K-12 Education

Aspen Challenge: Youth are the Answer to Effective Suicide Prevention

January 17, 2014  • Christopher Gandin Le, Guest Blogger

The Aspen Challenge — launched by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation — provides a platform, inspiration, and tools for young people to design solutions to some of the world’s most critical problems by engaging with leading global visionaries, artists, and entrepreneurs. Denver Public Schools will send 20 teams from 20 schools to compete between January 10 and March 1, 2014. Below are the reflections of Christopher Gandin Le, CEO of Emotion Technology, LLC, which works to prevent suicide and promote mental health awareness online.

Above, Christopher Gandin Le discusses Aspen Challenge Denver: Challenge #4, which deals with suicide prevention and mental health. 

After working in suicide prevention for over 10 years, I have a distressing confession: I have failed.

Yes, I helped launch the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the Veterans Crisis Line, and Crisis Text Line. And it’s true that I co-wrote the Facebook policy on suicide.

And in 2013, 38,364 Americans killed themselves. 

After all these incredible efforts, not only are people still dying by suicide, but the data tells us that the number of people dying has actually increased over the past decade. There are many complex reasons for this, and even if my decade of work has saved a single life, it has all been worth it.

However, the numbers — each one representing a human life lost — are always there, haunting those of us who work in the field, demanding from us an answer to why we were unable to stop them from dying. We wonder what else we can be doing, and we can’t expect that giving people a hotline number will do the trick every time. 

This is not to diminish the work that has been done. With public and private funding, my colleagues and I have created some systems that we know people are utilizing to get the help they need: over 1,000,000 people call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline every year, and over a third of those people are veterans. There are youth suicide prevention programs in almost every state. If you type in “How to kill myself” or “I want to die” into Google, you get the phone number to 24/7 crisis help right away. On Facebook, you can get help to a friend in distress with the click of a button.

Despite all of this, the numbers are up. Why? We’re missing something. We aren’t looking in the right places. This isn’t an answer, but a question. What’s out there? What words, what rituals, what healing methods, what comforting soup is there? We — the helpers — need help. We need a different approach. 

The death rates can be staggering — depending on the demographic — suicide is the second or the third highest cause of death for teenagers, and it’s the second leading cause of death for college-age people. What if high school students are the programmatic geniuses that we’re looking for? What if we let them be the developers, the experts? They already own the disruptive technology. We just need to listen closer.

Communities are resilient. We’ve seen schools from coast to coast recover and heal after unspeakable tragedies. From Newtown to Chicago, from Denver to El Paso, students are faced with large-scale tragedies and, just as immediately, small, intimate crises. How do they do it? We adults offer debriefings, mental health services, and hotlines. But it’s in listening to the ideas of young people — the ones who are hurting, the ones who have tried to kill themselves, the kids who have lost friends — that we find new ideas. 

When I started out in this field, I was one of the first people to ask big questions about social media and suicide prevention, about cutting-edge ways to reach people who need help. Now? I’ve reached the limit to what I can imagine as one person. It’s time for people who are far smarter than me, and far less experienced in doing this work, to innovate. My job now is to listen and help turn those ideas into new programs. This isn’t just a good idea; it’s the only idea that will forge real change and bring those numbers down.