Special Report: 'Social Guardians' save lives online

A local suicide-prevention group is saving lives here at home and across the country, and they're not your typical brick and mortar organization.

Posted: Nov 14, 2019 10:47 AM
Updated: May 3, 2021 12:32 PM

EUGENE, Ore. -- Behind her smile is sheer survival for 18-year-old Alice Strong.

"I was seven when I first attempted suicide. I was nine the second time. I was 13 the third time. I was 16 the fourth time. And the fifth time was just two months ago," Strong said. "When will I have friends? When is everything going to be ok?"

She describes a lifetime of isolation that 20-year-old Trevor Paxton can relate to. 

"I never really felt like my life meant much. At this moment, I don't really think it means that much," said Paxton.

It's self-doubt and more for Matthew Lewis. 

"Depression, anxiety, social anxiety. And I actually attempted suicide," Lewis said, "To be honest, I don't know if I'd be alive if I hadn't found Youth Era."

December will mark 10 years since Youth Era opened its doors in Eugene. Martin Rafferty is the founder and CEO.

"We know that we're the last defense for a lot of these young people," Rafferty said. "Youth Era isn't a 9-to-5 organization. We exist because the traditional systems don't have a way of reaching young people where they're at."

Where they're at, he said, is online, sometimes in their most desperate moments. 

"In today's world, young people aren't walking into doctors' offices when they need help. They're not going in and talking to therapists about depression. They're doing that online. They're doing it on these social media platforms, platforms that the traditional systems have no understanding of," said Rafferty.

This includes the popular live-streaming video platform called Twitch, which Youth Era is now signed up on.

On hand to help the group launch their first Twitch stream was psychiatrist Dr. Dave Jeffery

"Twitch was a new word to me," Dr. Jeffery said. "We've all heard of the white-coat syndrome. Even my heart rate can go up and blood pressure goes up when I see my own doctor. We need to do something different. And that's where Youth Era has really been stepping up and saying we can play a role."

"What does it feel like when a young person who you guys have helped reaches out and says, 'You saved my life?'" KEZI 9 News anchor Bryan Anderson asked Rafferty. 

"One of my weaknesses is that when young people are talking about the role we played in helping, I can't really focus on that. I'd like to. I see the funerals. I see the losses, and I think a lot of us are driven here by those losses," answered Rafferty. "So when we hear these success stories, it helps a lot. But there's a feeling of urgency that we need to move faster."

According to CDC data, the suicide rate increased 56% for 10 to 24-year-olds between 2007 and 2017. 

Since opening its doors in 2009, Youth Era's team of social guardians continues fighting back against that festering feeling of isolation with each Facebook message, every Tweet, TikTok post, or Twitch that it takes to reach at-risk youth. 

"It's like taking a breath of fresh air, honestly. It's like I was trapped in a cage. But now I'm out. I can finally breathe," said Lewis.

"What do you think about the difference that you've seen in yourself?" Anderson asked Paxton.

"A lot more confident than I was. I'm happier. A lot more sociable," said Paxton.

"That's the one thing I like about Youth Era, they're always there," Strong said. "It's a home. It's family."

From here at home to around the country, Youth Era has empowered 875,000 youth in 39 states. 

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone about their mental health, you can reach out to Youth Era on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.  

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