Ice Cream Shops Can Fight Youth Suicide, Too

T-shirts and testimonials are part of a larger prevention strategy.

Posted Feb 18, 2018

In the wake of school shootings and random gun violence, it’s easy to forget that the second leading cause of death among 15 to 19-year-olds is suicide. Guns are certainly a factor there too, especially for young men, but the real problem is untreated mental illness, social isolation, and stress caused by relentless social media where one is never liked enough, looks right, or is quite as good as someone else. It’s difficult to ignore the numbers. Youth who report thinking about suicide dropped from 29 percent in 1991 to just 14 percent in 2009, then started rising rapidly again. In 2015, the number was 18 percent, with much of that burden falling on young women who report rates twice that of young men. Girls in their first year or two of high school are especially at risk.

If this is going to change we’ll need to de-stigmatize depression and other forms of mental illness. And that’s where a popular chain of ice cream stores has decided it can help. Cows Ice Cream, which is a nationally recognized brand in Canada. They're known for their clever T-shirts that picture cows and puns that make tourists smile. Cows stores are places people go on sunny days to feel good. So it was quite a surprise that a recent corporate social responsibility initiative led them to partner with a family whose son died by suicide last year and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) to remind their customers that we all need help sometimes.

Full disclosure: The young man who died and whose life is the catalyst for the campaign, Jason Driscoll, was my nephew. He’d have been turning 22 on March 1. A sensitive young man with a quirky sense of humor, Jason worked for Cows for a summer scooping ice cream. He loved T-shirts. I’m sure he’d be impressed that he’s inspired one.

In honor of Jason, Cows has released a shirt with the message “Let’s talk until the cows come home." It’s a clever play on their style of humor. It was Jason’s cousin (and my daughter) Meagan Campbell who came up with the line. On Jason’s birthday, Cows will donate profits from their ice cream sales to CMHA. If it is a bit shocking that a business like an ice cream store would take on a topic like youth suicide, then their efforts are working. It shouldn’t feel awkward to talk about our feelings, especially with people we love. A T-shirt is a simple, fun way to bring the message to youth that suicidal thoughts are common and not to be ashamed of. They signal in us a need to ‘keep talking’. They deserve to be expressed.

Of course, a T-shirt won’t change the conversation on its own. But given worrying trends with regards to the rising rates of anxiety and depression among teens today, we’re going to have to find new ways to keep this conversation going. There are other corporate initiatives such as that by the telecom giant Bell Canada that are reminding us that mental health is just as important as physical health. That's helpful too except campaigns like that only last one month of each year. To prevent youth suicide we'll need to be reminded of the problem year round. If that's the goal, then a T-shirt might just help change the world after all.

What Else Works?

According to a ChildTrends report by Mary Terzian, Katie Hamilton and Sara Ericson, there are reasonably effective treatments for youth mental health problems but prevention programs on their own aren't enough. Terzian and her co-authors reviewed 37 programs where there’d been a serious evaluation of outcomes. Turns out there is very little that we know works to prevent youth suicide. Most targeted interventions have yet to produce enough rigorous findings to say for certain that they are a good investment of our money. It’s likely that family therapy, individual counseling that addresses cognitive distortions (thinking life is a catastrophe when it really isn’t) and some group work may help teens recover from depression and other conditions that predispose them to suicide, but there’s no certainty that's the case. We know from too many lost lives that even when counseling is available, or tried, young people still harm themselves, leaving in their wake a shattered community and a grieving family.

Maybe it’s not one thing that is the best intervention. Maybe it’s about all of us talking about suicide and the collective stress of living with our smartphones always on. Maybe we need to laugh a little more and eat ice cream on sunny days (and rainy days too, for that matter). Maybe the real solution to this is to let our kids know that we need to keep talking about the things that make us uncomfortable so others can show they love us. This March 1st, enjoy an ice cream with a child and talk about your feelings. Surely, it can’t hurt.