Jake Hertzman, Founder, 988 Initiative
Sadly, the suicide rate is on the rise, along with an increase in mental illness; especially among our youth today. Society somehow attached a stigma to it and even the media was silent on the subject for too long. Now we hear more about mental illness and suicide, but still many suffer in silence. Sure, we’re talking about it, but talking about it is not enough. Action must be taken.The good news? Some significant steps have been taken recently.
A mental health hotline has been created – some call it a suicide prevention hotline. The three-digit hotline 988 went nationwide just over a month ago on Saturday, July 16.
It was a long time coming after being formally designated as a nationwide mental health crisis and suicide prevention number by the FCC in July 2020. The National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) played a key role in the legislation and promoting passage of additional legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to fund the 988 infrastructure. The two-year plan outlined by the FCC gave telecommunications provider’s time to address any technical issues and ensure a smooth nationwide implementation.
Before 988 went nationwide this July, Jake Hertzman, 2022 graduate of Sycamore High School was already leading the 988 Initiative here locally and beyond. Some providers, including Verizon had already implemented the 988 three-digit number on their system. A letter from Verizon arrived at the Hertzman home and caught Jake’s attention
“We got a letter in the mail, I think September or October of 2021, saying anyone on the Verizon carrier now has access to 988,” Hertzman explained. “This was something I hadn’t heard anything about yet, news, social media, whatever, I hadn’t seen anyone post about it.”
It was nearly 18 months after the FCC approved the two-year plan for 988. Still Hertzman could not find anything about it online. He talked to family, friends and people within the mental health community and found no one had any real knowledge of it.
“If you asked them what it was, and unfortunately even today if you ask what 988 is, they’re not going to know,” said Hertzman. “At that point, I said okay, I now have the perfect situation if I look to take on increasing awareness of this number, I will also be able to take on increasing awareness of mental health and suicide prevention because the number is directly correlated to those topics of conversation.”
Jake and his brother Zach created a 988 logo – a white and black embroidered patch with 988 in the center. They decided to reach out to the athletic community with the idea of teams sewing the patch on sports uniforms as a conversation starter. It is working, not just locally, but expanding beyond Cincinnati and Ohio making its way across the nation via social media like tagging their Instagram page. Here in his own community, Jake’s 988 Initiative caught the attention of David Arrelano who is the father of Lauren, a Loveland High School athlete who suffers from depression and anxiety.
“Jake is the founder of the 988 Initiative,” said Arellano. “He was distributing stickers and patches. He got approval from the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) and the National Federation of High School Sports to have the patches on their uniforms.”
David Arrelano, Treasurer 988 Initiative
Loveland High School baseball and Sycamore baseball are just two of the local teams who had the patches or stickers on their sports equipment. It was a social media posting by Jake’s mom which attracted the attention of Arrelano.
“It really affected me because I have two daughters and I don’t know what the pressure and anxiety is,” Arellano explained. “When she was a sophomore volleyball player, we came to find out Lauren has depression and anxiety.”
They got Lauren the help she needed and she is a senior volleyball player now. Arellano learned depression and anxiety is not something that goes away. It was hard for him to understand. Conversations were sometimes difficult trying to understand what she was going through. He reached out to Jake.
“I told Jake about my story,” said Arellano. “He asked my daughter to be an ambassador. She talked to all the A.D.’s for the ECC sending them flyers about 988 she and Jake had put together.”
Brian Conatser, LHS AD at the time, asked Lauren to speak at the spring sports welcoming which led to meeting Tori Morrison. Morrison is the mother of the late Ben Morrison a Loveland High School graduate and athlete who took his own life. That connection led to another connection with Chris Owens. She’s a good friend of Tori Morrison and partner in the Run Walk 4 a Reason quarterly charity event in Loveland which has benefitted the Ben Morrison Memorial Foundation as well as other area charities. Chris is currently training for an Ironman Triathlon and recently competed in a ½ Ironman Triathlon in Sandusky, OH where she helped raise awareness for the 988 Initiative by wearing a special 988 jersey during the competition. She also supports by example reaching beyond limits to meet the challenge of competition.
“Never limit your challenges that challenge your limits,” say Owens. “I want to challenge myself to be the best version of me and find out what God created for me to do; how I can serve. If He’s giving me this, then I want to use it for good.”
Spreading connections like David and Lauren Arrelano connecting with Tori Morrison, connecting with Chris Owens and with all the ECC high school athletic directors and teams is exactly what Jake Hertzman is hoping for with his 988 Initiative inspired by his own personal connection to suicide and the importance of mental health. The story of Jake’s personal experience begins with him playing baseball, a game he loves and has played all of his young life. He could never have imagined it would lead him to playing a lead role in a film about another young baseball player. Sadly, that young baseball player, Chance Smith, committed suicide at 17 years old. A movie called “Chance” is the true story of his life. Jake Hertzman was asked by Chance’s coach to play the 13 year old baseball player version of Chance.
“I played 13 year old Chance and then there was a 17 year old,” said Hertzman. “My role primarily consisted of the baseball aspect of his life, growing up and maturing into a teenager. My part didn’t involve a whole lot of the mental health struggle. I learned this more as the moving filming process went on. He was not a kid who dealt with depression, anxiety or mental health issues his whole life. It was more situational.”
At the time of the filming, Hertzman was only 13 years old. When reading the script, he and his parents asked questions about how the suicide scenes would be handled. Not only did he meet the coach, but he met Chance’s family. It was an impactful introduction to mental health issues and teenage suicide. During his junior year at Sycamore, suicide hit much closer to home for Jake and the Hertzman family.
“We were on winter break in Florida, December of 2020 at that time,” Hertzman explained. “We got a call, while on vacation, that my cousin, at the age of 14, had committed suicide. With the (Chance) movie, we saw second-hand what the emotions were. To experience it in the moment and see what impact it has on you and your very close family members, it made it a lot more of a personal connection.”
Hertzman immediately began asking himself what he could do.
It was late junior year the answer came in the form of the 988 Initiative brought to his attention by a letter from Verizon. Then came the creation of the logo with his brother Zach. It is all about raising awareness, not only of the issue of mental illness and suicide, but more importantly the sources available to help people who may be struggling. Now connections like David Arrelano, and Tori Morrison, and Chris Owens help spread the word locally, but 988 is nationwide and Jake Hertzman understands the issue is nationwide.
“A lot of the work David is doing is local especially in Loveland where a lot of the events we’re organizing are local and a lot of work so that’s his primary focus,” said Hertzman. “We want to build it locally enough so that when we go somewhere else we can say here’s what we did in Cincinnati. My goal is not to keep this local, it’s to reach as many different areas of the country as possible.”
Hertzman has proof what they are doing is working locally. Earlier this month the City of Loveland proclaimed August as Mental Health Month in a formal ceremony at City Hall. He was there along with Tori Morrison as the Mayor and City Council recognized the 988 Initiative and the importance of Mental Health in our community and beyond.
“Early identification and treatment can make a difference in successful management of mental illness and recovery,” Mayor Kathy Bailey read from the declaration of August as Mental Health Month.” Good mental health is critical to the well-being of our families, communities, schools and businesses, and greater public awareness about mental illnesses can change negative attitudes and behaviors toward people with mental illness.”
The upcoming (This Friday, August 26,) Mental Health Game with Loveland High School and Anderson High School at Tiger Stadium was announced during the city declaration. Tori Morrison partnered with Loveland City Schools to organize the Aug. 26 Loveland High School Varsity Football game as the “Mental Health Awareness” game. Student Council and HOPE Squad members will help coordinate activities to raise awareness of the 988 Lifeline.
“Our goal is to raise awareness of the 988 Lifeline,’ Jake Hertzman said. “If we can share a sticker or a patch with the number, that may evolve into someone looking up the number and seeing what it means. It could go even farther and spark a conversation between friends or a parent and child. They could have a conversation about how to dial that number if someone is struggling.”