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San Diego nonprofit highlights suicide prevention work with local youth

Jerome McClelland works with Agency 515, a local nonprofit doing suicide prevention work.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Jerome McClelland, of City Heights in San Diego, is an artist and lead youth facilitator with the nonprofit, Agency 515, which facilitates social education, emotional development, and suicide prevention work for local youth

Jerome McClelland found the local nonprofit Agency 515 at a critical time in his young life. The nonprofit serves as the umbrella organization for The SOULcial Workers, also known as the Social Education Theatre. It’s a collective of artists and educators who create programs and events to support youth through social education and emotional development, including work in suicide prevention. McClelland connected with the group’s mission and values, and wanted to be part of helping to build on that work.

“I was introduced to the organization at a very pivotal moment in my life and … I wanted to be a part of what they were working on and help further the cause,” he says. “Being a survivor of a suicide attempt myself, I feel like I found this work when I needed it and it worked for me. I saw it as a good opportunity to learn more about myself and do some healing. It was also great to help others get through it as well. I felt like I was doing something cool and important.”

On Sunday, the organization is hosting its “SOUL-a-bration” of life event to honor their family, friends and supporters from 5 to 9 p.m. at 1835 Imperial Ave. in San Diego. There will be food, drinks, music, storytelling, spoken word, a special presentation of “ ; Got Soul” (the semicolon is a symbol of mental health awareness and suicide prevention), and sharing the suicide prevention work they’ve been doing for the past six years in southeastern San Diego, Logan Heights and City Heights.

McClelland, 21, is an artist and lead youth facilitator with Agency 515 and lives in City Heights. He took some time to talk about the organization and their work in the community, some best practices for people who want to support the people in their lives who are dealing with mental health issues, and learning about the value he brings to the work he’s doing. (The toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or suicidepreventionlifelife.org.)

Q: Why was this organization something you wanted to be a part of?

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A: I wanted to be a part of the work because I felt like it was something important to talk about, and I knew it needed more conversation. Any way that I could be a part of something that gives people a second thought in a moment of hopelessness, anything that could provide tools and ways to prevent someone from choosing suicide and help families gain more knowledge on how to talk about the subject, was valuable and I wanted to help other young people talk about it, as well. Suicide is a topic with a lot of stigma, and I wanted to help reduce that.

Q: You all are also celebrating six years of suicide prevention work with young people in southeastern San Diego, Logan Heights and City Heights. Can you talk about what was behind the decision to focus on suicide prevention, in general?

A: I think it all started because of our founder’s lived experience and the fact that there weren’t any spaces that were talking to young people and people of color about this specific issue, even though we were the most impacted.

Q: And why focus on suicide prevention in these specific neighborhoods?

A: These are our neighborhoods. This is where we live and where we’re from. Most of us grew up in the same communities we serve. I know I didn’t talk about any of this stuff while I was growing up here, and I know a lot of people still aren’t talking about it.

What I love about City Heights ...

All of the various cultures you experience.

Q: According to organizations and agencies such as the National Institute of Mental Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is a public health issue and a leading cause of death in the United States, with suicide rates 30 percent higher in 2020 than in 2000. What do you think people who don’t do this kind of prevention work misunderstand about suicide and how to support people who may be experiencing suicidal ideation?

A: I’m 21 years old, and suicide is currently the second leading cause of death for youth in my age group. For starters, people should understand that the issue is real and important to learn about and talk about. Also, its not a one-size-fits-all problem. People have so many different experiences that contribute to this issue, and it’s important to create intentional spaces to share those experiences.

Because of the ways suicide is silenced in most spaces in our society, people hold a lot of discomfort when talking about suicide, whether it’s something they’re personally dealing with or not. People don’t necessarily go out of our way to learn about issues that live in the dark until we find ourselves there. When we do find ourselves in those spaces, we often lack the tools to facilitate the conversation, or we simply feel like we don’t know enough to have a serious conversation or to help others through it.

People don’t have to be alone. Whatever someone is going through that leads them to believe that suicide is the best or the only way out, there are other options. There are options they may not have thought of, and sometimes we need other people to help us see those other options. We have to do more so that people know they’re not alone, before it’s too late.

Q: I understand that Agency 515 has previously provided an arts-centered camp with scene writing and QPR (Question, Persuade, and Refer) gatekeeper training, in partnership with the San Diego County Suicide Prevention Council, to help people develop basic skills in recognizing the warning signs of suicide, offer support, and save lives. Can you talk about a few of the do’s and don’ts for offering support and facilitating getting someone the help they need?

A: Some of the do’s include: Ask questions and listen to people when they answer. Approach the conversation with a clear mind, remove judgement, focus on hearing the person you’re talking to and what their needs are at the time. Remember that you are there to offer support, and not your opinion. Know the difference between the two before you share because it could make a critical difference. When someone shares their truth with you, it means that they see something in you that they trust, or that they’re trying to trust. That’s a really big deal and you should appreciate that, and appreciate them. Try to see people for who they are, not what they are going through. And, try your best.

Some of the don’ts include: Don’t make light of the situation. Take all expressions of suicide seriously, even when you think the person may be joking, still check in. Don’t assume. Your experience is not someone else’s experience, no matter how similar they may seem. The way that you are affected by something will be different for others, so don’t forget that. As much as you are there to help, you’re also there to learn.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?

A: I guess it taught me that I’m pretty cool, and I do cool stuff. I’m able to do things now that, before, I didn’t really believe I could do. This work has really helped my people skills and my writing. I found a place where I can make an impact just by being me. I learned that I’m good at making people feel seen. I know what it’s like to be the quiet kid in the corner or feel like an outcast, so I know what to look for. That’s kind of my specialty. I know how to connect with those kids and help include them, or help figure out whatever they need to feel safe.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: Maybe to trust myself more.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: That I actually talk when I feel comfortable, and I have a lot to say when I do, lol. Or, that I’m a good singer. I don’t know how many people know that about me, lol.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: I’m either working or spending time with friends or family.


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