Through the loss of her friend Jess to suicide, Jazz Thornton has been able to save others struggling.
The filmmaker’s powerful and heart-wrenching five-part series, Jessica’s Tree, looks at the life of a young woman, her suicide and the gaps in our attitude toward mental health that saw her fall through the cracks.
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In talking to Jessica’s parents, friends, primary school teacher and a police officer who wanted to save her, Jazz shows where Jessica’s pain came from, how she hurt, her loss of self and importantly, what we can do as a society to make the her life count for something more.
“I believed that if we could tell Jess’s story in a way that could change the way we understand and respond to suicide, then we could see suicide stats go down because it would allow people to feel safe enough to ask for help rather than waiting until they are in crisis to do so out of fear of being judged,” Jazz told Newshub.
And her idea, to tell Jessica’s story in a way that captures, moves, triggers a yearning from others to be involved in creating a better attitude towards mental health and inspire hope, has worked.
The pair became friends after Jessica saw a story on Humans of South Auckland, where Jazz discussed her own battle for survival after trying – and coming extremely close – to taking her own life 14 times.
Jessica faced similar suicidal tendencies to Jazz so understood her mindset.
“It meant I could tell her story from an insider perspective,” she says.
In the series, Jazz relives the 24 hours leading up to the moment Jessica’s friends and family were notified of her death while closely looking at her childhood, influences and experiences. This includes sexual abuse as a child.
In the hours before she went missing, Jazz and a few others close to Jessica received distressing messages from the 17-year-old. Each referenced an undertone that it would be the last time they would hear from her.
“I’m sorry Jazz for failing you and letting you down. I can’t do this anymore. I love you so much and am grateful for everything you did for me,” Jessica wrote. “I’m sorry. I love you. Goodbye.”
Jessica was known to confide in some of her friends when she was down, expressing she didn’t know what her purpose was, who she was or why she should bother to keep trying.
As soon as her father James heard Jess was missing, he left work – as he always did.
It wasn’t the first time Jessica had sent messages so painful, and it wasn’t the first time he returned to find she had run away. But this time, he felt something different this time, and he was right to.
All her family ever wanted was for her to be happy and safe.
Her parent’s called the police and went searching. Two police officers who had previously helped with finding Jess after she had runaway assisted in a search.
Twenty-four hours later, the body of a dearly loved young girl – who could be so full of energy and could light up on lollies, popcorn and chips – was found.
For a person constantly being challenged by their own mind and fighting off self-doubt, asking for help is one of the hardest things to do, according to Jazz.
Often people who express an eagerness to die are dismissed as ‘dramatic’, ‘attention seeking’ or being ‘selfish’. Other times they are misunderstood. Jessica was no exception.
Stated in recordings that Jessica made before her death, a much clearer picture can be formed of how this tested her, pushed her into self-hate and fuelled an eagerness to give up.
“Being silenced is what hurt me the most, took away my trust, innocence, my safety, my self-respect.
“The more I was called a liar, and an attention seeking child, the further I fell into a deep, dark hole,” Jessica said.
Jessica began to lose a sense of what was real and what wasn’t.
She stopped fighting but Jazz believes she wanted to be helped. It’s how we respond to that to those cues that can make a difference.
“Society can be a part of changing an outcome for others. Be the person that offers help without having to be asked,” she says.
“Asking for help is unbearably hard. It’s so hard that a lot of people die rather than ask for help.
“I just wish the help started a lot earlier. Jess was not a lost cause, but if help was offered earlier then she could still be here.”
She knows know from personal experience that it can be incredibly hard to want change because you are so used to living with the control of being able to take your life at any point and giving that up is terrifying.
“Sympathy does nothing for people who are suffering but empathy has the ability to change everything.”
The series is doing what it set out to do. Jazz understands Jessica’s struggles more than most.
Jazz says Jessica’s story could be one similar to that of a next door neighbour, the guy in the supermarket, the woman on the plane or a girl at school – a person that you might know.
The response to the series has been intense, positive and already proved that through encouraging people to not only speak out if they are considering self-harm, but challenging every single person to really care and look out for others who may be ready to throw it all away, a life can be saved.
One young girl from the US messaged Jazz to say that she had watched Jessica’s Tree, and because of it, she was able to save a friend’s life.
Among many more, she also was sent a message from a dad saying his son watched Jessica’s Tree as he was planning his suicide.
The son then went and finally told the dad how he was feeling and now he is getting help. The dad emailed to say “thank you” and that it saved his son’s life.
“We have had a lot of emails and messages saying people watched the show and then chose not to take their lives – which has been phenomenal – but knowing that people are now changing their own worlds and they are being part of the solution is incredible.
“Suicide is everyone’s responsibility,” she says. “My entire purpose with creating this show was to help society understand mental health respond different to it because it is conversations like this that save lives.”
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