The tragic death of Mr. Anthony Riley was the catalyst for a worldwide collaboration to promote suicide prevention and mental health care.
As the late June day turned into early night, a group of young black women stood at the entrance way of a lavish Center City Philadelphia park and unpacked several boxes.
In one box were t-shirts, another held candles, and there were framed pictures, too.
All the items pulled from the brown boxes small enough to carry without strain were placed, momentarily, on the right side of the park’s 18th & Walnut Street entrance.
As they unpacked, the women grew teary-eyed. A few times, those who were familiar with the group of women embraced them with a hug that conveyed “I’m here for you and I’m so sorry for your lost.”
The women were all sisters to the late Mr. Anthony Riley, a 28 year-old Philadelphia street singer who, after achieving worldwide fame on NBC’s The Voice, hung himself in a Center City Philadelphia basement.
Mr. Riley had pulled out of the hit show, citing personal reasons, shortly before his death. As I watched them set up for the candlelight vigil, a woman with a dog appeared next to me.
She, too, appeared sad. Her name was Ms. Sheila Willard and she is the Senior Vice President of Local Media Development at Comcast, the world’s largest cable company measured by revenue, which is headquartered a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square Park, where the vigil was being held.
She noticed my t-shirt, which was branded with one of Comcast’s local web properties, PhillyinFocus.com, a site that my news and event company, Techbook Online, regularly publishes on.
We talked until the vigil started. She told me of her fond memories of Mr. Riley, and I told her of my desire to produce an event that both tributes Mr. Riley and connects people to mental health resources.
She remarked how noble of an idea that was and asked me to keep her in the loop with organizing efforts, as her company wanted to support with content marketing.
I immediately reached out to the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, who expressed great interest in participating in the movement to promote suicide prevention and mental health care and who had already produced critical content that was in need of distribution.
A lunch meeting was organized at the Comcast Center between the Local Media Development team, a collaborator and I. It was there that the plans for a physical event were officially scrapped and the idea for a live broadcast confirmed.
The immediate next step after meeting was to connect DBHIDS and Comcast to make the City’s digital resources easily accessible to Philadelphians via www.PhillyinFocus.com, which happened in less than two weeks. DBHIDS also agreed to provide a representative for the broadcast, which originally had a title not nearly as catchy as #SAYNOTOSUICIDE.
The broadcast, moreover the initiative itself, originally was a local effort. But given Mr. Riley’s worldwide fan base, Techbook Online’s global media partnerships and some hesitance from local broadcasters who thought the topic was too heavy, it made sense to produce at-scale.
Mr. Richard Taylor, a Chicago author, suicide survivor and a member of Techbook Online’s Board of Leader and Doers, also agreed to be fully engaged in the project.
Leading up to the online event, I did an interview with IHeartMedia’s Loraine Ballard Morril, and Mr. Taylor, who in his new book, “Between the Dream,” writes about The New Suicide, penned several post about suicide prevention and mental health care.
The day before the broadcast – which featured an interview with Mr. Malcolm Burnley, who authored a article about Mr. Riley’s tragic last days in Philadelphia Magazine’s August issue – Mr. Taylor starred in a #SAYNOTOSUICIDE Twitter chat with GoodMenProject.com, one of the world’s largest website for men and one Techbook Online’s flagship media partners.
The Twitter chat, which attracted 97 contributors and culminated in 642 tweets from users around the globe, created a positive and upbeat energy that transferred over into the live broadcast, where positive news broke.
During an exclusive interview, Dr. H. Jean Wright, Pys.D, who represented DBHIDS, said last month Philadelphia, the largest city to ever implement a public health education program, reached a milestone of training more than 10,000 people – those who live or work in Philadelphia – in their Mental Health First Aid program.
“We’re very proud of our mental health program,” he said on the broadcast, noting that the City, who will be hosting a citywide celebration of the 10,000 aiders on September 10th at the MBS Building at 1401 JFK Blvd, pays for the training, which is eight hours, and has certification programs for adults, veterans and those who work with youth.
The news came not only as a surprise to me but to the panelists as well.
“It was enlightening, educational and inspirational to learn about the work being done in Philly, said Dr. Vibe, who broadcast worldwide from Toronto, Canada.
“I was extremely surprised to learn of the city’s great work,” said Ms. Sarah-Ashley Andrews, who started Dare 2 Hope, a Philadelphia non-profit organization, after her best friend, who struggled with depression, refused to get help and took a self-inflicted gunshot blast to the face.
African-Americans’ refusal of mental health treatment is “part of a history of mistrust,” suggested Dr. Wright, who also noted that, historically, there’s been a disparity in access to resources for people of color.
Dr. Wright also suggested that the apprehension expressed by African-Americans towards mental health treatment is cultural, as most Black families have a “keep it in the house” mentality.
That culture was certainly established in the household in which Mr. Riley grew up. Mr. Burnley wrote the following in his article titled “The Voice” (in print):
“Mental illness rarely appears in a vacuum. For Anthony, it wasn’t the stress of The Voice that triggered it; the seeds were planted early in life. He grew up in a house nestled between two drug-ridden projects at 47th and Haverford in West Philadelphia. His mother, a crack addict, was in and out of prison for most of his childhood. The matriarch of the household was his old-school firecracker of a grandmother, who taught him to swallow his problems.”
Towards the end of Mr. Riley’s life, Mr. Burnley said he was “beyond help” and shunned anyone’s effort to get him assistance.
“He always wanted to control things,” said Mr. Burnley, who, too, has struggled with depression.
Mr. Taylor, who wasn’t that familiar with Mr. Riley’s story when he signed on as a panelist, said he hopes the energy around the #SAYNOTOSUICIDE initiative is long-lasting and not a fad, as the campaign’s use of mass media and, in the immediate future, school tours and advocacy, can be instrumental in removing the stigma surrounding dialogues about diminished mental health.
One issue in particular bought up during the broadcast by Ms. Andrews was the visibility of mental health care facilities in urban neighborhoods.
“We know we’re to get tested for HIV and STDs, but not mental health,” she said.
Mr. Taylor, once the broadcast ended, told me that the governor of his state, Mr. Bruce Rauner, has a 2016 budget plan which seeks to slash funding for the mental health division of the Illinois Department of Human Services by 15 percent.
“It’s been rumored that at the end of August, activists are going to shut down an expressway in Chicago,” said Mr. Taylor.
Another Twitter chat with GoodMenProject.com is being planned for the holiday season and Mr. Taylor has already begun reaching out to his partners in education and philanthropy about helping him reach teens and young adults with a simple message: Say no to suicide; say yes to life!
All of the efforts over the last month and a half – and the sweat equity that’ll be invested in the future – doesn’t make grieving the lost of Mr. Riley and easier for his family and supporters, but it has to be at least comforting to know that “The Voice” was silenced in vain.
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Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™