Dr. Jim Lee, a retired Eastern New Mexico University communication professor, is using his own experiences with suicide to try to spare others from its devastating aftermath.
His father, a World War II veteran, committed suicide at 46, and Dr. Lee attempted it as a teen.
"My father's suicide caused guilt because I wasn't there to prevent it," said the Army infantry veteran. "I wondered what signs indicated his depression and what snapped when he put the rifle to his chest. What could have been done and why wasn't it done?"
The adjunct professor wrote a play, "Saying Hello to Goodbye," to combat teenage suicides. The play, which was endorsed by the Kiwanis clubs of Clovis and Portales, was performed last November at the Memorial Building in Portales.
There were no empty seats the first night and few the second.
Dr. Lee tried to get the play performed in local schools but met resistance.
"Without reading it, many educators believed that the play would cause suicides," he said. "Apathy, ignorance and denial are the biggest obstacles to fighting the epidemic of teen suicide. Don't just talk at your kids; listen to your kids."
The play is part of a broad-based effort called Project Sunrise, founded by Dr. Lee and his wife, Rica, Keith Wilks, former pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Portales, and retired ENMU Distance Education director Dr. Elwyn Hulett — all of whom were involved in producing the play.
"Project Sunrise was created to save the lives of children and adolescents by focusing on youth suicide awareness and prevention," Dr. Lee said. "It opens much-neglected dialogue to recognize the issue of youth suicide and to explore what we can do about it."
According to Dr. Lee, 800,000 people (one every 40 seconds) commit suicide each year. Each day in the United States, there is an average of 5,400 suicide attempts in grades 7-12. In 2014, 1,668 Americans ages 13-18 killed themselves. Girls are more likely to attempt suicide, but boys are more likely to die.
During his time in Hollywood, Dr. Lee worked as a stand-in for Milton Berle and a stunt double for Tony Curtis. He also was an actor and scriptwriter for stage, films, TV and radio — including nationally-syndicated programs. He was a copywriter for radio and TV commercials, founder of the Metropolitan Theatre Guild in Los Angeles, was an on-camera and voiceover performer in radio and TV commercials and was the producer of the first West Coast production after the Broadway run of Trial of the Catonsville Nine by Daniel Berrigan.
According to Dr. Lee, from 1999-2013 the suicide death rates of New Mexicans ages 10-24 were over twice the national rate.
"Responsible adults cannot ignore this heartbreaking epidemic, but where do adults start? Project Sunrise is a growing group of dedicated people determined to do something about youth suicide awareness and prevention," Dr. Lee said.
Dr. Lee's 40-minute play is centered on a group of students who have committed suicide listening to their parents discuss them in a support group.
He said "Saying Hello to Goodbye" is intended to help prevent "this needless waste of young lives. It can be presented in schools or the community, followed by a talk and/or a question-and-answer session by mental health care professionals for students, parents, teachers and other people who spend time with young people."
An audio CD/flash drive and a video production of the play can be made available. There is no charge to schools, non-profit organizations or communities for the recordings. Free scripts are also available for groups to do their own productions, free from performance royalties.
Productions of the play require no sets or special costumes. All that is needed are eight volunteer actors to play the parents and students, a floor and a few folding chairs.
The play has been approved by mental healthcare professionals, educators and social workers.
Here is a sampling of dialogue from "Saying Hello to Goodbye":
"Why didn't you tell us what you needed. I wanted to help. I just didn't know what to do. Why did you refuse to see how important you are? — parent
"Maybe we don't have job pressures, but we have other pressure. They have no idea what we live with every day of our lives. They think all we got to concern ourselves about is report cards and the prom. I try to talk about it, and they shrug it off as kid stuff. They aren't the only ones with stress. Why won't they just stop lecturing and start listening?" — student
"I should have been there for her. She spent so much time by herself. I didn't know she was hurting like that. We never seemed to have time to talk."— parent
"My mom was too busy with her new husband, and my dad's holier-than-everything job made sure there was nothing left of him for me. I bet he didn't even notice when I took that Smith and Wesson Model Nineteen from his precious gun collection." — student
"We both tried so hard to do everything perfectly. We had such a normal family life. We had no idea she could be so troubled." — parent
"I didn't see any reason to keep on going. My future was hopeless without that scholarship. I wanted the grants and the scholarship to pay for college without those loans over my head after graduation. Mostly, I didn't want my mom to have to keep working all the time and having no life of her own. She'd be so much better off by herself." — student
"I got a little pay raise. Maybe we could have afforded your new prom dress. You'd have looked so beautiful in that new dress. I was so proud of you. My beautiful little girl, things are so empty without you. I'm so terribly alone without you. So terribly alone."— parent
Dr. Lee said, "We all want to continue saving lives, so participation in promoting Project Sunrise will be greatly appreciated from anyone who cares about its mission."