If an adult had described me a couple of years back, he or she would have said, "Jon is very mature for his age; he's responsible; he's dependable. He's the Eagle Scout who chairs the Eureka City Youth Council, an advisory board to the Eureka, California, City Council."
What they could not know was how depressed I was. In spring 1997, a personal problem seemed overwhelming. I can hardly describe the sadness. I stayed in my room and cried. I did the whole guy thing, thinking, "I can deal with this on my own; I don't need to share my feelings with others." I didn't talk to my family; I just cut off communication with the world. I wasn't interested in hanging out with my friends. After school, I would come home, go up to my room, and sleep for hours.
Depression is described as having blinders on, where you can't see the positive things in life. Once you're depressed about something, everything else is going to make you more depressed--even things that normally wouldn't get to you. It's a downward spiral. So it wasn't surprising that suicidal thoughts crossed my mind. I just wanted to end the pain.
I needed to talk to someone and get help. But I just couldn't--my problem was too personal to share. As hard as I tried, I couldn't make the intense pain go away. I was feeling worse each day, not better. Searching the web, I found a suicide prevention program called the Yellow Ribbon Program. I decided to e-mail them for more information.
That e-mail changed my life. The founders of the Light for Life Foundation, Dale and Dar Emme, started the Yellow Ribbon Program after their son, Michael, committed suicide. When I spoke with Dale, he told me of his son's death and how, through his program, he wanted to help other teens find a way to control their pain, not end their pain. I heard the passion in his voice when he told me about the Yellow Ribbon card.
The front has a yellow ribbon on it. The card reads: "THIS RIBBON IS A LIFELINE. It carries the message that there are those who care and will help! If you are in need and don't know how to ask for help, take this card to a counselor, teacher, clergy, parent or friend and say: 'I NEED TO USE MY YELLOW RIBBON.'"
The back of the card reads: "THIS CARD IS A CRY FOR HELP! STAY with the person--you are their lifeline! LISTEN, really listen--they may not be able to tell. GET them to or call someone who can help!"
I knew the community needed the program. Dale sent me information. I read through the materials and began to plan the proposal I was going to make to the Youth Council. I began to feel better. All of the negative energy, all of the things I'd built up inside of me, seemed to be diminishing. I was making something positive out of the sadness I'd been feeling.
In September 1997, I went to the Youth Council with the idea, and they were all supportive. We decided to plan a youth suicide prevention week during February 1998.
One morning in December, everything changed. I was sitting in my early-morning church class I go to before school, and our teacher said, "I have some news to tell you. Last night, Ricky Moses killed himself."
I just sat there in shock. It didn't really register at first. I didn't see him the day before, but everyone said he'd acted normal--just his regular self.
Ricky and I had gone to school together since elementary school. I thought about all of the different activities we had been involved in together through our church. I cried for Ricky. I wish I had known how much pain he was in. Maybe I could have helped him.
Here we were, planning the Yellow Ribbon Program for suicide prevention, and in the same week that we were scheduled to meet with counselors to discuss the details, Ricky took his life.
Even though my own depression was better, Ricky's death deeply affected me. I needed to talk with someone and went to a counselor a couple of times after Ricky's suicide.
Then, with friends, I started working on the Yellow Ribbon Program as a way to fight my depression over Ricky's death. Now, unfortunately, we knew firsthand how badly our students needed this program. We needed to get the cards out as soon as possible.
A local oral surgeon who was very active in the community, Dr. Richard Rog, gave us $250 to print the first cards. We put a local crisis center number on it, and the card reads, "In loving memory of Ricky Moses."
At the same time, the school counselors changed their minds. They felt there was too much pain after Ricky's death and said if there was going to be an assembly, it needed to be an uplifting one. At the Youth Council, we were so angry. Our friend had just killed himself, and we were told we could not help everyone else.
Since there was no way to work around the policy, we made them commit to a suicide prevention week the third week in September 1998. We decided that if we had to wait, we were going to use the time to involve every high school in our county.
And that's what we did. I sent letters to every public, private, and alternative high school. At first, most school administrators said, "It hasn't happened here. That's not a problem in the community. If you start talking about suicide, it's just going to give people ideas."
Not true. If you know about depression and know someone who's depressed, you know suicide has already crossed his or her mind. You're not going to be giving them any ideas; you're just letting them know you care about them. If they are thinking about suicide, the Yellow Ribbon card lets them know they can talk to you because you're not scared to talk about the issue.
The program became my personal mission. With good information from the program, and our persistence, schools started saying yes to the week. I wrote more letters, this time to junior high schools and colleges in the area, and I faxed congresspeople for their support.
Now I just needed a way to pay for more cards, Dale and Dar's visit, and brochures. Thanks to a $3,500 grant from St. Joseph's Hospital, we were able to do it all. Then right before the week began, the governor of California, Pete Wilson, proclaimed it the Yellow Ribbon Week to Prevent Youth Suicide.
Dale and Dar came to speak at each school. Dar talked about Michael and how great a kid he was--a bright, funny, loving teen who was always helping others. She spoke of how Mike canceled an order for a new transmission for his car and bought two used ones from the salvage yard instead so that his classmate could get his car running also. Then she courageously told us that Mike left a note warning them not to blame themselves and that he loved them. The note was signed, "Love, Mike 11:45 p.m." Mike shot himself in his car in the family's driveway. At 11:52, his parents pulled into the driveway--seven minutes too late.
Dale explained that Mike took his life when he did not know how to let someone know he was in trouble and needed help. Dale talked about just being a friend, and if someone hands you a card, know you're a lifeline and stay with that person. Before the assembly, we handed Yellow Ribbon cards to each student so they would not have to walk up and get one with other people looking at them and thinking they were suicidal or depressed. Just holding their own card and thinking about Ricky made the students see the program's value.
Dale and Dar talked about the warning signs of suicide, like giving away personal possessions, abrupt changes in personality, neglect of academic work and/or personal appearance, withdrawal from the people they love, and depression. They offered coping strategies, encouraging students to be open with their feelings and not to tolerate physical, emotional, or sexual abuse from anyone but to get help immediately.
Since that week, we have printed and given away about 25,000 cards. There have been three documented cases of teens taken to a mental-health department 24-hour crisis unit when they used their Yellow Ribbon card.
The Yellow Ribbon Program holds a special place in my heart. I still get down every once in a while, but not like before. The program helped me work through Ricky's suicide by doing something positive for others. I now know Ricky did not die in vain.