- Jeff Fields is the immediate past president of Teen Lifeline, which focuses on suicide prevention. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those ages 10–24.
- The organization’s peer-to-peer crisis hotline received 28,000 calls in 2019.
- Eighty-six percent of callers report feeling better after talking with a hotline volunteer.
By the time he was 21, Jeff Fields had already given eulogies for three friends who had taken their own lives. The loss that was hardest to process, Fields says, was his college fraternity brother who killed himself at 19. “He was an all-American guy who had straight ‘A’s, a beautiful girlfriend, great at sports, popular,” says Fields, now 42 and a REALTOR® with Russ Lyon Sotheby’s International Realty in Scottsdale, Ariz. “He cracked under the pressures of life and always trying to be perfect. One day, he went into his room and shut the door, and then [from outside], his roommate heard the gunshot.”
The ripple effect of suicide—which surpassed homicide in 2011 to become the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—is communitywide, says Fields, who suffered in the aftermath along with his fraternity brother’s friends, family, teachers, and coaches. “It made me want to be more outspoken and help people understand that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It’s the most preventable death there is,” he says. (Accidents continue to be the number one cause of death for this age group.)
Finding His Purpose
Seeking to turn the tragedy into hope for others, Fields, who was previously a high school drama teacher, began speaking at schools around Arizona about suicide prevention. Then, eight years ago, he got involved with Teen Lifeline, a statewide nonprofit that provides life-saving resources to youths struggling with suicidal thoughts. The organization hosts community workshops on suicide prevention and coping skills and runs a crisis hotline staffed entirely by teen volunteers, which is designed to build trust with young callers looking for a relatable voice, says founder Michelle Moorhead. The hotline, which operates from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. every day of the year, is a crucial resource—especially now that many young people are dealing with greater isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.
Moorhead jumped at the chance to bring on Fields as a Teen Lifeline advocate. “As a former teacher, Jeff learned that life can be a struggle for kids,” she says. “He has a unique perspective on teens and understands what they go through—much more so than a lot of adults do.”
Fields’ ability to help further Teen Lifeline’s goals was extraordinary from the start. He began producing commemorative videos around the organization’s annual gala, which features powerful speeches from teen hotline volunteers—many of whom have had their own struggles with suicidal ideation. Teen Lifeline has shared Fields’ videos with donors every year since 2012, and they’ve helped increase donations by as much as $100,000 each year. The most recent gala, held last October, brought in nearly $500,000.
“If we don’t talk out loud and have these discussions, that’s when the internalizing begins, and things can get dark fast.” —Jeff Fields
Individually, Fields has also been a highly successful fundraiser for Teen Lifeline, drawing upon the generosity of some of his real estate clients. One buyer he worked with donated $50,000 last year. In addition, Fields connected Teen Lifeline to a colleague who helped the organization purchase a building for its permanent headquarters. “If you ever think you can’t do something, talk to Jeff—you’ll realize you can,” Moorhead says. “He’s very charismatic and also such a positive person. There’s a genuineness when he talks about the work we’re doing. It comes from inside. You can feel how passionate he is.”
Training Teens to Lead
This year, though, Fields won’t be able to enjoy the part of his charity work that he cherishes most: coaching teen volunteers to speak at the annual gala. The event has been canceled due to the pandemic. Fields typically helps the gala, slated to return in October 2021, by working with volunteers to craft powerful speeches that call on their personal experiences to highlight the organization’s mission.
Fields also offers speaking tips the volunteers can use when answering hotline calls. Alex Zoneraich, 17, says Fields helped him see the value he brings to others’ lives as a hotline volunteer. It was a needed boost to his self-esteem at a time when Zoneraich was struggling with pressure to meet his family’s high expectations. Having a mentor like Fields gave Zoneraich the strength to speak honestly with his parents about his feelings, he says.
“Jeff was able to show me that when I pick up that call, I’m having the same effect on someone’s life that he had on mine,” Zoneraich says. “Something about [being a peer] makes the caller feel more protected, and being able to talk to somebody who understands what you’re going through is huge.” Zoneraich has an even greater chance to impact lives, since the hotline number—602-248-8336 (TEEN)—has been added to the back of every Arizona high school student’s ID card.
An Essential Service
This kind of inspiration is sorely needed now, as the pandemic influences growing mental health needs, Fields says. Teen Lifeline was deemed an essential service during Arizona’s shutdown earlier this year. In developing plans to expand its services to more communities, Moorhead has turned to Fields to help demonstrate their success. Fields added measurable items, such as having volunteers follow up with callers to find out whether they found their hotline conversation helpful. Last year, 86% of the hotline’s more than 28,000 callers reported feeling better at the end of a call. He also is developing a polling system for teachers and students to gauge the effectiveness of school suicide prevention seminars.
For Fields, the message he aims to deliver to young people is as simple as it is reassuring: “You’re not alone.” Those three words, he says, “are worth their weight in gold. Whatever issue you’re dealing with is something that can be overcome. You deserve another tomorrow.”