InterviewMental HealthTell My Story: A Deep Dive Into The Current Teen Suicide Epidemic

A grieving father, Jason Reid, seeks answers after his 14-year-old son Ryan dies by suicide. He uncovers painful truths about the lives of teens, the impact of unfettered access to internet and social media, and the shocking rise of depression among America’s youth, especially now due to the pandemic.

The journey brings him together with young suicide survivors, prevention experts, and parents trying to understand the 70% increase in adolescent suicide. Closer to home, with his family fractured, he examines his son’s technology use to discover what no parent wants to find. Seeking to find the warning signs that were missed, he instead finds ways to reverse the isolation and disconnectedness that is killing our youth, helping them to lead happy, successful lives.

The film premiered on March 23, 2021 on DVD, video on demand, and theatrical on demand platforms. The film is also streaming for free for 90 days on WellBeings.org, a multi-platform multi-year campaign to address the critical health needs in America.

To learn more, we conducted an interview with Jason Reid.

Jason Reid

1. Can you tell us more about the Tell My Story documentary?

In the documentary, I seek answers after my 14-year-old son Ryan dies by suicide. I uncover painful truths about the lives of teens, the impact of unfettered access to internet and social media, and the shocking rise of depression among America’s youth.

The journey brings me together with young suicide survivors, prevention experts, and parents trying to understand the 70% increase in adolescent suicide. I also examine my late son’s technology use to discover what no parent wants to find. Seeking to find the warning signs that were missed, I explore ways to reverse the isolation and disconnectedness that is killing our youth, helping them to lead happy, successful lives.

My hope is that when parents watch “Tell My Story,” it sparks a conversation with their kids that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And ultimately, my hope is that it saves lives.

2. What was the motivation behind making this documentary?

In April 2018, my son Ryan died by suicide. It was a week after his 14th birthday. This changed my life forever. As a husband and father, I was hit with a devastating blow of grief, loss, and despair. The truth was almost too painful to comprehend: my son had struggled with depression and silence in secret. And suddenly, he was gone.

Over the next year, as I had time to grieve and begin to pick the pieces back up in my personal life, there was a question looming: how was this possible? And further: how had I missed it? As someone deeply involved and connected with my kids, how had I not seen the signs that Ryan was struggling? There were no clear answers. But as a man who has built my entire life on the principles of taking ownership for everything that happens to me, there was no way I was willing to remain idle. Instead of pulling away from the pain, I decided to push towards it.

After we got back to the house, I spent a lot of time thinking about what to do. Things were so different. I didn’t know all the answers, but I knew I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t want other families to have to experience what we were going through. And I wished Ryan had chosen to live.

So I bought a website domain centered on that idea—ChooseLife.org—and started thinking about how I could use that as a vehicle for teen suicide prevention. Then, as I was going through Ryan’s room one afternoon, I found two sticky notes in the top corner of a drawer. One had usernames and passwords, and the other said, “Tell My Story.” That’s why I did the movie. I moved pretty fast from there. Within days, I solidified the concept for the documentary and began having the conversations featured in the film.

3. Where can people watch the documentary?

The film is available for a limited time to stream for free (until June 23)  in U.S. on WellBeings.org, a multi-platform multi-year campaign by Washington DC’s WETA public broadcast station to address the critical health needs in America. It is also available as a DVD with some extended conversations between myself and Dr. Mark Goulston, author of “Just Listen,” and Peter Mayfield, Executive Director of Gateway Mountain Center, a nature-based nonprofit that works with troubled young in Truckee, California area – that is via the website  and Amazon. It can also be streamed worldwide via Vimeo On Demand with more platforms – Google, Youtube, Itunes, Vudu, Tubi, pending. The trailer can be viewed here.

Since we believe the isolation of the pandemic and stress about returning to “in-person” will bring more anxiety to our youth, we think it is critical to get the film out now to as many parents as possible.

Our goal is to get the film in front of parents, caregivers and educators in environments that allow frank conversations about the mental health crisis in our youth; what needs to be done, and the urgency for parents to truly check in on their kids’ mental health and to not be dissuaded by “teen hormones.”

We hope to partner with foundations and companies to sponsor programs that will allow us to get the film into school districts and faith-based communities as quickly as possible. We are also rolling out a virtual screening program via Gathr where “Movie Captains” can organize ticketed events and earn profits.

4. Nationally, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for ages 10-34. Why is that?

There are so many factors at play and I’m not sure that the experts have precisely pinned that. We now personally believe that unfettered access to the internet and or devices, without parents helping to filter the information is a key factor.  Of course, there’s lots of discussion about bullying and our film focuses on the concept of disconnectedness – due to technology but also from environment and community.

In the last year especially, there have been the broader environmental factors that are stressful for an adult: climate crises, political strife, global pandemic, economy issues. Kids see and read about these things on their devices and the headlines are dire.

What we’ve heard from young people is that some key factors that lead to isolation are discouragement, rejection and defeat. Teens who are overly sad and start spending their time isolating alone after being part of a crowd should be monitored closely.

 5. What are the main reasons that can lead to teen suicide?

Teens have to deal with a lot in life; bullying at school, the pressures of keeping up appearances on social media, parents splitting up, intense academic pressure and more. Sometimes, they’ll also find themselves in the unfortunate mindset of feeling that they’ll never amount to anything or perhaps they’ve become a burden of some sort due to their flaws. This is where parents must step in. Parents should not be afraid to be vulnerable and honest with their teens, explaining to them that they’re not at all perfect themselves. Our teens need to know that we’re not indestructible and perfect super beings.

6. How can families tackle the above reasons and help in preventing teen suicide?

Parents need to take action now and understand that suicide is at the epidemic level amongst teenagers today. Parents need to pay attention to their kids’ social media, keep an eye open for changes in behavior, keep an open dialogue and let them know it’s okay to be sad, realize that they view the world through a different lens, and most importantly, if you are worried get them to talk to a mental health professional. Not talking about suicide with your kids is like not talking about the elephant in the room. The world’s only going to change if we decide as parents that we’re going to make a change, if we all decide to be that person that kids want to talk to and that our kids feel safe with. We need to tell our stories and start to have real emotional connections with our children. When kids start to realize we’re not those superhuman people they think we are, and that we’re normal, then we can have a real conversation about how we feel. You can make a difference with your own family. I’m making a difference with the family I have left.

It’s really important to watch and listen to the families who have gone through this. But the most important part of this film is the kids. Listen to the kids who have attempted suicide or thought about it; hear in their own words what they were thinking. Then, understand that the conversations that their parents didn’t have with them—the ones that I didn’t have with my kids—are the ones you need to have with yours.

The reality is that if you’re waiting for doctors, for schools and teachers and for the government to save your kids’ mental health, it’ll never happen. You have to do it yourself. It starts with having real, vulnerable conversations with your kids and asking them, simply, “How are you feeling?”

 7. Does the COVID-19 pandemic increase teen suicide risk? Can you elaborate on that?

Yes, during the COVID-19 pandemic, kids ages 11 to 17 were more likely to think about committing suicide than any other age group. According to studies, this increase was due to loneliness and isolation.

In 2020, youth ages 15-24 represented 36% of Didi Hirsch’s Crisis Line callers, the largest age demographic of all the calls. Researchers found that 46% of 977 parents of teens said their child has shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the start of the pandemic. More parents of teen girls than parents of teen boys reported an increase in anxiety/worry (36% vs. 19%) or depression/sadness (31% vs. 18%). Mar 15, 2021.

8. What things should teens avoid to stay away from suicidal thoughts?

We need to re-evaluate the harm that giving teenagers access to social media has on their developing brains. Research on social media and developing brains should be brought front and center. Social media is a place where bullying and pressure intensifies, so we need to protect our kids from it.

We need to start asking ourselves this central question: what age should kids be allowed to have any social media account?  We don’t let them drive until they are 16 or drink until 21. Is 13 the correct age for a Facebook account? Something to think about!

9. What activities should teens perform to keep them away from suicidal thoughts?

Parents need to cultivate a routine where everyone in the family is looking after their mental health. If we prioritize our mental health, our teens will do so as well. Also, we need to get our teens away from isolation and screen time as much as possible. This could mean being actively involved in extracurricular activities, the community, a hobby, or even spending time together as a family. Additionally, therapy can help tremendously.

We also need to let our teens know that it’s okay to have bad days and off emotions. In fact, it’s normal. So parents need to approach their teens with vulnerability so teens understand that they’re not alone and there are ways to push those negative thoughts away.

 10. What warning signs should parents keep an eye on relating teen suicide?

When I think about the question, “what could I have done differently” now, the biggest thing that comes to mind is my lack of transparency. Ryan never saw me have a bad day, and he never saw me cry. He thought that was how a man should act. When his life wasn’t going well, he assumed there was something wrong with him, and he didn’t feel comfortable enough to talk about it. Parents aren’t to blame for teen suicide. But the missed opportunities for connecting with Ryan are on me.

Open up and tell them a story from when you felt the same. With that one simple act, you could help your teen put those feelings into context. If what your teen says concerns you, approach suicide by asking, “Have you ever felt bad enough that you’ve thought about hurting yourself?” If the answer is yes, dig deeper. Ask your child if they have a plan to act on those thoughts. If they do, seek professional help immediately. If they don’t have a plan, help them understand that those thoughts alone don’t make someone suicidal. Share a personal story to show your child that you’re vulnerable, too.

11. Who should be involved in tackling teen suicide issues?

As parents, we do everything we can to care for our kids. We pull out a First-Aid kit the moment they get a cut or scrape. We take them to the doctor when they’re feeling sick. We feed them nourishing foods to keep them healthy. Imagine what would happen if we gave our kids’ mental health that same level of attention. That’s what it means to own our kids’ mental health. That’s what it will take to end teen suicide.

The first step is getting our kids to open up about their feelings. Vulnerability might pull us out of our comfort zone as parents, but it also opens the door to real emotional connections. The results can be lifesaving.

12. Where can families and teens seek help and support?

To prevent teen suicide, we need to approach our children’s mental health with the same sense of compassion, care and ownership as we do their physical wellbeing. Which means parents might need to implement therapy into their teens’ routine if need be.

We think normalizing a family discussion around mental health, depression and even suicide is crucial. We also think a happiness plan – which Camila refers to in the film – is a great idea as well.

There are a lot of resources out there and we think for young people, the peer groups at The Trevor Project might be most accessible, also NAMI offers are most familiar with the work the Didi Hirsch Mental health services team. We also heard from young adults about how there were often SADD clubs on campus already engaged with the work of preventing destructive decisions.

If you or someone you love is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK. The hotline’s professionals are available to you 24/7/365.

 13. Do you think technology such as apps can help in preventing teen suicide? Can you elaborate on that?

We haven’t had the bandwidth to do a deep dive into apps yet and there are so many resources out there that it’s hard to figure out which ones might work while offering security and privacy.

It would make sense that since young people are so dependent on their phones for connections, that an app on a phone that’s easy to interact with is a much more likely “tool” than a teen choosing to find and join some sort of peer group through online search.

That said, the Living Works company – the parent company of SafeTalk, a suicide training program that we’ve featured in the film–which was awarded the State of California’s contract for suicide prevention training, put out this doc for the pandemic, highlighting certain apps that we will investigate.

 14. Where do you see teen suicide numbers in the next 5-years?

In 2017, 17.2% of high schoolers reported seriously considering suicide. This is a 25% increase since 2009, when just 13.8% of students reported seriously considering suicide. According to suicide.org, teen and adolescent suicides have continued to rise dramatically in recent years.

In March 2021, one year into the pandemic, a spate of articles were released that indicated a steep rise in mental health concerns amongst young people, for example this one, on WebMD. I personally think the numbers will continue to rise until the topic of suicide is not taboo to discuss between parents and teens.

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