By Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld….
In April, 2009, Justin Menendez lost his little brother, Jason, to suicide. Jason was just a month shy of his fourteenth birthday and still in middle school when he committed suicide. “I was 15. It was freshman year,” Menendez says. “We were like 16 months apart.”
It was a devastating blow to the entire family. Investigators told the family a break-up had apparently led the teen to take his life. The suicide affected Menendez so much he transferred from Killian to Archbishop Carroll High School, where he is an incoming senior.
Today, Menendez is working to keep other families from going through the same pain he felt. A year after his brother’s death, he created the J.A.M. Foundation.
“We try spreading awareness and giving out the warning signs to prevent it from happening,” he says. “We have a brochure that tells red flags and what parents and teachers should look for.”
Menendez wants to be sure that despondent kids can get help so they can go on and finish high school.
“People say that you discover yourself in high school,” he says. “But if you don’t make it through middle school…”
Because middle school is such a time of emotional highs and lows, parents often don’t realize their child is struggling emotionally more than normal.
“They just think ‘oh, it’s the middle school age, the middle school attitude’,” he says.
He hopes that by becoming educated about the warning signs, parents can seek help before their child takes the drastic step of attempting suicide.
Menendez says the top warning signs include the withdrawal from friends and family, rebellious behavior and difficulty in getting along with others. There are also hidden warning signs -including changes in eating habits and running away.
When Menendez began to learn more about suicide, he was blown away by how common it is and how it’s not talked about. He wants to help others talk about it because talking can be therapeutic. So far, J.A.M. has participated in walks for suicide prevention groups and the group has reached out to the public, sponsoring booths at the Taste of Pinecrest and St. Louis Catholic Church Festival for the Poor. Menendez also made the trek to Tallahassee for National Suicide Prevention Day.
He’s planning to start speaking to kids about suicide prevention and even had a session scheduled at Devonaire K-8 this year, but had to postpone in order to go to Tallahassee to meet with legislators and representatives of Florida’s suicide prevention office. It was an important meeting since the legislature sought to close down the suicide prevention office but opted instead to move it to Department of Children and Families.
In the meantime, J.A.M. is ramping up its efforts. They want to work with the Miami-Dade School Board on youth suicide prevention programs. The foundation is also keen on doing something to mark National Suicide Prevention Day on September 10.
Last year Menendez tried to convince schools to make Sept. 10 a no uniform day so kids could wear yellow in honor of National Suicide Prevention Day, but the efforts began too late to be effective. His goal is to make it happen for Sept. 10, 2011.
“Our foundation is trying to focus on youths,” he says. “Once you go off to college, there are a lot of different programs for college students.”
But suicide prevention programs for middle and high school kids are lacking and he’s hoping to change that. For more information, go to www.thejamfoundation.org