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New 988 suicide hotline may help save Black teens in Jacksonville

Desiree Jones, CEO of Step By Step Community Behavioral Health, was one of the licensed mental health counselors who participated in a youth wellness event Friday to promote the new 988 number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
Will Brown
Jacksonville Today
Desiree Jones, CEO of Step By Step Community Behavioral Health, was one of the licensed mental health counselors who participated in a youth wellness event Friday to promote the new 988 number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Racial and ethnic minority groups are most likely to live in impoverished areas, where homicide and suicide rates are highest. Mental health leaders hope the 988 phone number will be so easy to remember that they'll get help before it's too late.

In the heart of a mental health crisis, every moment matters. That’s why Desiree Jones is confident the national three-digit mental health crisis hotline will save lives.

Jones hopes that 988 becomes as ubiquitous as 911. The 988 hotline was activated Saturday.

On Friday, Jones was among those who met with scores of teenagers at the Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida Citi Teen Center. The Jacksonville native has devoted the last 17 years as a licensed mental health counselor and is the CEO of Step By Step Community Behavioral Health.

“When you’re in a crisis, it’s very difficult to remember (800-273-8255), so 988 is going to make it very efficient,” Jones said. “When you’re in a crisis and you feel like harming yourself, or killing yourself, remembering 988 is going to be a lot easier, especially the emphasis put on it being so huge right now.”

Friday’s 988 Youth Wellness Event was geared toward reducing Black teen suicide. Jacksonville University Assistant Professor Dr. LaTonya Summers as well as therapists Nickie Myrthil and Tony Baker led a panel discussion in the morning. Later, breakout sessions were focused on relationships and mental health; coping strategies; the impact of bullying on mental health; and the power of social media on an individual’s mental health.

Ranaya Byers said attendees were able to share their experiences related to mental health in a fun and upbeat environment. Byers, 15, may not have a driver’s license, but she was driving the conversation on mental health as one of the organizers of Friday’s event.

“It’s important for people to know the suicide hotline number is changing because … suicide is the No. 1 death rate dealing with us young, Black folks today. 988 is an easier number to dial than the 800-number — that’s still (active) by the way,” Ranaya said. “We can pick up the phone. Anyone you need to talk to will tell you ‘You’re not here alone.’ Even if you can’t talk to friends, or your mom, or anybody, you still have a hotline to call.”

In 2020, 10 people in Duval County between 15 and 19 years old died via suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That incident rate was the highest this century.

Between 2016 and 2020, 26 teenagers in Duval County died by suicide. The specific racial breakdown over that period is suppressed by the CDC — in an attempt to protect personal privacy — because the incident rate is below 10.

Nevertheless, one suicide is too many.

From left, Malik Harris, Ranaya Byers and Burdette Williams II promote the new 988 National Suicide Prevention Hotline number.
Will Brown
Jacksonville Today
From left, Malik Harris, Ranaya Byers and Burdette Williams II promote the new 988 National Suicide Prevention Hotline number.

Ranaya will be a sophomore at Andrew Jackson High School this fall. She dreams of working with children, either as a pediatric nurse or as the owner of day care facilities. For now, her passion is ensuring the stigma around mental health is eradicated.

“You will have a professional telling you what’s right and what’s wrong instead of your friends telling you what they think is best for you,” Ranaya said.

Nationally, gun violence is the leading cause of death for teenagers between 12 and 19 years old. CDC data indicate that firearm suicide rates were “relatively unchanged” between 2019 and 2020.

“Racial and ethnic minority groups are more likely to live in communities with high surrounding poverty, and firearm homicide and suicide were also associated with poverty,” the CDC found in its May 2022 report.

Malik Harris said his takeaway from Friday’s event was there are now more people who believe their life is worth something.

“Most kids think they don’t have nothing to live for, so they do what they gotta do,” Malik explained.

Malik, 16, lives on the Eastside. A childhood friend of his, Ceasar Torres, was shot and killed while driving on East 8th Street in May. Torres’ death, Harris said, was a reminder that life is precious.

“Everyone is dying young due to gun violence,” Harris said. “I see (Torres’) mom. She walks around the Eastside crying. They took her son. It’s tough when you think about it.”

Harris said he tries not to think about Torres. But, Friday’s programming was a reminder that there are services available to people who are in a mental health crisis.

Jones, the longtime Jacksonville clinician, said it’s vitally important that people learn at a young age the ways their mental health can affect their lives.

Because social media has an outsized impact on the minds of children, Jones encouraged parents, caregivers and adults to get more involved in the digital lives of children by:

  • Limiting the time children spend on social media.
  • Monitoring their child’s phone and media consumption.
  • Asking children for their passwords.
  • Being a part of their child’s digital lives.

“We have to be in tune to our children,” Jones said. “Even as parents, we’re busy sometimes. Or, even as teachers, you’re busy in the classroom. But, typically — and sometimes not — behaviors change in children. If we pay attention to those signs, we can tap into something that’s going on with our children.”

Addison Simms, a youth engagement coordinator for the Jacksonville Center for Children’s Rights, led the 45-minute discussion on the power and influence of social media. The two dozen children who attended that session said they plan to incorporate the socialization skills they learned offline in the second floor of a community center in Springfield, into their online lives.

The solutions to the stigmatization of mental health services, Simms said, cannot be found in government or the nonprofit sector, but through empowering communities. Friday’s event was one example of youth leading the discussion about eliminating Black teen suicide.

Voices Institute coordinated with Lutheran Services of Florida and The Partnership for Child Health for Friday’s event. Dr. Vicki Waytowich, executive director of The Partnership for Child Health, vowed Jacksonville will soon have local expertise and resources available from the new hotline as it’s unveiled.

Voices Institute Founder and CEO Selena Webster-Bass closed Friday’s festivities by reminding the children they are capable, and they are mighty.

“You are not alone,” Webster-Bass implored. “Any time you are going through stress and struggle, we are here for you.”

Copyright 2022 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Will Brown - Jacksonville Today
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