Cook Center for Human Connection and Wonder Media take on heavy topics like suicide and depression in new cartoon series
By Lois M. Collins | Deseret News
Can a group of cartoon characters dealing with some of the heaviest issues that young people face help real-life sufferers reclaim joy and choose life?
That’s the aim of the first animated series targeting suicide prevention that kicks off officially Wednesday on YouTube.
“My Life Is Worth Living,” a collaboration between the Utah-based Cook Center for Human Connection and Wonder Media, follows five animated characters who each have at least one struggle that has been shown to contribute to suicide ideation, including bullying, sexual identity, sexual abuse, fear of being ostracized socially, depression and substance abuse. One character, for instance, is a suicide survivor trying to readjust. Another was injured in a fire and feels like a burden. The characters also each have a persistent critical inner voice telling them they are less than they should be and they don’t matter.
“These are problems we can all relate to,” said Terry Thoren, founder of Wonder Media, who believes that animation is perfect for carrying a lifesaving message to youths who struggle and those who care about them and could intervene.
“Animation knows no borders, no race, no religion or culture. Kids are open to animation. But suicide doesn’t know any borders, either. We know this is an international language that we’re speaking: cartoons,” he said. “We have great voice actors, great character design, great music — and we’re using all the conventions that will lead a teenager into the story and they won’t click away.”
The timing couldn’t be more crucial, according to Anne Brown, president and CEO of the Cook Center for Human Connection.
The number of young people experiencing a serious mental health crisis skyrocketed even before COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the suicide rate jumped nearly 60% in those ages 10 to 24 between 2007 and 2018. And a CDC survey mid-pandemic found 4 in 10 respondents struggling with mental health, the rate highest among young people and racial/ethnic minorities.
In America, suicide is the No. 2 cause of death in that age group, while in Utah it is the leading cause of death.
Prevention is vital, because suicide can be an impulsive act that is done very quickly after the idea occurs to someone who is struggling. The series emphasizes anyone can play a role in prevention, including parents, siblings, friends, coaches, teachers and others. Being connected — something research shows is powerful against self-harm — is a central theme.
“The goal of each story arc is to convey the message that there are people who care, and also to show potential helpers what they should do when they’re confronted with someone who is struggling with suicide and suicidal thoughts,” Brown told the Deseret News. While the animation is designed for those 13 to 24, she said, “We would love to have families start watching these together and begin a conversation.”
Using animation could help curb a “cultural stigma around talking about suicide,” according to series consultant Dr. James Mazza, a psychology professor at the University of Washington and an expert on suicide, in background material provided by the Cook Center and Wonder Media. He and other experts helped shape the topics the storylines address.
The series follows five characters for four short episodes each while coaching others on how to help them.
Terry Thoren, Wonder Media founder, was formerly CEO of Klasky Csupo, which produced “Rugrats” and the “Wild Thornberrys.” He founded the new company because he wanted to use his experience with animation to help meet social challenges, including sexual abuse and trauma prevention. Wonder Media has worked with organizations including the Betty Ford Children’s Center and the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center Foundation to address hunger, social-emotional learning, critical thinking, and child abuse, among others.
He said every episode celebrates the fact that “there are people right there next to you that can help you. … It’s about communication, so this is really a catalyst to get people to talk.”
Most teenagers in a classroom are suffering some kind of trauma, according to Thoren, “whether sex abuse, physical abuse, substance abuse, hunger, living with a single parent who’s overworked, suicidal thoughts.”
The Cook Center was launched by and is named for Julie and Greg Cook, among the founders of DoTERRA, a Utah-based essential oils manufacturer, to focus on suicide prevention and mental health support for families. Thoren had the original idea for the animated series and the center provided the vast majority of the funding.
Brown said that nearly all of the Cooks’ children knew someone who died by suicide, which emphasizes the urgency of prevention. The center joined Wonder Media in betting that well-done animation will prove to be a medium that’s both safe and engaging to encourage people to discuss hard topics with loved ones and with friends.
Thoren expects YouTube will also prove valuable because he and others involved in making the series will be able to look at comments viewers post and learn from them what resonates and what doesn’t as the series rolls out this fall.
The series debuts Wednesday, with episodes recorded in English, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish. A preview is already online.
Note: The U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available around the clock at 800-273-TALK (8255). Talk or chat.
The Crisis Text Line can be reached at 741741.