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Teen suicides prompt face-to-face emphasis

The Denver Post - 10/17/2017

Littleton students touched by recent teen suicides met this month to eat pancakes, play volleyball and soccer, and delete every social media app from their smartphones.

En masse on Oct. 1, about 150 students kicked off a month-long social media blackout by erasing Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the rest from their screens. Since then, the "Offline October" challenge has grown to include 1,600 people at 200 schools in seven countries.

"We're not saying social media causes suicide, because it doesn't," said Joe Roberts, junior class president at Heritage High School. "But it's definitely a factor. People can become jealous and depressed. People are posting these perfect pictures and perfect tweets.

"We're saying you can just be real with people. Talk face to face. If you are depressed, just be open about it. You don't have to pretend your life is OK."

Roberts said he has spent more time hanging out with friends and calling them on the phone since he isn't using Snapchat to communicate.

Teens who made the blackout pledge say giving up social media is like trying to break an addiction. "I've fallen a couple of times, but I'm trying to get back on it," said one who contacted the Offline October organizers for advice. A survey of 400 teens participating in the blackout found that 50 percent had previously been spending two to three hours daily on social media and 50 percent said they had been depressed.

The core group of organizers, from Heritage and Mullen high schools and Goddard Middle School, refer people tempted to return to social media to a bucket list they created on their website. Cook dinner for your family. Write a letter to a friend. Play capture the flag.

After two suicides in two days at the start of the school year -- an Arapahoe High School student and a Powell Middle School student -- a group of about 25 Littleton teens gathered and said "enough is enough," Roberts said. Many of them were friends of a Heritage student who killed himself last year.

They built a website with the catchphrase "Don't post a story, live one," and they spread the word about the blackout in September through texts and, of course, social media. They plan to make it an annual event, a break from worrying about keeping up Snapchat streaks (an unbroken daily conversation through messages and photos) and seeing who is hanging out together through the "snap map."

Roberts, who runs a lawn service and counts tree-hammocking among his hobbies, is thinking about giving up Snapchat for good. "I've realized I don't need it in my life," he said.

Roberts and founders Cason Kurowski and Chloe Schilling expect nearly everyone to return to social media come Nov. 1, but they are hoping they cut back and talk more "without hiding behind a screen."

Jennifer Brown: 303-954-1593, jenbrown@denverpost.com or @jbrowndpost

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Suicide preventation resources

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices .org. Chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Mental Health First Aid: mhfaco.org. Get trained to recognize the signs and how to respond.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. Join one of their upcoming walks for awareness in Colorado.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.

Second Wind Fund: thesecondwindfund .org. Links students to mental health professionals and pays for up to 12 counseling sessions.

 
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