April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

MI Teens Raise Suicide Awareness in Library Project


A “You Matter” suicide prevention awareness display at the Farmington (MI) Community Library. Photos courtesy of Jennie Willard

On the evening of August 22, 2016, 26 teens gathered on the front lawn of the downtown branch of the Farmington (MI) Community Library (FCL), armed with spray paint and acrylic paint, brushes, and duct tape. Some spray paint ended up on the grass and people’s fingers, but most of it was used to decorate and transform 29 old phones. Put on display at the library and around the community, these phones became bright symbols of communication, hope—and suicide prevention awareness.

suicide-prevention_heart-phoneIt all began when Mary Carleton, coordinator of technology at FCL, which serves the towns of Farmington and Farmington Hills, gave me a call. She was deep in the process of upgrading the library’s phone systems, and she had run into a roadblock: the existing phones were too old to be sold or even donated, and she couldn’t stand the thought of them going into a trash heap.  She knows I’m always on the lookout for new and out-of-the-ordinary projects for my teens, and she wondered if I could use the phones for something crafty.

I still don’t know why I said what I did that day. Suicide prevention awareness has been prevalent the past few years, from memes shared around social media to the 2015 Oscar short film winner The Phone Call, about a suicide prevention hotline operator and one of her callers. But none of that was consciously on my mind when I suggested that the teens paint the phones for suicide awareness—just the sense that it was the right decision.

I started researching suicide awareness events and discovered that they occur in September, which is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The timing worked well for our project, and more importantly, I realized just how important suicide prevention awareness is:

  • Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young people ages 10–24; the second-leading cause among those ages 25–34; and the 10th leading cause overall in the United States.
  • We lose an estimated 22 veterans to suicide every single day.
  • In this past year alone, more than 42,000 lives were lost to suicide, and it’s estimated that for every suicide, there are 25 attempts.

At that point, it became even more important to host this project.

suicide-prevention_writing-messagesMary offered to donate the paint; I picked a day and started advertising the Phone Painting Project to our Teen Advisory Board, as well as on social media. We described it as a volunteer opportunity, but most of the teens who showed up didn’t bother with school-requirement paperwork. They came to be creative, to learn new skills (spray painting needs more practice than you realize), and most of all, to make a difference.

Nearly half the teens who gathered for the project had lost someone to suicide or knew someone who had lost a loved one. They came to boost awareness and to spread the message: You matter.  You can not be replaced.  When that doesn’t seem true, it is 100 percent okay to call for help.

Some teens wrote messages of encouragement on the phones themselves: Live!; You are enough; Life is tough, but darling, so are you; Head up, gorgeous; Speak up; people still care about you.

suicidie_revention_phoenixOthers included the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255. Every single one of them put their energy into creating unique works of art that they hoped would be enough to catch the attention of those who are hurting—and give them a reason to reach out and talk to someone who cares.

Thanks to Ken Massey, the mayor of Farmington Hills and the head of Farmington SAFE (Suicide Awareness for Everyone), a suicide-prevention organization, the phones were displayed in both FCL branches, the Farmington Hills City Hall, the community center, and the four community high schools. Each display included the messages, plus wallet cards and information about national and local resources. Photos of the phones and the displays have been shared far beyond our community as well.

suicide-prevention_proclamationOn September 12, I was proud to be present when the teens and their creations were recognized at the Farmington Hills City Council Meeting. The teens and I were asked to say a few words about the topic. Twelve-year-old Nadia probably summed it up the best: “We designed these phones to show that people are just one call away. You don’t have to really shut everyone out. People still care about you.”

If you think a friend or family member may be considering suicide, there are resources to help you and to help you help them. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has talk, text (741741), or chat options.  Veterans and their families have dedicated support: option 1 at 800-273-8255, text 838255, or chat and other resources.

Jennie Willard is a young adult librarian at the Farmington Community Library in Farmington/Farmington Hills, MI. Photos of the phones and their displays are up on the Farmington Community Library Teen Scene Facebook page.

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Empowering Teens: Fostering the Next Generation of Advocates
Teens want to make a difference and become advocates for the things they care about. Librarians working with young people are in a unique position to help them make an impact on their communities and schools. Ignite your thinking and fuel these efforts at your library through this Library Journal online course—April 24 & May 8.


  1. This is a fabulous idea and we are going to borrow it for our MCDL library system in Ohio and work with high school students across the county. Great idea! We have Jay Asher coming to speak at our local high school in September and this is a great tie-in. I can’t wait to see how this goes for us. We have boxes and boxes and old phones donated so far! Thanks for sharing.