World Suicide Prevention Week: Oath VP Jen Towns Shares Her Story
Every year, nearly one million lives are lost to suicide globally, and there are so many more who attempt it. And then there are the millions of family members and friends struggling with grief in the aftermath. It's a big issue that often goes unspoken due to stigmas around mental illness. September 10th was World Suicide Prevention Day, and the start of a month-long mental health awareness program led by Oath's brands and Employee Resource Groups. Tonight at 6pm, BUILD, Oath for Good, Tumblr and Born This Way Foundation are hosting a live—and live-streamed—evening of powerful storytelling called "Stories Matter." Earlier this week, we spoke to one of the participants, Oath VP of Consumer Lifecycle Marketing Jen Towns, who lost her father to suicide 17 years ago.
The event at BUILD is called Stories Matter. When did you first share your story?
I was at sales conference last year [right after Oath formed] when there was a panel intended for the newly formed marketing organization to get to know their leaders.
I knew that showing vulnerability to my coworkers and my team was important because I know that vulnerability builds a lot of trust. I said, "My friends and co-workers have seen me through a lot. Obviously over 17 years one goes through a lot of things. At AOL, I was on a business trip in New York and I lost my dad to suicide while I was gone."
It was the first time I had ever said it out loud. I wasn't prepared. I didn't even think about it. It surprised me.
What was the reaction?
I got this amazing response from the people around me supporting me and saying how grateful they were that I told that story. There were several individuals who approached me afterwards saying how important that was for them to hear and relaying their own personal relationships to suicide. So what I learned by being able to say it out loud was such an important moment for me because I made it acceptable for other people to talk to me about their experiences.
Reaching out to people in pain is a challenge for so many of us. People worry about saying the wrong things, asking the wrong questions. What advice would you give them?
I think the right answer is that there are no wrong questions. But I think that might not in fact be the true answer. If I think back to the time that I was going through it, I think there were a lot of questions that made me uncomfortable. Particularly after my dad's death, the stereotypical, "What can I do to help?"
I felt so alone and I felt like no matter how hard somebody tried they just couldn't see the world from my point of view. So maybe that's an interesting way to think about somebody who might be dealing with depression or suicide—to know that they see you as somebody who cannot relate. And maybe the right thing to say is "I know I could never relate to what you're going through. I know I could never understand the depths of your despair, but I want you to know that I care."
This September, Oath is also partnering with Born This Way Foundation on a 21 Days of Kindness initiative. What kindness should we practice 365 days a year?
Right after my dad died, I used to think to myself if somebody had just been nice to him when he was going through what he was going through.
He was diagnosed at 53 with paranoid schizophrenia. He started falling apart. He would be in the grocery store and he'd be seeing people and hearing voices. What I can imagine is people around him looking at him like he was crazy. That truly broke my heart because everybody that you see who kind of looks crazy is a human being that has people who love them.
How do you practice kindness?
When I engage with people, I reach out beyond what I should to be loving and caring and empathetic.
I pick people up on the side of the road. I found this old lady walking down this somewhat busy area of my suburban town and she was with a walker. I pulled over and put my hazards on and people were honking at me and I said are you okay? Where are you going? She didn't know honestly. I put her walker in the back of my car and I drove her home.
A year ago I witnessed a really terrible car accident. Instead of driving away I pulled over. It was actually one of the most traumatic things I've ever seen, three young men in a car. I stood on the side of the road with them for almost two hours. I have a close and personal connection with the driver now. I saw him through his recovery. He was in a coma for a couple of months.
So I feel like I can take a lot of big risks with strangers to extend love and kindness and show people that there are people in the world who care. I think that these small acts turn into really big ones to the person receiving them. I think however you can find ways to affect the people around you, take advantage of it every time.
What does Oath's commitment to mental health through the Neurodiversity employee group and World Suicide Prevention Day mean to you?
It's a very, very important step for the company to make. I think that a company that understands the issues that its large employee base faces in their personal lives every day and creates a safe place for people to have the right conversations and to be supported—it's amazing. It's part of what makes Oath the company that it is. I'm very, very proud to be able to be a part of it.
If you or a loved one is going through a difficult time, you are not alone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting "START" to 741741. View a global list of resources here.