Justin Menendez’s family was devastated when his 13-year-old brother Jason committed suicide a few years ago. Menendez created the JAM Foundation in honor of his brother and set out to alert teens and their friends about the teen suicide crisis.
“I was in contact with the medical examiner in Miami-Dade County,” Menendez said. “In 2011, there were 27 suicides of young people under age 25. Eight of them were 19 and younger. In 2012, from January to June, there were already 25 suicides and eight of them were 19 and younger. When I saw the number of teens is already tied, it was like, wow.”
Some of those suicides were by kids as young as 12. It frightened him that those numbers were so high in just the first six months of the year.
“I was telling my mom, ‘I’m scared to follow up; I’m scared to see what that number is now,’” he said.
Now a student at FIU, Menendez goes to area high schools to speak to students about the problem of teen suicides.
“As of now, we have five that are already in contact with us and want us to have a presentation at that school,” he said.
“When we present to a school, we partner with the Ganley Foundation. I speak with their executive director. Grace Carricarte from the Ganley Foundation always gives the mental health perspective and the depression and I go up and talk about my brother.”
For far too long, suicide was a taboo subject, but Menendez wants to bring it out into the light.
“This isn’t contagious, you can’t catch it by talking about it,” he said. “But talking about it brings awareness.”
The purpose of the talks is to teach the kids the warning signs.
“If two kids can relate to what I’m saying, then I’ve done my job and everything is perfect,” Menendez said.
His courage in coming forward and sharing his pain with fellow students in assemblies earned him a Silver Knight nomination from Archbishop Coleman Carroll High School.
“The feedback from the schools is life-changing,” Menendez said. “We’ve had anything from ‘I was planning to kill myself next week’ to ‘I was planning to kill myself tonight.’”
He said depression is the leading mental illness that leads to suicide, although it’s not the only one.
“The Stand Up and Speak campaign I started is helping,” Menendez said. “Even if you stand up and speak for the kid who walks the hall by himself. You can be a nondepressed student and feel lonely. Depression is the most common mental illness.”
Gay and lesbian teens are at risk for suicide. Menendez said he has talked to a few who told him his talk helped them.
“I’ve spoken to many of them. That’s definitely another huge thing. They are taking their lives because of their sexual orientation, which is absolutely terrible.”
So far in 2012 he and Carricarte have spoken at eight schools and to some 3,500 students. Next school year he would like to branch out and speak to schools outside of Miami-Dade.
“I hope to do this for the rest of my life,”Menendez said. “It’s not easy balancing fulltime student work and the organization but it’s worth it.”
Menendez was scheduled to participate in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk sponsored by Stand Up and Speak, a project of the JAM Foundation, on Nov. 11 at the University of Miami.