Art and Advocacy: Uniting to Fight the Threat of Teen Suicide


Art and advocacy need not be mutually exclusive pursuits, overrun by the fear that the latter will alienate fans of the former, resulting in a never-ending series of culture wars, political protests, boycotts and controversy.

In fact, some of the most talented artists—including the singer-songwriter John Michael Williams (more about below)—prove that art is a force for unity and goodwill; that the lyrics of a ballad have meaning, a poetic quality that elicits our attention and encourages us to action, so we may educate the public and save lives in the process.

The advocacy I refer to, and the best way to think of this concept of "creative lobbying," is a unifying power that transcends race, religion and nationality; it is music that entertains while it simultaneously penetrates our collective subconscious, to reemerge at the forefront of our attitudes about helping at-risk youth, as we support—in words and deeds—a project as urgent as it is moral: Fighting the threat of teen suicide.

For example: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that, in 2013 (the most recent year for which full data are available), there were 41,149 suicides, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. Those figures translate into the loss of life—the commission of suicide—every 12.8 minutes.

Additional studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics reveal that at least 90% of teen suicide victims had some type of mental health problem, such as depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, or a behavioral disorder.

Building awareness of this phenomenon is one thing, a noble intention and a praiseworthy effort by parents (and the parents of suicide victims), teachers, doctors, nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists, friends, neighbors and fellow citizens.

Maintaining that recognition is something else altogether because, in an environment saturated with distractions and overrun with the collision of competing venues for our time and money, it takes an ingenious artist to cut through this white noise and cyber shouting.

It also requires a master of song, an eloquent writer of books, and a talented film director (watch Bridgend on Netflix), as well as a performer fluent in each medium—and successful in every endeavor—to accomplish what few have tried to start, and even fewer have managed to sustain: A national conversation about the lethal threat of teen suicide that strikes the rich and the poor with the same impunity.

If an entertainer can recede these deadly waters, then we have an ethical responsibility to help him block this flood before it drowns more of America's youth.

We should applaud the entertainer for his performance, while cheer his judicious use of fame. For celebrity can be intoxicating in its own right, divorcing a person from the trials of everyday life and the individual travails of the silent and dispossessed.

So, when a singer like John Michael Williams takes the stage, and when he motivates others to follow his lead, he proves that the numbers that matter are not the gross receipts and ticket sales, or the song and book royalties.

The only numbers that we should review are the ones we can see: The faces of the men and women, teenagers, adolescents and young adults, who can count themselves among the saved.

Spared the cruelty of suicide, and rescued from the brink of an evil abyss, the best art is advocacy.

It is a demand to do good by doing well; to use the profits of professional success to be a prophet of personal survival.

That is the mission.