“Remember how Angela Bassett burned that car up and walked away in ‘Waiting to Exhale,’” says Iden Campbell. “With all her husband’s clothes inside?” “Yeah, well, that’s what I did to my life.”
Campbell, a suicide prevention advocate, is referring to a time when he ran a peer-run resource center in Washington, D.C. and was also living in his car. “I ended up homeless because living with chronic mental illness made my executive function so low,” he says. “I’d fully commit to my job but forget to pay rent or the electric bill.” Over time, bills and late fees added up, and suddenly, Campbell owed large sums of money. “It was a vicious cycle.”
All the while, he felt he couldn’t ask for help and had to maintain an image of normalcy. “D.C. is a very competitive place.” He found keeping up the appearance of being OK, while not being OK, exhausting. “As a person trying to live up to all of that — and not having a family network — wreaked havoc on my emotional security and self-esteem.”
Campbell also experienced homelessness years before, as a teen in New York City. “I lived on the seven train when I aged out of foster care,” he says. The National Foster Youth Institute reports that 23,000 youth age out of the U.S. foster care system each year. He chose the seven train because it was the warmest. One day, when he started falling asleep, a police officer approached him. She asked if he had any place to go. When he responded that he was 18 and had aged out of foster care, the officer gave him $20 and the address to Covenant House.
The nonprofit helped connect Campbell with his mother in North Carolina. He still regularly meets with others in the Covenant House alumni community. “I’m so happy they’re around.”
Today, Campbell is the chief investor of Twelve6 Strategies, a suicide prevention consulting organization. He’s struggled with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts for much of his life, starting around eight years old. “It was the ‘70s in the Black community.” His third-grade teacher, Ms. Rosen, told his mom he needed therapy and referred them to Bellevue in Brooklyn. “My mom told me I didn’t need therapy and said something about me being crazy — I remember that really hurt my feelings.”
In adulthood, Campbell couldn’t identify the effect of under or untreated depression on his overall health and executive function. “That’s how I ended up on my journey as a person going through chronic, long-term mental health distress.” Life, he says, began wearing on him and his suicidal ideation grew stronger.
By early 2016, he’d mostly stopped making plans. “Whatever ones I did make were for that day only.” He says he’d been holding on to life for other people and felt physically and emotionally tired and decided to end his life. “I guess all the loss and trauma from childhood, too, had finally caught up with me.”
The suicide attempt caused a heart attack and kidney damage. He’d also long stopped taking his diabetes medication. “I needed a lot of medical treatment when I came out of the hospital,” says Campbell. He moved to Seattle, Washington, to be closer to his support system, especially his close friend, Dr. Ursula Whiteside. “Every day, I would open my door and the first thing I’d see would be a sticky note or little gift from Ursula, especially when she was traveling. She would make sure I had a nice note or two to hold me over.”
After Campbell’s suicide attempt in 2016, Whiteside flew across the country and was at the hospital the next day when he woke up. “A lot of times when people are coming out of a suicide attempt, they don’t have that type of support.”
The notes helped Campbell feel supported as he healed. “I still have them.” They’re what motivated him to develop ProjectToLive, a program to help people rebuild their lives after a suicide attempt. He shares that a suicide attempt can shake the foundation of a person’s day-to-day life, disrupting relationships, education, employment, and housing.
Rebuilding his life has taken having a support system and a critical part of that has been his friendship with Whiteside. “We all deserve to have someone in our lives who can help us diverge from that path that we’re on,” he says.
Whiteside founded NowMattersNow.org, a website that makes brief, effective crisis interventions accessible. She is also a proponent of caring messages — messages that don’t make demands on the recipient — an easy intervention that can save lives. “She’s always sent me caring messages — that’s her thing,” says Campbell.
It’s these messages that got him thinking. “What if people had tangible markers of care and rebuilding after a suicide attempt?” he wondered. Inspired by the medallions people receive when they reach Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous milestones, he started working on a larger prototype, two-inch metal medallions, for suicide prevention. “They’re heavy enough to be paperweights.”
He sent them to everyone he knew in suicide prevention. Recipients all responded the same way. “By holding the medallion, they felt a connection to me and their own suicide attempt, and they felt thankful for being alive all these years.”
He sent a coin to Rev. Linda Kaufman, reminding Kaufman of her suicide attempt 50 years ago when she was a freshman in college. “That made me realize all the years and life people have lived after their attempts — marriage, having a family and professional accomplishments,” says Campbell. Yet, stigma marches on. “They still have the presence of stigma in their lives, buried so deep, because many people still won’t understand what they were going through.” The coins, he says, aren’t only designed to remind people of their attempt but also to help them rebuild and reclaim their lives.
The medallions are one part of the ProjectToLive program. The program will also feature an app, website and online support groups. “I want to create something accessible and free where people can speak to someone who understands what they are going through.”
Campbell wants to create what he wishes he had as a child, someone telling him how much life he has to live. “It would have made a difference if someone had told me, ‘Imagine all that you can do, Iden, when you become 25, 35, 45. Imagine all that you’re going to do in your life.’” Campbell points out that telling someone they have a future is free. “It doesn’t cost anything to believe in them.”