Phoebe Harris and her grandmother were practically attached at the hip.
The pair lived right down the road from each other in Paragould, Arkansas. They went to the nail salon together every week. Whenever Phoebe was on the court playing basketball or volleyball, Cindy Harris — or Mena, as Phoebe called her — was always there.
“A lot of people say they can remember her coming into our ratchet gyms with a long fur coat,” Phoebe said. “She was just very extra, and she never missed anything.”
As striking as Cindy was, beneath her vibrant red hair and unabashed love for her grandchildren, she struggled with mental illness, Phoebe said. Once, Phoebe noticed bleach stains on Cindy’s carpet, which she later learned were efforts to cover up bloodstains from incidents of self-harm.
Phoebe knew something was off, but she did not know the full extent of the problem because Cindy put on a front for her grandchildren, she said. But in the middle of the night on Aug. 13, 2015, Phoebe’s father — Cindy’s son — received a call with the news: Cindy had died by suicide.
“My dad ran out of the house, and I went in there to my mom, and I was like, ‘She did it, didn't she?’” Phoebe said. “Because there had been so many times where she had attempted or threatened and I just kind of knew. It was a really strange feeling how I just knew that that's what happened.”
Phoebe, then 13, now a UA sophomore, was left wondering: why? But rather than cursing the darkness, she chose to light a candle.
During her eighth-grade year, Phoebe began researching statistics on suicide, and one figure stood out to her. Among individuals aged 15-24, suicide is the second-leading cause of death in Arkansas and in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“That really struck me, because it meant that more than likely I passed someone in the hallway every day that was contemplating taking their own life,” Phoebe said.
Phoebe began planning and developing a charity organization, which she called Let’s Talk ASAP (About Suicide Awareness and Prevention). In her ninth-grade year, the project came to fruition.
Phoebe began speaking to various groups within her community — from civic organizations to elementary school classes — about the importance of maintaining good mental health habits. She makes plenty of visits to schools because primary and secondary school years are when mental health issues tend to first appear, she said.
After a visit with a sixth-grade English class, one of the students approached Phoebe. She told Phoebe her father had recently died by suicide, and she herself had been experiencing suicidal thoughts.
“That was the first time it was kind of like ‘Okay, I'm actually doing this for a reason,’” Phoebe said. “Even though these conversations make you feel uneasy and may be difficult, I knew at that point I'm getting somewhere with this.”
In addition to her speaking engagements, Phoebe hosts an annual fundraising race in September, which is National Suicide Prevention Month. Although COVID-19 has forced that event to go virtual the past two years, it means a lot to Phoebe because she can see the community support for her cause. In a typical year, the run draws more than 200 participants.
Although Let’s Talk ASAP is not officially registered as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit organization, Phoebe donates all proceeds from her fundraisers to larger nonprofits, including The Jason Foundation and the Alex Blackwood Foundation for Hope. To date, she has raised more than $30,000.
The Jason Foundation is named for Jason Flatt, who was 16 when he died by suicide in 1997. The organization seeks to prevent youth suicide “through educational and awareness programs that equip young people, educators/youth workers and parents with the tools and resources to help identify and assist at-risk youth,” according to the foundation.
The Jason Foundation is one of seven nonprofits that make up the National Council for Suicide Prevention, but any help from smaller organizations such as Let’s Talk ASAP is invaluable, said Brett Marciel, the foundation’s chief communications officer.
“It's going to take more than us to confront the problem of youth and young adult suicide,” Marciel said. “So we're more than willing to work with any organization that wants to help further our mission.”
Steven Blackwood founded the Alex Blackwood Foundation for Hope in 2008, after his son, the namesake, died by suicide at 19. Blackwood has worked with countless people around Arkansas and the U.S., but he noticed something unique about Phoebe and her efforts when she invited him to speak at a 2017 event.
“There was something special about the passion that was there,” Blackwood said. “Not just with Phoebe, but the people that attended in support of her. It was clear that they knew her story and they respected her story and acknowledged and recognized the need to be sensitive and responsive to those that may be struggling.”
When Phoebe donates funds from a race, Blackwood said he makes sure to direct them to suicide prevention efforts in school districts around Arkansas.
“It's people like Phoebe that are going to have to continue to raise the bar, and certainly we support her 100% in her efforts,” Blackwood said. “And I'm very encouraged that she has carried her message beyond the high school campus and onto the college campus.”
Although the pandemic has prevented her from fully achieving her goal of expanding into Northwest Arkansas, Phoebe has kept Let’s Talk ASAP active through virtual conversations. Eventually, she would like to speak in person to groups in the region and host an annual race, just like she does at home.
“One thing I promised myself when I started this was I'm not going to stop doing it when it kind of dies down,” Phoebe said. “When a few years pass and it's not as relevant to me, (it) doesn't mean it's not relevant to somebody else who’s going through the same emotions.”
Those struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm can call the UA Counseling and Psychological Services crisis line at 479-575-5276, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.