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Ex-Raider’s family tackles youth suicide epidemic

November is a month filled with significant events and holidays, including Native American Heritage Month, Veterans Day, Movember and Thanksgiving. It is typically a time for reflection and appreciation.

While I am thankful for the work of so many people and organizations, I would like to recognize one special family this month: the Thomases.

Turning pain into purpose

I have been fortunate enough to share space with Martha and Chris Thomas, who are the parents of Ella and Solomon Thomas, a former Raiders and current New York Jets defensive lineman.

The Thomases are the epitome of a loving, caring and giving family. However, tragedy struck in January 2018, when Ella died by suicide. She was 24 and had battled anxiety and depression.

Her death led to the creation of The Defensive Line (TDL), a nonprofit created by Chris, Martha and Solomon Thomas. Its mission is “to help build a world in which no young person of color dies by suicide,” according to the TDL website.

“One of the things we try to weave in our story is the importance of recognizing people like ourselves, people who have lost people to suicide, but also people who are still here and are suffering through adverse childhood experiences, or trauma, and helping people to survive and thrive,” Chris Thomas said.

Suicide prevention is not easy work, especially for suicide loss survivors such as the Thomas family. What is most admirable is their determination to help so many others who are struggling.

The fact that most suicides are preventable, Martha Thomas said, provides her with hope.

“We do not know if we could have stopped her (Ella),” she added, “but there are so many instances where there are ways to stop it and ways to help people and to help ourselves.”

The Defensive Line

TDL offers suicide prevention workshops for leaders across various sectors such as schools, corporations and nonprofits.

Though Solomon Thomas no longer plays for the Raiders, TDL has remained committed to the Las Vegas community.

It has been challenging for TDL to get into schools to offer its unique workshops, but it continues to form relationships with leaders within the Clark County School District and at UNLV, as well as anyone else willing to listen.

“We expanded our workshops to universities and parents or anyone leading young people,” Martha Thomas said, “as it seems to us — and the data supports this — that young people will talk to each other about a crisis or mental health problem, receive training, but the adults are not receiving training.”

This led to the creation of TDL’s D-Lines for Crisis Intervention: “Don’t ignore your gut,” “Listen for the signs,” “Interact,” “Name your concern,” “Evidence your concern” and “Create a supportive environment.”

“We really lean into the supportive environment,” Martha Thomas said. “But all of these (D-Lines) are things I saw as a teacher and as a parent. I had suicide prevention trainings, but I still did not know (what to do) when Ella took her life. Watching a 20-minute video and checking off a box is not suicide prevention training.”

The Thomases are also passionate about transforming the way that people talk about mental health, especially within communities of color.

TDL has teamed with “other key organizations to do panels, town halls and forums, such as with National Alliance on Mental Illness, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope Squad, Hope Means Nevada, and also corporations such as Zappos, BetMGM and Wynn,” Chris Thomas said, adding, “We work within the community, but also work within various organizations because their employees are also moms, dads, brothers and sisters who are losing people [to suicide].”

Key statistics

Aside from referencing the position that Solomon Thomas plays, the “defensive line” in the name of the Thomases’ nonprofit points to its mission of suicide prevention.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people under age 24. “There are 119 people dying each week under the age of 24 because of suicide,” Chris Thomas explained. “That is two-thirds the size of a Boeing 737. Unfortunately, for people of color, especially African Americans, suicide is one of the fastest causes of death.”

From Texas to California to New York and all the way back to Las Vegas, TDL’s mission is the same: No more lives lost to suicide.

For additional information, visit thedefensiveline.org.

If you are thinking about suicide, or are worried about a loved one or friend, help is available 24/7 by calling or texting the Lifeline network at 988. Live chat is available at 988lifeline.org.

Dr. Sheldon A. Jacobs is a licensed mental health professional based in Las Vegas. Contact him at drjacobs10@hotmail.com. Follow @drjacobs33 on X and Instagram.

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