By all outward appearances and measures, Jason Reid is a highly successful and prodigiously productive person: He’s a go-getting CEO who has started numerous businesses and who coaches and consults internationally on leadership; an author of multiple business books and lighter titles for kids and families; and, more recently, he’s tried his hand at filmmaking. Heck, he’s somehow even found time to earn a black belt in Tae Kwon Do along the way. And while Reid would call himself an entrepreneur by trade, he’d also tell you he’s a dad by passion.
In March 2018, this dedicated family man and father of four experienced something no parent should ever face when he received the news that his 14-year-old son, Ryan, died by suicide while Reid and his wife were on vacation. Reid’s seemingly perfect life was shattered, and he was left to confront the truth that while he believed he had been doing everything “right” to raise happy, healthy kids, he had missed the signs of his son’s secret, silent battle with depression; that he had failed to ask the right questions and to have the difficult but necessary conversations that may have revealed to him that his son needed help.
In the aftermath of Ryan’s death, as the family attempted to come to grips with the loss, Reid discovered two Post-it Notes his son had left where he knew they would be found: One read, “Here’s my username and passwords”; the other read, “Tell my story.”
And that is what Jason Reid is doing. He started a foundation, ChooseLife.org, with a mission that is likely more ambitious than any he has yet attempted in his career as a businessman: to end teen suicide by 2030.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in youths younger than 25 in North America; half a million teenagers a year attempt it, and 5,000 a year succeed. Through ChooseLife.org, Reid hopes to move beyond just raising awareness about this epidemic to direct the bold actions necessary to end teen suicide in 10 years’ time. To ignite this movement, Reid is determined to reach every family with Ryan’s story.
We caught up with Reid to talk about what’s ahead for the organization and how parents can better take ownership of their kids’ mental health by having this most important conversation about depression and self-harm.
You’ve shared Ryan’s story in a widely viewed TEDx Talk as well as in other speaking engagements around the country; you’ve also produced a documentary, “Tell My Story,” which will be released in spring of 2020. What else is on the docket?
This fall, I’m hoping to use [the film] to get some celebrities together to do interviews about their own relationship with mental health for a “Tell My Story” YouTube channel. A lot of celebrities talk about depression, mental health and their relationship with it, but one article and it disappears. I want them to be able to say, “Okay, well, I’ll get behind this movement, put my weight behind it and tell my story.”
The reality of our story is that one of the things I deeply regret in life is getting Ryan a phone at the age of 12. We live an hour and a half from San Diego and the Mexican border, and I would never have said to Ryan, “Why don’t you go down to Tijuana, wander the streets on a Saturday night, and come back and tell me what you think.” No parent would ever do that. But what I did do and say was, “Here is a phone with unfettered access to the internet — go anywhere you want, research whatever you want, and I won’t even ask you about it.” And he used that phone to research how to kill himself.
So, another piece of it that you’ll see in the next couple of weeks is Kids Safe Mobile, a new app that I created for kids’ mobile phones. The app allows a parent to lock down the kid’s phone so they can only make a phone call, send a text, take a picture. And there’s an app that’s on the parent’s phone, so if [the kid ever tries] to shut down or delete the app, the parent gets an immediate notification. It’s also a tracker, so you know exactly where your kid is at all times. And the final piece of it: Any text that they send, you get a copy of on your phone.
Why do you think people don’t understand depression as a disease that can and must be acknowledged as such and treated, particularly in youths?
I don’t think people appreciate it because they don’t understand it, medically. It’s hard to understand. Science doesn’t even understand it completely. We grew up with the idea that you can shake off depression if you try — we revert to how we were raised, and it takes a long time to change that kind of thought process. We’re starting to.
Do you feel like you had an awareness of mental health concerns for your kids?
Absolutely not. I never thought something like this would happen to us. It was always somebody else’s kid. You have grumpy teenagers, which I know — I have four. I just thought Ryan was going through a phase. All kids go through phases. And I think that’s the hard thing for parents to grapple with: Is this a phase or is this something real? Just because your kid is alone in his room a bunch does not necessarily mean he’s going to attempt suicide. But it doesn’t mean that he’s not going to, either. And unfortunately, we’re not well-equipped as parents and even as a medical community to be able to judge that.
How do we end teen suicide?
I didn’t originally start ChooseLife.org with the intention of ending teen suicide. I had no intention of doing any of this. I had intentions of doing a movie, and I knew a TED Talk would help me get some publicity for the movie. And that would be my contribution to this. I tell Ryan’s story, I’m done. But as I started doing the movie and I started having all these different conversations with everybody who is in the space, I realized, “We’re not doing this the right way.” We’re not tackling this like a problem that can be solved. We’re just saying, “Everybody should be aware.” [Teen suicide] gets worse every year. Awareness is not helping. It’s simply not enough.
All the things I want to do on ChooseLife.org’s website on the five pillars, those are all things that have to be tackled. I’m starting with the easiest ones. If you want to end teen suicide, it starts with parents. And parents I can affect right now. I can do this movie. I can get out there and speak. I can create an app. I can get more awareness about ending suicide [not just raising awareness of teen suicide]. I can do that. I can drive that. Then, that will hopefully get me to be able to do the rest of what I need to do here.
How do you see the work of ChooseLife.org dovetailing with other mental health and suicide prevention organizations?
I’m disrupting a space that doesn’t necessarily want to be disrupted. What I mean by that is that everyone’s out there trying to raise awareness of teen suicide, and that’s what they’re comfortable doing. And the nonprofit world moves extremely slowly. I’m out there as a business guy saying, “Nope, we’re going to end it.” We’ve created it, we can end it. But not unless we try. Raising awareness doesn’t end teen suicide — it doesn’t do anything. If you go into a group of parents and say, “How many of you are aware of teen suicide?” they all put up their hands. There is no lack of awareness.
Are there key things you discovered during the process of making the film that maybe you didn’t foresee going into that process?
I understood that Instagram was a problem, but I didn’t understand to what level it is a problem. Kids just do not need access to Instagram or Snapchat, because the dopamine effects [released when using those apps] rewire the brain. Kids are not capable of understanding at that age — and most adults aren’t either — that that Facebook page, that Instagram page and that Snapchat story aren’t real. It’s a veneer, but kids can’t see that as veneer. They don’t know what the word veneer is. They see everyone else’s life is better than theirs and they just experience it as a lack. “Oh, my gosh, I posted this picture of me and only four people liked it today. My life sucks. I don’t want to be here anymore.”
What is your advice to parents for having that most important conversation?
What I want parents to understand is it’s not like it was when we grew up. We’re not connected with our friends anymore; we’re not connected with our families anymore the way we used to be. Because everybody’s in front of their phones and computers. It’s about sitting down and saying, “Okay, I’m going to recognize the fact that I’m part of the problem. I’m going to take the time. I’m going to be present with my children. I’m not going to be on the phone checking my Instagram, checking my Facebook, texting my friends, working.” [The latter of which] was always my problem.
The ironic thing is that I wrote a book on being more connected as a family. Because we were. There are no phones at our dinner table. But that still wasn’t enough. Because I never asked the question. Ryan had Crohn’s disease, so I’d ask him, “How’s your stomach?” But I never asked him how his head was. I never asked him if he was depressed. I never asked him if he thought about killing himself. Those are the hard questions that parents don’t want to ask, but those are the questions we have to ask. Because if you ask someone who’s thinking of killing himself, the reality is he will tell you in most cases. And he’ll probably be relieved that you asked.