As passersby walked midday under the Washington Avenue Bridge’s eastern entrance on Feb. 20, a student group of nine stood for two hours to speak out against suicide. The group members held handmade signs with uplifting messages, some of them reading, “It’s okay to ask for help,” “Only in the darkness can we see the stars” and “You are so valuable!”
The group members hoped this event, called “Stay Warm, Stay Positive,” would raise awareness of suicide prevention, encourage people to talk about mental health and break the stigma of asking for help for those people who struggle in silence.
The group’s name references its goal to spread a national phone number that offers support to callers who are experiencing a crisis.
Spread the Life co-founders Ryan Delmonico and Lucas Hess started the group in 2016, but they had already worked to increase suicide awareness. In 2013, after the suicide of a high school friend, the two helped found Push for Awareness, an annual 150-mile longboarding trek from Duluth to Blaine to raise awareness about suicide prevention. There were 28 riders for the 2016 event, Delmonico said.
Hess said the signs that the longboarders posed with in social media posts throughout the 2016 journey were the inspiration for Spread the Lifeline. One particularly influential sign read, “If you’re looking for a sign not to end your life, this is it.”
Hess printed clothing with encouraging messages and information about mental health resources, which Spread the Lifeline sells as “wearable resources.” Hess hopes to make the clothing a “cool product for you to wear once a week,” adding that “instead of branding a cool company or brand,” one can choose to represent something more meaningful.
Profits from selling the clothes go straight back into the nonprofit Spread the Lifeline, which will invest the money in the next order of clothes.
Some of the original signs from the longboarding journey came to the bridge event, though the group also met before the event to bond over making additional posters.
Delmonico said he hoped the event’s location at the high-traffic Washington Avenue Bridge would reach as many people as possible. He hoped the event could bring some positive associations to the location, which has a history of people using it for suicide attempts.
A series of student health surveys conducted by Boynton Health shows a rise in suicide attempts among students. Of the 2,071 University of Minnesota students surveyed in 2013, 0.6 percent of the students reported attempting suicide within the past 12 months. That would be about 300 students among the nearly 49,200 students attending the University when the survey was given that spring. In 2015, the percentage of surveyed students who reported attempted suicide in the past 12 months was 0.8 percent, which would be about 380 students among the 47,800 University students that spring.
The situation at the University is better than the national average. A 2016 survey from the American College Health Association, a research and advocacy group, said 1.6 percent of college students nationwide reported attempting suicide in the past year.
The Spread the Lifeline group at the University is the first one to thrive, but Hess said he hopes more chapters will prosper at “as many [college campuses] as possible.” Hess said each group would have its own events, sell its own apparel design and team up with other organizations, with “everyone working together.”
Meet some of the people in Spread the Lifeline and hear their stories in our Photo Essay.