Using laptop computers and cellphones, about 80 area teens gathered Sunday at Lexington's Temple Adath Israel to reach out to friends and family and tell them about youth suicide prevention.
By the end of the three-hour event, the third annual Spread the Love-a-thon, a record 2,332 "lifelines" had been extended through phone calls, text messages, email, and Facebook and other social media.
Leslie Robin, a second-year medical student at the University of Kentucky and creator of the event, said she was inspired by her experiences as an eighth-grade science teacher in Miami.
"I saw a lot of tears, a lot of fights," she said.
As a teacher, she said, she also saw firsthand that social media has an effect on how teens feel, and how teens these days have to maintain both an actual and a virtual reputation.
"Reputation is everything in your teen years," she said.
Sunday's participants were instructed to give each of their message recipients two genuine compliments specific to them and a brief message about youth suicide. Participants also encouraged contacts to give donations through the Stop Youth Suicide Coalition's Web site. The coalition, a grass-roots organization developed by the UK Department of Pediatrics' Adolescent Medicine Program, sponsored the annual Spread the Love-a-thon in partnership with the UK adolescent medicine program, The Ridge and WellCare.
"As long as it's a one-to-one communication, we don't care how they (participants) do it," said Carolyn Lentzsch-Parcells, a UK assistant professor of pediatrics. The lifelines extended by participants not only help give recipients a sense of connectedness that can help prevent suicide, they can give the participants a sense of connectedness too, she said.
About 600 Kentucky teens died by suicide last year, said Marlene Huff, an associate professor of pediatrics at UK's College of Medicine and president of the Stop Youth Suicide Coalition. "We'd like to see that number be zero," she said.
Two main reasons teens commit suicide, she said, are a breakup with a significant other or an argument with parents.
Huff said teens are more impulsive than adults, so if a teen says he or she is feeling suicidal, they should be taken seriously and help should be gotten for them.
Sunday's gathering included pizza, prizes and a talk from Charlsey Nave, 17, a Woodford County High School senior who said she has had suicidal tendencies.
"I wanted to show people it's OK to talk about how you feel — the way you feel," she said before taking the stage.
Nave, using Jenga game blocks as a prop, told the others how, four years ago, she felt that her life was out of control and that no one cared. At first, she developed an eating disorder. Later she began to cope by cutting herself, then she turned to drugs, she said. She went from being an honor roll student and athlete with a lot of friends to someone with whom parents didn't want their teens associating, she said.
"I had trouble with the cops; I had trouble with the law," she said. Later, just two days before she was to get out of a hospital, where she was being treated for her problems, she got news that her brother had been killed in a traffic accident, she said.
The tower she had built came tumbling down.
"I picked up one piece at a time," she said. "This tower has been rebuilt."
She said people need to use their pain as a motivation to reach out to others.