Parents who arrived at the most recent Buc Backer Foundation meeting at Red Bank Regional High School were greeted by an unexpected sight: a queue of shoes, lining the walls and snaking around the halls to their meeting room.
The shoes, as the parents soon found out, were part of a presentation that was designed by the founder of the nonprofit Attitudes In Reverse (AIR), to create a haunting but poignant statement on the topic of suicide.
The display featured some 233 pairs of shoes, representing the number of young people in New Jersey who took their lives in just the two years between 2010 and 2012. The project was coordinated by the Buc Backer Foundation in conjunction with The SOURCE, RBR’s School Based Youth Services Program.
Suicide has grown to be the second cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24 in the United States. Every 15 minutes someone commits suicide, while every 40 seconds someone attempts it. According to the AIR website, “Unless you have walked IN THEIR SHOES you would never know the overwhelming feeling of sadness, anxiety and hopelessness that cause hundreds of young people to end their lives.”
Although RBR conducts suicide awareness programs for students, SOURCE director Suzanne Keller was excited to partner with the Buc Backers to bring in Tricia Baker’s award winning AIR™ presentation, a program that has been presented to audiences in three states. Baker’s main message is to remove the stigma of mental illness, explaining that society must accept it for what it is: a physical ailment that is caused by a chemical imbalance, usually genetic, and triggered by some episode.
The good news about mental illness, Baker explained, is that 70 to 90 percent of depressions are treatable with a combination of medication and therapy. Unfortunately, her beloved son, Kenny Baker, was among the percentage of people for which medication did not work.
“People don’t commit suicide because they want to die,” she exclaimed, “They commit suicide to end the pain.”
But the Baker family’s pain was exacerbated in the wake of Kenny’s death by the reaction of his school community, who initially tried to camouflage it. AIR™ was founded to respond to the lack of suicide awareness and post-vention response. Through education — primarily by Kenny’s younger sister Katelyn — the school’s administration’s attitude toward suicide was transformed to the point where they are now one of AIR™ most ardent supporters.
As Mrs. Baker told the RBR parents, “It’s time to clear the air about suicide, and start the conversation to reverse attitudes.”