I remember the day vividly. At 6 AM, I answered my phone effortlessly without knowing it would change my life. When I registered the words I was hearing, my legs gave out and I fell to the floor. It couldn’t be true. On that day six years ago, I lost my best friend to suicide.
In the months that followed, I struggled in a closed-door boxing match with myself. In the ring, I battled anger, confusion and guilt. I wrestled with countless questions. I looked for reasons. Reasons why she couldn't talk to me. Reasons why I didn’t see the signs. Reasons why she killed herself.
By the time I graduated from high school, I knew six teens who died by suicide in the Bay Area. I saw firsthand the ripple effect each death had on my community. Their loss was felt at school, in the classrooms, throughout the hallways, and especially across social media.
“RIP, you will be missed.”
“I will miss your laugh the most.”
“Won’t be the same without you dude.”
Ultimately, I had a choice: I could be beaten down by pain or I could fight for teens who struggled with mental illness alone. I chose to fight.
Over 90 percent of teens who die by suicide suffer from a treatable mental illness, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Teens who experience depression or anxiety need to know this crucial fact. But this message is not reaching my generation. We are disconnected from the slogans and statistics adults have created for us. How could adults teach teens about the struggles they faced day-to-day when these struggles manifest themselves differently for our generation?
In order to effectively reach struggling teens, I knew the discussion about depression and suicide had to be communicated in the space where our generation engages — through social media and video. I decided to create Not Alone, a film about mental illness and suicide for teens and by teens.
Contrary to the norm, I did not want to make another film about suicide prevention techniques. Instead, my focus was to integrate these critical elements from the perspective of teenagers, engulfed in Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook and other social media. I knew the best way for teens to learn about the real causes behind suicide was to hear from peers who had experience mental illness.
Not Alone gives a voice to those otherwise silenced by the stigma surrounding mental health. In the film, ten incredibly selfless teenagers share the truths about their mental illness and the support that helped them get through their pain. I engaged teens in every aspect of this project. Talented young artists created the original music, photography, cinematography, artwork, and poetry shared throughout the film. They stood in as extras, managed data, and worked as production assistants and social media managers.
As the teenagers I interviewed shared the depth of their pain, I realized how rare it is for our generation to have meaningful conversations about the challenges we face. We limit our communication to “likes” and comments. But it’s not enough. The teens I interviewed describe how social media had become an integral part of their self-worth and well-being.
“A major point of anxiety for me was social media,” one high school student admits in the film. “It was Facebook and Tumblr and this constant need for connection.”
This led me to wonder: in a society where teens are more “connected” than ever, why do they feel the most alone?
Social media shields us from “connecting” in honest ways. We need to break down the barriers that prevent us from talking about what we are feeling, whether that is pain or hopelessness. We need to connect on a deeper level. We need to actively listen and help encourage suffering friends to find the professional help that they need.
The film is the product of the deep pain and immense love for the teens who lost their lives. I wish my best friend, and others who lost the battle to suicide, could have had the opportunity to hear these stories. Not Alone is the film I wish had been a resource to them—to me—in middle school and high school. After months of speaking with psychiatrists, professors and teens about mental illness, I have now come to the conclusion that there are no definitive “reasons why” my friend took her life.
Not Alone should not just capture your attention about the problem, but encourage you—teens, parents, counselors, and communities—to take action.
Suicide cannot be effectively addressed until mental health is both understood and destigmatized. This film alone cannot do those things. I hope this film sparks conversations and actions that will have an impact. Through mental health awareness, we all can become advocates. Open discussion surrounding mental health can prompt honesty by unearthing and addressing issues that we all may be facing.
Please learn as I did, from the experts — the teens who have lived it.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.