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'Project Wake Up' shines a light on suicide prevention, aiming to defeat the mental health stigma

Back in 2014, a group of friends lost someone dear to their hearts. They decided to start a nonprofit, hoping to end the mental illness stigma. It has evolved.
Credit: Danny Kerth

Did you know suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans age 10-24?

Did you know there is something you can do about that?

While the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will provide you with that staggering statistic, did you know there are people out there trying to take the fight to this terrible disease and help raise awareness? Try an organization named Project Wake Up, which started up back in 2014, aiming to turn a sad situation into a positive one.

A local group started a crowdfunding campaign with a PSA video. They had no idea it would raise $10,000 overnight or $25,000 within months. According to Vice President at Project Wake Up, Danny Kerth, all they were doing was something that needed to be done using the technology available to the average person.

"We shot the whole thing on an iPhone with Apple editing software some stock music. The power of Facebook and the power of people sharing it just really blew it up," Kerth said in a phone interview this week. "Right then, we knew we were onto something. So a group of us took the lead:  My partner on this project, Alex Lindley, who is the founder of Project Wake Up, Morgan Domijan, who now lives in South Africa volunteering, and myself."

Now that they had people's attention, it was time to expand upon the PSA, creating something bigger. 

"After graduation in 2015, we started building this up as a St. Louis nonprofit. We received great support from the community, selling out all our events. That's when we realized it was real." 

The group hired Nate Townsend, "an incredible director," and a professional production team to make a documentary short, which would hopefully expand into a feature-length film in 2018. 

The end result was a 90-minute documentary, which is screening locally this week with high hopes attached to the long run. 

"These screenings are essentially a thank you to anyone who has supported us, whether it be a donation or simply sharing stuff. We are actually putting together a trailer in August, with our director focusing on condensing our 90-minute documentary into a three-minute trailer," Kerth said. "We will then pitch to studios and buyers, submitting it to Sundance. Getting as many people to know about it as possible — no matter if Netflix, Amazon, or HBO picks it up — they are at least aware of it." 

Sometimes, you simply have to show someone a powerful idea in order for them to latch onto it.

That's where every great movement in history began: passion, a way to spread it and the right people agreeing with a vision. Kerth, Lindley, and Domijan are trying to start a fire in people's hearts with those ingredients.

The unique asset in their corner is the new ground they are breaking with the Project Wake Up documentary. "It's been very niche so far. You might focus on childhood mental illness, or a specific bipolar disorder. We are trying to paint different stories that this does not discriminate in any way," Kerth said. "Mental illness doesn't discriminate in any way. No matter your demographic, where you're from, it affects you in the same way. Everybody who watches this documentary can latch onto a piece of someone's story."

Kerth's desire here is plain and simple: the epidemic struck him directly in the heart many years ago. On June 14, 2014, Ryan Joseph Candice took his own life. Ryan was 21 years old and was a close friend of the group. Take one look at Ryan on the website and you'll see a guy seemingly in control of his destiny and everything around him, but pictures can be deceiving. Ryan was fighting a battle no one could describe ... until now.

A lot of people have a Ryan, someone they thought would be around forever. 

"Our first tag line, which is still on our Facebook page, is 'End the mental illness stigma.' There is a stigma around talking about these kind of things," Kerth said. "These things are shied away from based on people's perceptions. We now evolved that tag line into checking on your strong friends, because those are the people who carry the most and are the most afraid to talk."

The statistics don't paint a pretty picture. 

"The film has more staggering statistics. It's unbelievable the suicide epidemic with young people. You look at everything that is going on with kids and college, the heightened pressures. Getting into college and maintaining a social life. We touch a lot on social media and smartphone addiction in our documentary," Kerth said. 

The organization wants to put the care right in people's hands. 

"The hope is that we can expand access to care for them. We are working with Talk Space that sets up monthly plans where you can digitally connect with a psychologist instead of going in somewhere, where it can be weeks and months between visits," Kerth said.

The goal is getting more eyes on the documentary, so the next project can begin. 

"The goal is to get it global, whether that's Netflix, Amazon or HBO. Even a theater release. As long it reaches a wide audience," Kerth said. "Our dream after this documentary-we only scratched the surface-that we'd love to do a 12-part series about all the different aspects that exist with this issue. If we attract enough people to this piece, they will want that second round of content."

It's simple really. Shine a light on a problem and hope other lights are turned on to join the party. Together, all that light should be hard to miss. The message ends up spreading further and further, like a brush fire inside the mind. 

You need to care about this. Kerth, Lindley, and Domijan certainly do and swing this passion project within full-time jobs and endeavors. They see the endgame, which is helping spread the word about suicide prevention. 

Soon enough, the world will know.