Before All Hope Is Lost
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This month, an unusual assemblage will make a return pilgrimage to Capitol Hill, appearing before the press and logging face time with congressmen, all with one goal in mind -- increasing funding for suicide prevention. On March 1, punk band Matchbook Romance -- along with 11 other bands -- and their Take Action! tour mates began a two-month trek across the country, raising money and awareness for a quiet, misunderstood epidemic.
Before the tour kicked off, fans got their hands on the annual Take Action! compilation, a two-disc affair stuffed with 44 songs -- some unreleased -- from the likes of Sugarcult, Against Me!, Cursive, Hawthorne Heights, Lagwagon and many more.
While the names of the bands on Take Action! CDs are changing from year to year, two men behind the project are constants -- the National Hopeline Network founder Reese Butler and Hopeless and Sub City Records founder Louis Posen. Butler and Posen will be speaking alongside Sen. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., during the conference on Capitol Hill, and their joint efforts have helped make the Take Action! tour a shining example of all the good that can occur when music and activism cross paths.
But nobody is resting on their laurels. How could they? Not with kids in the United States between the ages of 10 and 24 taking their lives at an alarming rate of one every two hours. The suicide statistics are alarming; the prevention statistics are infuriating. As recently as 2000, the federal government allocated zero dollars to fund suicide prevention programs. In part because of the public efforts of the Take Action! tour -- and the 100,000 plus petitions the tour has brought back to Washington -- Congress has finally put it into the budget. But, in the grand scheme of D.C. spending, the crisis is merely getting chump change thrown at it.
"This year, it's a whopping 16 million [dollars]," says Butler. "That may sound like a lot to some people, but, to put it in context, we just appropriated 17 billion to fight AIDS in Africa. I am not against helping save every man, woman and child everywhere on the planet, but if we can come up with 17 billion to help reduce the AIDS epidemic in Africa, do you think we might be able to come up with a billion for suicide prevention in America? We're talking about a disease that literally takes more lives than homicide and AIDS combined in the U.S."
Unfortunately, Congress has been slow to act -- after a long period of not acting at all. Two members who have become important allies to the movement are Sens. Kennedy and Gordon Smith, R-Ore. As is often the case, it became a lot easier to gain traction once Congress had its own personal stories to tell.
"The one that sticks out most in my mind is Patrick Kennedy, who admits himself to being bipolar," Posen says, recalling last year's assembly on Capitol Hill. "He mentioned that in the last three years, three members of Congress have had kids commit suicide. So why is it so difficult for this group of people to realize that this is an important issue, and that funds should be allocated? The Surgeon General has said that this is the most preventable form of death."
"If I was to take Patrick Kennedy's perspective and flush it out," Posen continues, "I'd say that [suicide prevention] is not getting federal funding because there is a stigma against mental health. When you see someone on the street acting crazy and weird, you run from them. When you see someone bleeding, you run to them. That's kind of what's been going on with Congress as far as funding goes."
Butler agrees wholeheartedly. Prior to his founding of the National Hopeline Network and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center -- named after his wife, who died by suicide in 1998 -- there was no networking of crisis centers nationwide. Not only were there no resources, but there was no initiative and no leadership. By the time Posen and his Take Action! tour came looking for a partner, Butler was running the only game in town -- a confidential 24-hour service that linked crisis centers together, a true national suicide hotline.
"Mental health has traditionally been the stepchild of the health arena," Butler says. "You wouldn't even find it in the public health arena; it would be shunted off to asylums and then state institutions and then eventually community mental health centers. We always want to separate the brain from the body."
Butler tells the story of polling a group of 100 clinicians at the time he was starting his organizations, asking them what toll-free number they provided to patients for when the doctors were not available. While all 100 doctors insisted that there was a crisis hotline, none could provide the number -- because there wasn't one.
"It was an indictment of our treatment of the mental health crisis in America," he says. "How can health insurance for your body be ranked differently than health insurance for your brain? Yet they manage to discriminate and say, 'Well, you get ten office visits, even if you need eleven.' If you have cancer, are they going to say, 'Well, we can give you five of those chemo treatments, but you're on your own for that sixth one'?"
To succeed, every cause needs a powerful champion. Politically, the mental health issues have found one in New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici. Butler believes that any inroads in Congress will have to come from the Republican side of the aisle, as that party has traditionally resisted mental health causes. Like Kennedy, Domenici has his own personal reasons for joining the fight.
"Sen. Domenici has been the lone standard-bearer from the Republican Party," he says. "His daughter suffers from several mental illnesses, including schizophrenia." But the kind of champion that every cause really hopes for is the celebrity champion. On that token, Butler's side has kept coming up blank, despite an abundance of candidates.
"Everyone from Gregory Peck to Paul Newman has lost children to suicide," Butler says. "But Michael J. Fox, the fact that he had Parkinson's for six or eight years -- Parkinson's! Nobody inflicts Parkinson's on themselves, so what was the big deal about him coming out? Because it would hurt his star credibility, and nobody would want to put him in a movie because of the risk liability."
"Think about the impact of a Paul Newman coming out and saying, 'My kid died by suicide,'" Butler continued, "Nobody regards suicide as the result of an untreated disease -- they look at it as a willing act. If somebody were to do that to themselves, then obviously it was their wife, husband, parent, child, boss, whatever -- somebody drove them to it. It's not even the fear of what it will do to their careers It's how they will be perceived by the public. It would take a lot of guts to get up there and say, 'Hey, I am for suicide prevention,' when 99 percent of Americans don't believe that you can prevent suicide."
The bands involved in the Take Action! tours and compilations may not have the star power of Michael J. Fox or Elton John and Elizabeth Taylor -- who were instrumental in getting attention focused on the AIDS epidemic after the Reagan administration generally opted for avoidance -- but they have had a major impact on the movement all the same. For starters, they have allowed 1-800-SUICIDE to fend off the advances of outside competition trying to buy them out.
The government is now spending $2.2 million to essentially redo the 1-800-SUICIDE infrastructure set up by Butler and the National Hopeline Network. "It's not even just a waste of money -- they're actually competing with us!" Butler says, appalled. "They're hurting an existing, successful effort, and for what?"
Butler credits the Take Action! tour -- along with individual donations, which the center relies upon heavily for helping him stay independent. For the tour organizer, it was an easy fit, although he hadn't always envisioned linking up with only one organization.
"We did the tour one year where it benefited various nonprofits, and a different one in each local city," Posen says. "We learned from that tour that our message was a little cluttered by having so many different organizations, and some of those causes didn't necessarily connect with the fans going to the shows. We talked to the fans of the bands that would typically go out on Take Action! and found out the things that affected people most were things that could lead up, in the most severe case, to suicide -- drug abuse, depression, problems at school, domestic problems at home."
The subsequent search led Posen to Butler, and they've been in the trenches annually ever since, with the tour raising over $220,000 for the Kristin Brooks Hope Center. It also wasn't the last time that their efforts were directly shaped by fan feedback at the shows. They later developed the Youth America Hotline (1-877-YOUTHLINE), which links peer-to-peer networks together, providing kids across the country with one easy number to remember in times of trouble.
"After the first couple years of doing Take Action!" Posen says, "a lot of the feedback was 'Well, I'm not feeling suicidal, but I am having problems, and I don't feel like 1-800-SUICIDE is quite the place to call. And I'm also feeling that I'd rather talk to someone my own age rather than a trained adult.'"
Despite the problems of today and the uncertainties of tomorrow, Butler is busy moving ahead, trying to find new ways to reach the at-risk. One of the growth goals for Youthline, for example, is to provide live online counseling. And it doesn't stop there.
"We need to be doing text messaging on cell phones, we need to be doing online counseling in chat rooms, we need to be doing email -- wherever they will meet us and be willing to open up, that's where we have to be," Butler says.