ireland that has brought almost 200 mostly boys, but girls too, to the District and to Belfast for boxing matches and cultural experience.

Coaches work very closely with the teens, not to create the next Mohammad Ali, but to help them see a world beyond their neighborhoods and envision what a future can be, according to Patti Gunn, executive director.

“They know when something is up and they ask them about what they are doing to get a job or let them know they support them,” she says. Currently, the group is working to have on-sight social workers at the gyms to work closely with at-risk teens.

“Our goal is to give these kids a space to breath, a place away from all the misery they are dealing with in their lives,” says Gunn. “We want to broaden their horizons so that they can see another path to success.” On a recent trip to Belfast, the boxers took an excursion to County Mayo and climbed Croagh Patrick mountain.

“I’ll never forget this kid from Baltimore who sat at the top of the mountain for a long time and came down to say it was the first time in his life that he felt like he could envision what he wanted his life to be.”

notOK APP

It’s okay to be not okay is the calling cry of siblings Hannah and Charlie Lucas of Atlanta who developed the notOK App™, a free app that gives teens the ability to press a large red button to let closest friends, family and their support network that they are not okay, that they need help, and are reaching out.

The idea was born during a challenging time when Hannah was feeling “alone and isolated,” while coping with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, a medical condition that caused her to frequently pass out. She was often bullied during school which caused her to become severely depressed.

Desperately wanting to help his sister, Charlie put his coding skills to the task during a summer at a business camp and invented the free app, posted it on his Instagram and it immediately went viral, with 55,000 downloads. Both teens serve on the AAS advisory team and they are looking to create French and Spanish versions of the app.

“As teenagers, there is a lot of pressure on us to do really good in class, get into college and strive for perfection,” says Hannah Lucas. “We feel this is a pre-crisis tool that teens can use before things really blow up to reach out for help. It helps you feel like you are not alone.” Learn more about the app here.

YouthLine at Lines for Life

Teens helping teens is the guiding light of YouthLine, a confidential peer-to-peer national youth and young adult phone and text crisis and support helpline in Portland, Oregon. It is sponsored by Lines for Life—a non-profit dedicated to preventing substance abuse and suicide.

The helpline is answered by youth daily from 4 pm-10 pm and by adults at all other times. It also features a podcast #Talk2BeWell, that engages teens in conversations on topics ranging from gun violence to dating and tattoos.

“We try to meet teens where they are,” says Emily Moser, director of YouthLine. “With teens manning the helpline, they understand about bad breakups and bad grades, being bullied, having your parents get divorced and the stresses of parents and school. They are trained to handle issues like pregnancy, self-harming and help callers move to the side of coping in healthy ways.”

The helpline has grown “exponentially,” says Moser. “We are trying to normalize conversations about mental health issues for teens seeking help,” she says. Currently, the organization is working to target underserved communities nationwide, specifically rural and urban areas where the suicide rates are high, “We are unique in that we offer to follow up calls, checking in and reaching out.”

Learn more here.

For more information on youth suicide initiatives contact the The AAS National Center for the Prevention of Youth Suicide.

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Last Updated: Sep 25, 2019