I heard a terrible story the other day from my friend. The story started with a young man arguing with his mom on a hot morning in Minneapolis. It ended with his death. After the argument, he shot and killed himself. He was 18.
This tragic outcome has become too common. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-24 year-olds in the United States. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 20 percent of high school students have serious thoughts of suicide, while 9 percent make an attempt to take their lives. There has been a modest decline in the overall U.S. suicide rate in the past few years, but suicide remains a major public concern, especially with young people.
So what compels someone to take their life? Suicide is the result of many complex factors in a person's life. It is not one particular event or discussion. It is not always because of depression. Young people are particularly vulnerable because they are still developing, mentally and socially. They are still finding their identity and way in life.
Once a person knows their life purpose, they can live and lead from it to give their life meaning. A moment of inspiration can put their life purpose into focus. Once they have clarity and can see their life purpose, they can turn that purpose into power.
Dr. Remi Douah is helping young people in Minneapolis find their purpose. Remi, 60, is the founder and executive director of 846s, a nonprofit organization that helps Black communities overcome historical barriers by accessing mental healthcare.
Remi came to the U.S. from the Ivory Coast of Africa in the 1980s to study at American colleges. He met his wife, Thorunn Bjarnadottir, who's originally from Iceland, at the University of Minnesota. They had a son, Isak, in 1998, and soon learned that raising Isak in America would be different compared to their home countries.
"You don't come and say, 'I'm going to raise a Black child,'" Remi told PBS NewsHour in a 2021 report on the reform efforts in Minneapolis after George Floyd's murder by former policeman Derek Chauvin. "You say, 'I'm going to raise a child, a human being.' And you do your best to raise that child to function in society. It's society that forces you to see your child as Black and white."
The concept for 846s started after George Floyd's murder, when Isak, who grew up just miles from where Floyd was killed, was filled with rage after the killing of another Black man by Minneapolis police. Isak had participated in street protests after two other police killings of Black men, Jamar Clark in 2015 and Philando Castile in 2016. This time, Isak and his friends had violent thoughts and wanted to exact revenge. He asked his father three questions:
Why are they killing us?
What did we do wrong?
What can we do to prevent it?
Remi and Thorunn suggested Isak speak to a therapist. Their son agreed and went to therapy. "A month later, he came back and said, 'Dad, it's working for me, and I think I have an answer to the third question I asked you,'" Remi recounted. "I want all my friends to have access to mental therapies."
Isak has been an evangelist for youth mental health ever since, and Remi has been on the frontlines in the community as an active listening presence and advocate for change. They have a vision (led by Isak and his friends) of creating a youth wellness center in south Minneapolis for marginalized youth with wraparound, holistic services that cover all areas of their lives.
Today, Remi is working with a core group of 10 dedicated young adults (ages 18-24) to teach them how to identify and act in response to trauma. As part of this work, Remi is developing a fellowship program with these young adults and the Strong Mind Strong Body Foundation, a nonprofit focused on building stronger communities through education, youth development and healthy lifestyles.
I am the board chair of the Strong Mind Strong Body Foundation, and with Remi, we will lead the Restorative Community Building Fellowship, a six-month earn and learn program. We will provide fellows with restorative practices instruction, life skills training and local paid internships to develop their natural talents and give them the tools, experience and support they need to thrive and become community leaders.
Our community partners will provide employment, training and resources for the youth we are mentoring. Partners include 7 Generation Games, Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute, Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association and the Southwest Connector. Our goal is to provide pathways to careers where young adults can not only make a living. They can make a life.
If you are interested in supporting our Restorative Community Building Fellowship program or learning more, visit bit.ly/communityfellowship.
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