Orange Project raises awareness of mental health issues and addresses suicide stigma one sticky note at a time

The Orange Project utilizes orange sticky notes to draw attention to suicide awareness

The Orange Project rose out of tragedy, but is now becoming a movement to reduce the stigma of suicide and raise awareness of suicide prevention through a series of orange sticky notes.

Jennifer Dee, vice president, director, integrated production at McCann Torre Lazur, a McCann Health company, suffered a very personal tragedy that led to her creating the Orange Project – she lost her longtime boyfriend to suicide, brought on by the mental health issues he had.

“He was an amazing guy and we had this amazing friendship that evolved into a relationship. Throughout seven and a half years of our relationship I was no stranger to his battles with depression and anxiety,” said Dee, adding that addiction was one way he dealt with his problems.

She never, however, thought he would take his own life, having never experienced anyone with suicidal thoughts or actions. After it happened, she was devastated and didn’t know how to talk about it. To this day, she says the only way to articulate what happened is that it was “two deaths – his physical death..and the shock of that and then getting the news after was for me, another death over again.”

Dee went through all the emotions and reactions of loss – guilt, embarrassment, shame, the feeling that she should have done something, and finally feeling like she didn’t want to go on living. Plus, she didn’t know how to ask for help. But she eventually found the strength to pull herself up and take action.

“I knew that when I was able to come up off the ground from the fetal position that I would do something. It was literally 18 months after he took his own life…I was in therapy and I was very hyper aware of that insensitivity we have as a society,” said Dee, adding that after Robin Williams took his life, she saw how ignorant people were, especially online, about suicide and the mental health issues that may lead to it.

Starting a movement

Dee decided she had to do something to make a difference on the very touchy subject, and seeing as she worked for a company that was in the healthcare business, she felt she had an obligation to try. Her original effort was through social media in 2013, with a hashtag #worthliving. The idea was to post a photo of something that is important to each person and share them with that hashtag. The effort happened to come in line with World Suicide Prevention Day, September 10, and Dee thought that would be a perfect day to launch. However, she hadn’t told anyone at work about what she had gone through.

She got the strength to tell her boss, Marcia Goodard, chief creative officer, McCann Torre Lazur Group, about her past and her idea, to which Goodard gave the green light. (Note: Dee and Goodard were mentors at The Drum’s Do It Day Hack, helping creative talents to come up with new ways to destigmatize mental health). They put together a team, branded it and tweeted out as much as possible on Suicide Prevention Day to get the ball rolling. The first week garnered 25m impressions, including from celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Jewel and Rosie Perez. From there, they decided to make it an actionable challenge.

Inspired by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the next year they decided to ask people to film themselves attempting something positive or overcoming a fear, with the hashtag #attemptlife. They had 18m impressions with plenty of people taking the call to action.

Going orange and going for a record

While the grassroots efforts were successful, and they won several awards, the group was still having trouble getting PR on the movement. They ended up working with the Ideas Foundation, a group that provides creative opportunities to students. Some of those students in the UK developed an idea of using electronic sticky notes to write notes of encouragement to underprivileged youth. That became Thought Notes, which would later become the Orange Project.

“Orange symbolizes positivity,” said Dee, adding that they wanted it to be a more personal thing than just electronic sticky notes, so they went with real, handwritten notes. Since the effort was geared towards kids – and that several years before suicide had gone from the third leading cause of death to the second among teens – they decided to take the movement to as many schools as would have them.

The small core of the Orange Project team at McCann made endless calls to get schools, principals, teachers and school psychologists on board. Once they had a list of 1,500 willing participants, they decided to make the next hurdle to break a Guinness World Record for the largest collection of handwritten notes – which is 29,614 currently, which they hope to break with 30,000 handwritten notes. They photograph every note individually for authenticity.

After taking the project to schools, scout troops, churches, summer camps, after school programs and colleges, they are just several thousand notes away from the record.

Those notes represent every age level and are full of hope and encouragement to get people to have the conversation around mental health and suicide. They carry messages like: “Remember: you are not alone, you are worth it,” and “You are a star, don’t stop shining.”

Added Dee: “[These notes] prove that the conversation is there, we just have to make it ok to have it.”

The way schools, organizations and the LGBT community are adopting the program, and the fact that now the Orange Project works with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – the groups just collaborated on six ‘Out of the Darkness Walks’ in New York to raise awareness – means that the project is gaining momentum.

After breaking the record, the Orange Project wants to keep the ball rolling, possibly with a coffee table book, pop-up exhibits and the like.

“We did the record because we knew it would be good PR,” said Dee. “I never thought we’d get to the point where we had people reaching out to us proactively to participate.”

Dee applauds McCann’s efforts on helping to fund the grassroots effort, from paying for all the notes and the world record to the staff and support received.

“I’ve been at that company for 23 years, and that’s why. I’ve spent thousands of (unbillable) hours on it with my colleagues, and they’ve backed me from the start.”

Through the years, Dee has noticed that everybody has been touched somebody who has battled mental health issues or has attempted or committed suicide, but it’s something she says is completely preventable.

“How is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States of America – suicide –only second to all types of childhood cancers collectively – how are we not changing our society and having a conversation with kids so that number goes down…we could eradicate it if we as a society would wake up and stop being shameful and guilty of thinking it's not the right thing to talk about.”

Until that happens, the Orange Project will bring hope and help through handwritten orange sticky notes.

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Kyle O'Brien

I am a reporter for The Drum covering a wide array of topics but always trying to tell the best stories possible. I am a former west coaster from California and Portland, Oregon, now living in Pennsylvania — with time spent in NYC each week.

I also play saxophone professionally.

All by Kyle