By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
When I think of Ryan Candice, I picture a tow-headed four-year-old grinning from ear to ear. He and my son Jack shared a best friend, and the boys played together frequently. He was a happy, rambunctious preschooler with endless energy. He and Jack both went on to attend De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis and then the University of Missouri. Then, on June 19, 2014, the summer between their junior and senior years at Mizzou, my distraught son told me that Ryan, two weeks shy of his 21st birthday, had taken his own life.
I would like to write that the death by suicide of a young man was unthinkable. But the tragic truth is that Ryan was not the first friend Jack had lost in this way. Carolyn Dolan had died in April 2012. Carolyn and Ryan’s friends were devastated at the loss of two friends to suicide. They were also resolute.
Three months after Ryan’s death, his best friend and fellow De Smet Jesuit alumnus Alex Lindley called together a group of about 20 people who loved Carolyn and Ryan and urged them to keep their friends’ memories alive. His proposal: a documentary, one that would tell Ryan’s story, but would also “start the conversation” about suicide and mental health and the stigmas that prevent those who are suffering from seeking help.
“Ryan was the last person you would think would take his own life,” Lindley said, describing his friend as loving, warmhearted and outgoing. He had a broad circle of friends. If he couldn’t talk about his pain, his friends wondered, who could?
How could his survivors fight the stigma that prevents people from getting the help they need?
“Here was a person so loved, so respected,” Lindley said. “No one who knew Ryan saw it coming. His death sent shock waves through our circle of friends — enough to inspire us.”
And so, Project Wake Up was born in September 2014 to fight the stigma of mental illness, especially among adolescents and young adults, and to keep Ryan Candice’s memory alive, with Lindley leading the effort as founder and president.
I was in the audience when the Wake Up! documentary was screened for the first time this summer in St. Louis. There was a second event a few days later, also in St. Louis. These were private screenings for people who had supported Project Wake Up. There were more than 900 people in those theaters. This project, this call to Wake Up, had taken off.
The statistics of suicide are startling, depressing, and for parents of adolescents, terrifying. The folks at Project Wake Up want them to be a call to action.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 10-24, following accidents.
The Journal of the American Medical Association in June reported that in 2017, the rate of suicides among adolescents and young adults had reached its highest level in two decades. There were 47 percent more suicides among people aged 15 to 19 than in the year 2000.
“Suicide doesn’t discriminate,” Lindley says. “So, we wanted everyone to be able to relate to something in the film. There are college students, people suffering from PTSD, gun owners, members of the LGBT community.”
All these demographics have higher-than-average rates of suicide. Homosexual youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. A shocking 50 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. Twenty U.S. military veterans die by suicide every day.
Suicide can also afflict the popular, the strong, the seemingly happy, people like Ryan Candice.
“It’s not something people want to talk about,” Lindley said. “We don’t want to talk about it. But we have to. It took two suicides to get us to act. Now we’re trying to wake people up.”
“This is such a widespread issue, we can’t afford to stigmatize it,” said Danny Kerth, Project Wake Up vice president and co-executive producer of the film. Danny was just nine years old when he lost his father to suicide. “We try to approach it as positively as we can; we’re not trying to bring people down. We just want them to care, to talk about it, to check on their friends.”
Anyone working with young people should learn to recognize and respond to mental health issues like anxiety and depression, and teachers and school administrators in Jesuit schools recognize suicide as a grave concern. In response, the Jesuits USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province will host a conference for high school teachers and counselors in Miami in January 2020.
“We hope to have speakers, resources and a conversation on the struggles kids face today and the subsequent stress, anxiety and depression,” said Ron Rebore, provincial assistant for secondary and presecondary education.
Rebore taught Lindley at De Smet Jesuit. He’s proud of what his former student has accomplished with Project Wake Up. “He is living the ideals of the Grad at Grad,” Rebore said, referring to a list of characteristics Jesuit schools expect their graduates to exhibit. “Especially loving. It’s amazing what he’s done in the name of friendship.”
Project Wake Up exists because a group of college students didn’t want to lose another friend to suicide. Following their initial meeting, they launched a crowdfunding campaign with a public service announcement in November 2014.
“We were so naïve. We had no clue how much a full-length, Hollywood-level documentary would cost,” Lindley said. “We set a goal of $10,000 and hit it overnight. We knew we were on to something.”
Over the coming months, Lindley began reaching out to film production companies. He knew he had to find the right director.
“Some of the film companies were willing to take on our project, but they didn’t seem to really care,” Lindley said. “Then I talked to Nate.”
Nate Townsend is a fellow St. Louisan, about a year older than Lindley, Kerth and Candice. He attended St. Louis University High School for a couple of years before transferring to Clayton High School for the opportunities the public school offered to work in film. He went on to study filmmaking at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. When he heard from Lindley, he was just beginning his career in film direction.
“I really, really wanted to do this film,” Townsend said. “I lost my brother in an accident when I was 18. I could identify with their grief, and I wanted to use film to address those emotions. My Jesuit education made me want to do something that had meaning.”
“He knew what it was like to grieve,” Lindley said. “He told me we’d make something great. I knew he was the right guy for this project.”
Townsend gave more certainty to the young leaders of Project Wake Up that their dream would come to fruition. He also gave them a more realistic budget. They realized they’d have to buckle down and do some serious fundraising — a lot of fundraising. But here’s the thing: they were still in college.
Most of Candice’s friends graduated from college in 2015. Some started their first “real” jobs; others, like Lindley, went to graduate school before beginning their careers. In other words, they had a lot going on in their lives. Yet, they stuck to their commitment to Project Wake Up.
Lindley devoted an entire summer just to connecting with mental health experts. My son, who, like Lindley, was in law school at the time, pointed out this wasn’t just any summer. “It was the summer between the second and third years of law school, a time when virtually all professors and advisors strongly urge you to target a position at a place where you’d like a permanent position,” Jack, a Project Wake Up board member, said.
“I was so impressed that he didn’t really seem to think twice about it — he’d probably insist it wasn’t a sacrifice at all. But, realistically, he risked the start of the career he worked his entire life to pursue because he was just that passionate about this cause.” Lindley graduated from Saint Louis University School of Law in 2018.
“For a group of 20-somethings to say we’re working on a feature-length documentary … it’s hard for some people to take us seriously,” Kerth said. “It was an obligation. We owed it to the donors to see it through.”
For Lindley, it has always been about honoring his friend. “I felt like if I was going to talk about his tragic decision, it would be disrespectful not to see it through. And, it helped me. It kept Ryan close.
“As scary as it can be, you just have to stick with it,” Lindley said.
By 2016, Project Wake Up was a recognized 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, and Townsend had produced a short film that focused on Ryan’s story and Project Wake Up’s goals. (That film is available on their website, projectwakeup.org.)
The young people and their supporters continued to raise funds and awareness. Much of the money raised for the documentary came from their peers, millennials who knew firsthand the dangers of the stigma.
“It’s amazing how it happens in a conversation,” Kerth said. “As soon as you say we’re trying to fight the stigma of mental illness, the fence comes down. People are relieved to be able to talk about their own anxiety.”
Through trivia nights, golf tournaments and comedy nights, they raised more than half a million dollars, about $300,000 of which went toward producing the documentary. They also established the Ryan J. Candice Memorial Scholarship at the University of Missouri for social work students who want to help people dealing with mental illness and suicidal ideation.
Wake Up! is impactful, powerful, a bit intense. It took countless conversations to determine the focus of the documentary. In the end, it’s not just about Candice.
“It took me a long time to give up the idea that this film should focus solely on Ryan,” Lindley said. “But then I realized letting go of that meant we can save more lives.”
Townsend, Lindley and Kerth wanted it to be uplifting, not depressing. The film features interviews with Florida State University professor Thomas Joiner, one of the leading researchers in suicidal behavior, and legislators like Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.), among others.
Townsend spent a year tracking down survivors of suicide and skillfully balanced the statistics, facts and science with the human stories.
“We followed the people on the front lines, the people working for change,” Townsend said. “We wanted to show that this is a nationwide issue, and that there are ways to address it.”
Wake Up! has been life-changing for Lindley, Kerth, Townsend and many of the others involved with Project Wake Up. Townsend resigned his position with a St. Louis advertising agency and moved back to Los Angeles. The documentary has been his primary project for the past year. This film became personal. He became an expert on suicide, its causes and prevention.
The Project Wake Up team is now moving on to the next stage for the documentary: distributing advanced screeners to people in the film and mental health industries, preparing to submit the documentary to film festivals and hosting additional screenings. They hope a distributor will pick it up. They know it has to go somewhere; it has to be seen. They plan to create an abridged version for use at freshman orientation on college campuses.
It’s all part of Project Wake Up’s fundamental aim: to get people to care and to talk about mental illness and want to do something about it.
“My hope is that everyone who watches this is a little more empathetic,” Kerth said. “We’re all going through something.”
“It’s a common misconception that suicide is selfish, but that’s just not the case,” Lindley said. “We know from Dr. Joiner that, in the moment, people perceive themselves as a burden. They think they’re doing people a favor by ending their lives.”
“I want anyone who is struggling to know they are loved,” Kerth said. “They are not a burden.”
Lindley: “We just can’t lose anyone else.”