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Two people with stories connected to suicide have carried their painful past into a future of advocacy for mental health.
They're memories captured on camera, moments and milestones one mother wants to remember forever.
"Kind of a jokester, a prankster, a little bit funny. This one is graduation," Tracy Von Aspen said while looking at photos of her son's graduation. "He was excited. I remember it was windier and he laughed at me because I had to bobby pin his hat to keep it on."
Von Aspen, a neurovascular nurse, says her son Carson was a charismatic, caring and passionate varsity basketball player with plans to join the army.
Then just weeks after he graduated high school in 2018 and right before his 18th birthday, he died by suicide.
"I made an incoherent phone call to my brother, and I just remember saying, 'He's dead. He's dead,'" Von Aspen said.
She struggled to make sense of the phone call that shattered her world, but everything pointed to a painful reality.
Von Aspen said her son showed her no suicidal signs, leaving the world without explanation.
"My son who had a great family unit, you know, great friends, a supportive school system," she said.
According to the CDC, more than 48,000 Americans died by suicide in 2021, an increase in rates following a drop.
Natalia Chimbo-Andrade, a board chair with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention Education, says the uptick in suicide deaths nationwide is alarming.
"We are seeing a rise in some mental health symptoms and adolescents such as anxiety, symptoms of depression," Chimbo-Andrade said.
Riana Alexander says she battled depression and anxiety during her junior year at Chandler High School in Arizona. The same year she says three students in her school district died by suicide in less than two weeks.
"It was pretty close to being me earlier that year," she said. "I was definitely having suicidal thoughts. I was pretty close to attempting suicide a couple of times."
With support from her mom, she got help and graduated this year. It was a day she once feared she would never live to see.
Now Alexander and Von Aspen have both started nonprofits — Carson's Crusadors and Arizona Students for Mental Health — in which they push for emotional learning to help teens manage stress, call for an increase in suicide prevention training and education, and advocate for better mental health to help save lives.
"Even in professional settings, there's not enough suicide training, and so when we have more training out in communities, we can have more confident people being able to report it," Chimbo-Andrade said.
Von Aspen says she's accepted she'll never know why her son took his life, but in his honor she's taken this vow to help teens find hope.
"I think there's definitely been positive changes from, you know, a tragic outfall," Von Aspen said. "He wanted to help people, and that's what I'm trying to do."
If you need to talk to someone, reach out to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org.
This national network of local crisis centers provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
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