Experts help emphasize message of suicide prevention during TPHS Yellow Ribbon Week in Carmel Valley


By Karen Billing

Of the 38,634 Americans who took their lives last year, 5,000 of them were teenagers.

With that troubling trend in mind, Torrey Pines High School held Yellow Ribbon Week during the week of May 20 to promote suicide prevention among teenagers and to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, such as depression.

The Yellow Ribbon program was started in 1994 in memory of 17-year-old Michael Emme, who took his life because he didn’t know how to let someone know he was in trouble or how to ask for help.

On campus, yellow ribbons were everywhere, students wore yellow t-shirts that said “Be strong” and an art installation near the center of campus showed a circle of yellow sticks placed into the ground, each representing a state and the number of suicides that took place in each state last year. At the center was a broken stick with the words “Break the Cycle.”

Of all the states, California had the most deaths with 3,913.

The week of awareness and inspiration was led by the Peer Assistant Listeners (PALs) group and its advisor Don Hollins, who also the independent study and online learning lab facilitator.

“The message is an important one and not one that students hear every day,” Hollins said.

During the week students also received “Be a Link” cards. The cards had numbers for San Diego’s 24-hour crisis hotline and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The card is also a communication tool that students use to ask for help.

Hollins said that teenagers have the ability to recognize their own power in helping their friends and classmates.

“Statistically we need to break the cycle, have the courage to say ‘I need help’ and the courage to reach out to people who need that help,” Hollins said.

About 1,800 students attended six different assemblies with a variety of presenters. Presenters included Anna Collins, a Harvard MBA graduate and Amazon executive who spoke about the tools for handling stress and failure; transpersonal psychotherapist Dr. Dorothy Gita Moreno, the great-granddaughter of Frank L. Baum, author of “The Wizard of Oz,” who spoke on how to “find, follow and stay on your yellow brick road”; Jim Greer, the director of UMTR2ME, who talked about how he built a successful life following an unsuccessful suicide; and Bonnie Bear, the executive director of Survivors of Suicide Loss.

Students also listened to Johnny Rivera, the successful restaurateur behind Hash House A Go Go, Tractor Room and Great Maple Restaurant, on how he coped with the demise of his Plan A and turned Plan B into success he never could have imagined.

Rivera, a native San Diegan, aspired to be a rock n’ roll star.

He bypassed college and went out on tour with his band and felt like he was on his way to his dream — his band signed with a record company, opening for acts such as the Clash and Devo.

But a musician’s life is not an easy one, a life that Rivera said is often filled with failure as the reality is that only 1 percent of bands really make it big. He was eventually dropped from his record label and that failure led him to drink too much and do “a lot of things he shouldn’t.” He said it was the lowest of the low and he saw his friends become addicted to heroin, go to prison, go through divorces and be content to be unemployed when rock n’ roll did not pan out.

As he neared age 29, he decided he couldn’t let his failure to become a success in music destroy the rest of his life. He shook the idea that he was worthless without music; didn’t “stay at the party too long,” found his “authentic self” and worked his “Plan B.”

“I am a street fighter, I made it through,” Rivera said.

He had always been interested in the restaurant business and decided to throw himself entirely into starting his own restaurant. He worked three jobs, lived in the smallest place he could afford, sold his car and maxed out credit cards.

“People told me the restaurant business is so hard but it’s not like music,” Rivera said.

He found a new way to express himself and infused a rock n’ roll “twisted” attitude into Hash House A Go Go, with heaping portions of fun farm food.

The restaurant opened in 2000 and the concept immediately caught people’s attention.

Hash House now has nine locations, including spots in Chicago, Orlando and Connecticut, and it is the only San Diego restaurant chain to hit Las Vegas. Rivera also opened downtown’s Tractor Room, which specializes in “honest cocktails and meats,” while his newest eatery, Great Maple, specializes in seasonal produce, responsible seafood and farm fresh American meat in a “European dinette” setting. Great Maple has a second location in Newport Beach.

“Plan B doesn’t have to be a negative,” Rivera said.

Rivera said that, as with anything, you have to put in the work to accomplish your goals. He said if you do anything at 50 percent, you’ll get a 50 percent yield — the reason why he has taken two days off since Christmas and has plans to expand his restaurant lines even further. “I don’t know how to stop swinging until I hear the bell,” he said.

He told the teens that it hasn’t always been easy, he had a restaurant close in Kansas City, but he looks at it as losing a battle not the whole war. He said the key is keeping perspective, knowing that you can survive your mistakes and turn negatives into positives.

That was one of the messages of Yellow Ribbon Week, to keep moving and stay on the path to living a healthy lifestyle. A mural designed by PALs on campus had a painting of a yellow brick road that invited students to write their hopes, dreams and aspirations on the bricks of the road.

‘There’s no substitute for living a great life and loving life for suicide prevention,” Hollins said.

Hollins said the mural created a feeling of unity among the students and serves as a reminder of the potential for joy every day.

“If you continue to move in the same direction, you will end up where you’re headed,” Hollins said to the teens. “Is that a warning or a promise? It’s both.”