Massages and awareness: Wash. U.’s suicide prevention campaign
“In 2000, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported over one million teen suicide attempts, which equates to 4,200 kids a day between the ages of 12 and 17 trying to kill themselves, which is unbelievable,” Weiss said.
The Wash. U. football team has partnered with the Jason Foundation, Inc. (JFI) to bring messages of inclusivity to high school football teams in the St. Louis area as a way to decrease national teen suicide rates. Formerly a pastor in Tennessee, Clark Flatt, whose 16-year-old son committed suicide in 1997, created JFI in an effort to spread awareness about the prevalence of teen suicide. According to its website, JFI provides students, educators and parents with tools to recognize at-risk youth in their communities.
“Since I’ve gotten involved, I’ve spoken a lot about teen suicide and suicide in general, and it’s like, the more people I speak to, the more people I unfortunately learn have had encounters with suicide in their life,” Weiss said. “But at the same time, the more people I speak to, the more people I learn have no idea about teen suicide in general. Either they have no idea about it, or they’re just afraid to talk about it.”
In order to reverse what is known as the “Silent Epidemic,” Weiss has organized a unique fundraiser and awareness campaign for JFI. On Tuesday April 24 at 6 p.m. Wash. U. students and faculty will gather on Francis Field to reclaim the title of World’s Longest Massage Chain in “The Guinness Book of World Records,” which was snatched from 710 University alumni after a group in Thailand broke their record in 2010 with 1,223 people.
Weiss spoke to a collection of people on campus, from RAs to deans to undergraduate and graduate students and even to Bear’s Den staff in an attempt to recruit over 2,000 people to break the record. Although the massage chain portion will last for only a few minutes, Clark Flatt will speak at the beginning of the event to relate his son’s story and his suicide prevention mission.
“So, if we get 2,000 people [at the event] and say one percent of that 2,000, so 20 people, are half as moved as I’ve been to effect change then the event will be a huge success.”
Although the event is meant to spread awareness to the Wash. U. community, Weiss and his team have had much success in their outreach efforts geared toward high school students. After applying the program to six high schools so far, the Wash. U. students have learned the proper approach to relay their message.
“We don’t blatantly say suicide because then we aren’t allowed into the high schools, but we speak to them more about how they have a built-in support structure with the football team there and to look out for kids with signs of depression,” Weiss said. “[We tell them,] ‘Look out for that kid in the lunch room that has nowhere to sit, and don’t be afraid to invite him over. Or the kid in the hallway who gets his books knocked down who is having a really rough day, because the thing is, those are the kind of kids that commit suicide.’”
As a football player in high school and college, Weiss can relate to the struggles that these St. Louis football players face when trying to navigate their social environment. When talking to the students, Weiss and his team often pose a scenario to help concretize their advice.
“So, when there’s a kid walking through the lunchroom and there’s nowhere to sit, the 10 football players see him and they know he has nowhere to sit,” Weiss explained. “And then the kid that has nowhere to sit looks at the 10 football players totally afraid to go talk to them. He would never do it. But the thing is, these 10 football players look at him and each individually they’re also afraid, and something has to give for anything to happen.”
The football players’ hesitation derives from their fear of peer judgment, he said.
“The football player is afraid that if he invited this kid over who he can intuit needs help, his football buddies are going to say, ‘Hey what are you doing, loser? Don’t invite that kid over,’” Weiss said. “But I tell them every single time, I know. I was a football player in high school. I am a football player here. I know how it works. If any of my buddies or I had done that, I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have gotten made fun of, they all would have understood what I did, and I would have been even cooler for doing that. And I tell them that, and they all nod their head, and they all totally understand.”
Although a seemingly simple concept, Weiss said it was difficult for him to see the scenario in these terms when he was wrapped up in the high school milieu. By simply broaching the subject, the program hopes to increase the likelihood that a football player will offer support to an at-risk stranger.
In conjunction with these discussions, the students participate in a cup-stacking competition as a team building and educational activity. The Wash. U. football team has a unique connection to the sport, as one of the player’s fathers is responsible for formalizing cup stacking into a competitive sport.
“We use the cup stacking as sort of a metaphor for how some kids feel,” Weiss said. “For example when the kids up there are competing and they’re feeling nervous and someone’s yelling at him, it’s like he has this little like nervous feeling inside of him…Or when we’re picking the teams, for example, the kids that aren’t picked yet have that feeling like, ‘Oh I haven’t been picked yet. What if I don’t get picked?’”
“You know, they have that [feeling for a minute], and we tell them that there are kids that have that times 1,000 every moment of every day, and those are the kids that need a hand lent towards them.”
Wash. U.’s football team has received positive feedback from both students and professionals for its work. A number of high school students have emailed the Wash. U. team thanking them for their thoughts and sharing stories of ways in which they have recently changed their behavior. JFI has also recognized the accomplishments of Weiss and the team, seeking to base more university programs off of the Wash. U. model. Despite the program’s achievements, many high schools refuse to participate.
“It’s like, a lot of the high schools that don’t let us go in, they are afraid to let us go in because they feel like if we say the word suicide to their kids there is going to be a kid sitting there and he’s going to go, ‘Suicide? You know, that is a great idea, why didn’t I think of that?’” Weiss said. “Which, you know, is the total opposite effect of what it has, but that’s why they are afraid and that mentality is what we are trying to dissuade.”
Students interested in learning more about how to help raise awareness for teen suicide can attend Tuesday’s Longest Massage Chain event. Weiss is asking for one-dollar donations from participants, and will distribute free T-shirts to the first 1,225 people that show up to Francis Field. To learn more about JFI visit http://www.jasonfoundation.com/index.php, and to learn specifically about the Wash. U. program, visit http://washufootball.com/index_files/Jasonfoundation.htm.