Story at a glance
- Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 10 and 24.
- Ahead of suicide prevention month, a new series is telling the stories of teenagers struggling with thoughts of suicide.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 percent of people reported struggling with a mental health issue.
Before Terry Thoren was the founder of Animation Magazine, CEO of the company responsible for iconic series "The Simpsons" and "The Rugrats," or the producer of Emmy-nominated shows, he was a teenager. And before he could tell stories to millions of viewers, he was telling stories in his head — about himself and to himself.
“I would usually go to either my chaplain or my coach and he would say to me, ‘you’re just telling yourself a story.’ And then we’d break it down and I realized that I had this second voice in my head that I’m fighting with - and we’ve done that in all of these episodes,” he told Changing America about his latest series in partnership with the Cook Center for Human Connection, "My Life is Worth Living."
The first episode, "Ray of Hope," aired on Youtube on Aug. 18, with new episodes released every Wednesday for free. Removing the monetary barriers to access was particularly important to the show’s creators, who are tackling a pervasive yet still stigmatized subject: suicide.
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“We want them to understand that they are not alone, they're not the only ones who've ever had these emotions or feelings or experiences that are difficult to get through and that there are people around them who love them and want to help them,” said Anne Brown, CEO of the Cook Center, which is based in Utah — where suicide is the leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 24.
After years working in the suicide prevention space, Brown understands the innate need for a safe space that even strangers find in her when they learn about her work. For Thoren, animation is that safe space. While he grew up catching cartoons on Saturday morning, youth today are consuming animated entertainment all day and night long. Of course, the increased availability and sheer volume of content means that the competition is steep.
“This is a medium that kids speak and even adults seek. Animation is not what it used to be and we’re trying to bring back this idea that something that has so much power in a child's space and mind and attention is also quality,” said Brown, who said the show is also geared towards parents.
With the help of medical experts, corporate sponsors, educators, animators and producers — all in different time zones — the show was produced remotely during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. While Thoren said he missed the ability to read body language, the crew logged long hours on Zoom to push through and tell the stories of Dante, Amie, Kyle, Emily and Annie. Each teenager’s story is told in four episodes that explores a range of triggers and symptoms for mental health crises and thoughts of suicide.
“The typical group of kids in a classroom today, I would say 85 percent of the kids in that classroom are in trauma of some kind - whether it be the hurricanes or the floods zipping through the south, the fires going through the north,” said Thoren. “We’re living in a time of people dying in a pandemic.”
The rate of suicide among those aged 10 to 24 increased by nearly two-thirds between 2007 and 2018, according to a 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a number that has only grown since. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 percent of people reported struggling with a mental health issue, with young people, racial and ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ+ community most at risk.
So is there a happily ever after?
“We end every episode on hope,” said Brown, “but no one gets cured in four episodes of anything, so all of our characters still have work to do.”
The creators of the show do as well, working to raise awareness of the issue and spread their message in schools. As for season two, Thoren said they’re looking closely at feedback and comments from viewers like you to decide the next chapter of the story.
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