By Jennifer L. Warren
The image is vividly etched in Donna Thomas’ mind. It’s never left her in over two and a half years, and it likely never will.
She recalls it like it was yesterday. Hundreds and hundreds of people lined up at her son James’ wake to say goodbye. It was a vision that overwhelmed, deeply touching the 25 year resident of Dutchess County mother with multiple ties to her Wappinger’s Falls community.
Beyond even the outpouring and love for her son who died by suicide on October 18, 2019, Donna felt something even more potently riveting at his wake.
“So many kids came up to and opened up to me about their own depression and other issues that they had kept hidden,” recalled Thomas. “There was something inside me, telling me I had to change the stigma and bring light to this issue that was affecting so many, and I thought about how telling James’ story would give me an avenue to do just that.”
Thomas pursued that pulling, becoming the Founder of James’s Warriors, a suicide prevention program, aimed at going into schools and teaching the complex intricacies of prevention along with integral coping skills. The hope is to encourage communication about mental health and suicide prevention, involving youth, peers, parents and educators through live, detailed presentations. It further aims to create a safe, open setting, allowing kids to see that talking about feelings is ok, even encouraged.
“After losing James, I became involved with studies about the brain, dealing with depression and anxiety, at Columbia University, and really came to realize just how complicated it is as well as how we are all so different,” explained Thomas. “I’ve also always been a very positive person with my family and community, so I wanted to do something to help in some way, as I knew so many others were struggling.”
Thomas quickly created a vision of James’s Warriors, one where kids were free to express their feelings and felt empowered as a result. Further, she wanted to change the way suicide was perceived. She knew the best means to those ends were to start the dialogue, as early as possible, preferably elementary school. So far, since its inception on March 17, 2020, James’s Warriors has provided presentations at seven locations, including here in the Hudson Valley at: The Northern Dutchess Coalition, Southern Dutchess Coalition as well as Family Services in Dutchess County. The reception has been nothing short of incredibly positive.
After hearing Thomas vividly recount her son’s life, one that appeared “normal” on multiple levels: a good-looking kid with a girlfriend and a lovable sense of humor, Master Barber, car enthusiast, and someone who loved his family and friends (evident in the suicide note she shares) and then listen in to a more technically-focused presentation by therapist Dr. Jaimee Arnoff, based in Beacon, many in the audience are spellbound.
Some of the student feedback reads, “It’s ok to have a bad day and just be proud of myself.”
Another quote says, “I almost threw my life away because I was in a temporary problem and almost made a permanent solution.” As intense and at times difficult that the presentation can be, one thing is certain: It’s one that wants to be heard.
“Hearing what we say during these talks is like seeing,” said Thomas, who is hoping to appear at James’ alma mater: Roy C. Ketcham in the near future. “People want to know, hear and see everything.”
According to Dr. Arnoff, there is a very tangible rationale for the insatiable appetite for knowledge on this complicated and very prevalent topic, as suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
“Talking about mental health can be uncomfortable, influenced by an individual’s fear to start the discussion, perceived fear of other’s abilities to engage in this topic and cultural expectations,” said Dr. Arnoff, who volunteers her time to James’s Warriors. “Our conversations are critical because we are modeling the conversation to our audience; mostly, we encourage kids and parents to be open with one another with how they are feeling, so if needed, additional support can be put in place, so everyone feels heard and remains safe.”
She added, “It’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions, and it’s important to be compassionate with oneself.”
Not only are children-young adults empowered by the talk, but so too are the adults. In turn, a circle of hope emerges.
“Kids will come up to you if they know you will listen,” affirmed Thomas. “If they know you are receptive to what they have to say, it can mean everything.”
To learn more about James’s Warriors, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the Website: jamesswarriors.org. You can also follow them on facebook @james’swarriors and Instagram @jameswarriors