It’s been three years since Camas parents Sheryl and Joe Stephens suffered the unthinkable.
Their son, Jon, had died by suicide. He was 25 when he took his own life in 2016, shortly after moving to Ohio to pursue an education in advanced welding.
“As best we could tell, he just spiraled down,” said Sheryl Stephens.
But from their grief came something unexpected: a newfound energy to try to save other parents from suffering the same loss. So born was Our City Cares, a growing initiative by the Stephenses to raise awareness of resources for people in mental health crises.
“God uses tragedy sometimes to make social change happen,” Sheryl Stephens said. “It’s what got me through this.”
Through Our City Cares, which was recently incorporated as a nonprofit, the Stephenses work with local public agencies to post yard signs with the phone number for the Southwest Washington Regional Crisis Line. The signs also bear hopeful messages, like “Life has seasons and seasons change,” “There is hope,” and “Your story is still being written.”
The goal, the Stephenses say, is to interrupt a person’s negative cycle of thought with a note of encouragement.
The Stephenses have also provided resource cards to businesses and schools, featuring the numbers and addresses of nearby medical providers, counselors and churches. With community support and sponsorship, the organization has distributed 1,600 yard signs, 9,000 information cards and 127 large banners.
The Stephenses say a cornerstone of their work is in collaborating with local churches, city governments, schools and nonprofits to spread their message of hope. The city of Camas has posted signs throughout downtown, and schools in the Evergreen, Camas and Washougal districts also have the signs on display.
That collaborative approach parallels how the Stephenses managed their own grief after the death of their son. The couple saw how their son’s death affected their entire community, and how they, in turn, relied on that same community to process Jon’s death.
“The mad mom rose up in me and said, ‘We have to do something about this,’ ” Sheryl Stephens said.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. According to the Washington Healthy Youth Survey, teenagers are experiencing more depression and anxiety than they were a decade ago, with 42 percent of high school seniors reporting in 2018 that they felt so sad or hopeless for an extended period of time that they stopped doing their usual activities.
Carl Smith-Knapp, assistant director of student services for Evergreen Public Schools, hopes the signs encourage students to ask for help when they need it, rather than being too afraid to address their own mental health concerns.
“My goal is to get the taboo out of mental health,” Smith-Knapp said.
Camas City Administrator Pete Capell said depression and youth suicides have touched the small city, so they too were eager to help the Stephenses with their mission.
“They’re just wonderful people trying to make a difference,” Capell said. “We can’t solve the nation’s problem, but if we can help locally, that’s a start.”