#IWillBStrong opens the conversation about youth suicide prevention

Tracy Haun OwensOur Town Neighbors

It began as a motto printed on T-shirts that Candace Bannister made for friends and family of her late son, Will Bannister. Now Candace and her family and friends hope to use #IWillBStrong to open up community conversations about youth suicide prevention.

Betty Bean wrote last week in-depth about Farragut High School student Will Bannister’s 2017 suicide at age 16 and his parents’ ongoing lawsuit. Over the last few months, Will’s parents, Candace and Mark, have also been gathering resources to talk about youth suicide prevention.

Candace explains that she created about 17 T-shirts for close friends and family to remember Will. People began asking if they could order the shirts, and “about 135 shirts later,” she realized that she was at the beginning of a movement, an entrée into spreading awareness about youth suicide.

She and her husband sat down and asked each other what it meant to say #IWillBStrong. What did they want other struggling children to hear? They came up with these principles:

#IWillBStrong means

  • Understanding you do not have to handle everything life throws your way on your own.
  • Being willing and able to reach out when you need help.
  • Identifying, in advance, a trusted adult, so that when you need to talk you already have someone in mind.
  • Reaching out to check on others who are going through tough times.
  • Being willing to have an awkward conversation with someone whose mental state concerns you.
  • Reporting to a parent, counselor or another responsible adult any time someone expresses to you that they may harm themselves.

“It doesn’t mean you have to keep taking punches,” Candace Bannister says. “It takes a lot of strength to reach out.”

Now there are bumper stickers with the hashtag on cars all over East Tennessee. There’s a Facebook group, I Will B Strong, and a website, www.iwillbstrong.org, all with resources about youth suicide prevention.

Last month, Candace asked the town of Farragut if she could set up a tent for her group at the Lawn Chair Concert Series. She spent that Saturday stringing black and pink flags around the tent rim and putting up banners. There were a number of interested visitors, including a large group of Will’s friends.

She says she also saw some people turn away when they saw the words “youth suicide,” and she understands their reluctance.

“I wasn’t sure I could be strong,” she says. “Somewhere along the line I realized, okay, you are going to be strong. You cannot falter.”

Since her son died, she has spent hours educating herself about the epidemic.

She has been undergoing training from the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network to prepare to speak about the issue. She is not sure whether #IWillBStrong will become its own organization or whether it will eventually partner with another organization.

She recently learned about “Hope Squads.” Developed in Utah and now present in many other states, these are school-based programs in which students are trained to look out for peers who may be experiencing suicidal ideation and other mental health crises.

“I want to be prepared for the right opportunity when it comes,” she says.

Tennessee’s teen suicide rate has been increasing for more than a decade and is now 20 percent higher than the national average. The national suicide rate rose 81 percent from 2007 to 2017. In this state, suicide is the second leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 19.

“I didn’t hear any of that before my son died,” Candace says. “We all need to know that these numbers are going up and not down.”

For parents, for children, for educators, for this community, Bannister says, “The door is open for this conversation.”

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