Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24, and it’s been increasing steadily for over a decade. The concern has been so widespread among health professionals that pediatricians recently came together to declare the mental health crisis among kids a national emergency.
In fact, according to a 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of suicide among this demographic increased nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2018. A separate CDC survey conducted during the pandemic found that 40 percent of people were struggling with a mental health issue, with the people of color and queer youth among them most at risk.
That’s why Terry Thoren, the animation CEO behind such shows as The Wild Thornberrys, Rugrats and Rocket Power (the latter of which happened to be based on his own children), has teamed up with the Cook Center for Human Connections to create My Life is Worth Living, a web series that aims to bridge the gap for parents looking to connect with teens about their feelings.
In five powerful stories told over 20 episodes, My Life is Worth Living models behavior for teens struggling with suicidal thoughts through five characters dealing with some of the heavy issues that many teens go through everyday — including struggles with trauma, depression, identity, social rejection, sexual abuse, cyberbullying and substance use.
For Thoren, using animation as a way into the mental health discussion was a “no brainer.” He says in his 40-year career one of the most important pieces he learned is the idea of “modeling” — that young kids tend to mirror what they see on television without realizing it. And in turn, they may carry those behaviors into their teen years and adulthood, and even internalize them — something he’s been keenly aware of in his career.
“We didn't make these episodes to be the end of the conversation. We made these episodes to be the beginning of the conversation,” Thoren explains. “We've learned that if you put kids in front of Power Rangers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they're going to hit each other afterwards — not for pain, but [because they are] on edge.
"But if you actually model for them empathy, and looking at the world with wonderment and awe, then they start to look at the world with wonderment and awe. Like, ‘Wow, I can hear the birds sing and I can smell the flowers and I can feel a beautiful day.’ You have to show that to them, remind them that, hello, I know you're in this tunnel of: get up in the morning, have breakfast, go to school, get on the bus, come back. But there's all this other stuff going on, which is emotional. And that's what we try to do [as animators]. We make emotional connections with our audience.”
The creative team worked with several mental health experts across various networks to make these stories as true to life as possible, he says.
And according to Anne Brown, CEO of Cook Center of Human Connections, who spearheaded the project alongside Thoren, animation can be more powerful than even face-to-face dialogue.
“One of the first things that Terry talked to me about was the lack of judgment that happens when someone watches animation,” Brown tells Yahoo Life. “If you're watching a live action show, regardless of the genre that you're watching, you start discovering a time period, a socioeconomic status and style, race, skin color, all those kinds of things. With animation, all of that is suspended so that you can truly focus on the message and the story in a way that you really can't do in live action. Because even though it's unconscious, all of those other judgment pieces are floating around in your mind.”
Thoren and Brown say the response has been “overwhelmingly positive” and that soon they’ll be releasing a curriculum for every episode so that any teacher or parent will be able to have conversations in a less invasive way.
“It’s a discussion-based curriculum,” Brown notes. “It’s basically, you know, how did this make you feel? What's an action that you could take? How could you help someone else? It's a mix of discussion questions and journal entries and a family curriculum.”
Of course, the goal is to expand even wider, in order to help the needs of young people around the world. “Rugrats is in 150 languages,” Thoren says. “Our goal is to get there.”
“I realized that having raised my own boys, there are two danger zones with kids,” Thoren explains. “One is when they're between 0 and 2, and they put everything in their mouth! You gotta take everything off the floor and you got to watch them every second. They're going to Jump off things."
But the other danger zone, he says, "is when they transition from elementary school to middle school. Now instead of being with the same teacher all day long in elementary school and being with the same friends all day long, they're getting a lot of freedom. Their hormones are changing. And they have competence beyond their experience, as they start to, you know, act out in ways.”
“Whether it be sex, sex abuse prevention or dealing with teen mental health, which is what this series really is … suicide prevention is a scary idea,” he adds. “But with teen mental health, we actually model a toolkit because if you think about the three phases of how one might transition into considering suicide, and when you're at that stage, these lessons might trigger you. But if … you watch these early on with your friends, just like entertainment on Netflix, and you watch the stories and you understand them, it gives you some fundamental life skills so that if you are suffering from depression, you're not going to go to that next stage. It’s about thinking and managing your impulsivity.”
What’s unique about the series is that each character — Danny (whose story was inspired by burn survivor Gabe Alvarado), Kyle, Dantie, Amie and Emily — are all going through something quite specific, each having required “deep investigation” from mental health professionals so that they’d be as accurate as possible.
For Thoren and Brown, some of the stories were more personal than others.
“I really love Kyle's story,” says Brown, referring to the second episode of his story, in which Kyle’s dad bravely asks his son if he’s thought about taking his life.
“I have had to ask that question one time in my life,” she continues. “Luckily, it wasn't to my son. And it was difficult. It really spoke to me, the power of someone being able to see that question being asked. Kyle’s father does what our curriculum actually suggests, which is to prepare somebody when you're going to have a difficult conversation. So he starts by saying, ‘I need to ask you something. And no matter what your answer is, I'm going to still love you.’”
“For me, it's Dante story,” Thoren says of the character who identifies as queer and is struggling with being accepted by his father due to his love of art over sports.
“When I was 16, I wanted to be a filmmaker, an artist, and my father was a Hall of Fame coach. And he just kicked me out," he shares, adding that it would be 17 years until they spoke again. "He was against the arts. He was against us, against free thinkers. He was afraid that we were gonna bring the country down. I understand where he came from because he suffered a lot of trauma as a kid and he didn't want his life to be out of order.”
The fact that adults can relate to these same struggles, Brown says, is key to the show’s success.
“One of the things we've done well is that we're showing [teens] that there are people who love and care about them that are not necessarily their parents,” she says. “It can be a coach, it can be a therapist, it can be a best friend's mom. We've also had requests for episodes. One of them was: What do you do when you don't have anybody? And I think that's an important story to tell as we go forward. We want to be able to tell more of them, to be able to have a second season and a third season.”
My Life is Worth Living is now streaming on YouTube. If you or someone you know may be struggling with self-harm or suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.