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WARNING: THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT SUICIDE AND MAY BE DISTRESSING AND/OR TRIGGERING FOR SOME. A LIST OF HELPLINE NUMBERS IS AT THE END.

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A new documentary series about one teenager's suicide carries a strong message of hope. CHRIS REED meets the director campaigning for long-term change.
Most days Jazz Thornton wakes at 7. The first thing she does is check her phone. Several times a week she finds messages from people in crisis, often young people planning to take their lives.

Her first call depends on the case, but police and the mental health crisis team typically top the list.

The 23-year-old flats in Mt Roskill. She thinks her flatmates don't really understand what she does but sometimes they hear her on the phone at night.

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"Not too long ago, and within one hour, I had rung the police on someone I didn't know but who had messaged me, I'd been on the phone to the psych ward and I'd called three different girls who were in crisis."

Jazz has devoted her life to helping others, to creating hope where there is desperation.

But this isn't her story. It belongs to Jess, a teenager who contacted Jazz out of the blue and became her close friend. Unfortunately, Jess isn't here to tell it.

Jazz and I meet at an inner-city eatery. It's down a long, shiny corridor from her desk at Augusto, a creative agency that does lots of things, including make films.

Jazz is director and host of Jessica's Tree, a documentary series examining why Jess took her life in April 2015 and what her suicide can teach us. You can watch the series above.

Jazz knew what Jess was going through. Jazz was abused and bullied as a child and attempted to take her life more than once before fighting to survive.

"I wasn't like her normal friend where we'd just go, 'let's hang out'," says Jazz. "Every time there was something wrong, which was every day, she would come to me, so she was able to separate her lives.

"That's why this project has been amazing for me. Because I've seen a whole other side of her that I never got to see. I never saw the happy, bubbly, crazy, fun side."

The five-part series contends that no one is born suicidal.

It was made with the participation of Jess' family and friends. They gave Jazz access to photos, videos, even Jess' diaries, and spoke on camera, compellingly, about her life and death.

It's a tough watch, with some confronting subjects. Jazz, who received Jess' final farewell text, was adamant it would end with a positive message.

"The whole series is about helping people understand what it is to be suicidal and then what you can do to help.

Jess' dad James speaks movingly about her all-too-short life in Jessica's Tree. Photo / Supplied
Jess' dad James speaks movingly about her all-too-short life in Jessica's Tree. Photo / Supplied

"I don't want people to watch this and 20 minutes later move on with their lives. I don't think you can watch this and not change the way that you think."

But for a frustrated tutor, Jess' story might have remained a school project.

In 2017 Jazz was studying at the South Seas Film and Television School, planning an eight-minute video for her end-of-year project.

She'd been inspired, perhaps provoked, by online comments on a news story about a girl who tried to take her life.

"The majority were accusing her of attention-seeking. I remember looking at it and wondering whether if people knew the story behind that girl they would still respond like that."

Her tutor, Kate Cresswell, encouraged her to pitch to an annual competition at Doc Edge, a New Zealand industry event promoting factual films.

It was almost unknown territory for a student. The day before addressing the expert panel, Jazz got cold feet. Her tutors nudged her to go through with it.

Five minutes before her slot, she threw out the original pitch. While older, more established film-makers unleashed zippy PowerPoint presentations, she went back to basics.

"I had three bullet points on the back of the programme that were written out in the hallway five minutes before. I was really nervous and then I got up. I'm quite confident about public speaking and I think that just took over."

Jazz was introduced to about 25 panellists and 40 rival pitchers as a student there for experience. She won, with the first unanimous decision in the competition's history.

"I almost burst into tears. It kind of felt like one of those golden buzzer [Britain's Got Talent] moments where you get told that you could actually do this for the rest of your life, because I never thought I could.

"Everyone afterwards was coming up to me giving me business cards and I was really overwhelmed."

One panellist stood out by not pushing too hard: Cass Avery from Augusto. Avery knew Alex Reed, the producer assigned to Jazz by her college to help with the pitch.

They talked to Leanne Pooley, a leading film-maker whose subjects include Sir Edmund Hillary and the Topp Twins.

Pooley decided to make a feature-length film about Jazz and her work. Jess' story would become a series directed by Jazz, who left film school less than halfway through the year to make it.

They got funding for the series from New Zealand on Air. Avery and Reed asked NZME to broadcast it after reading the Herald's 2017 series on youth mental health, Break The Silence.

Jazz was persuaded to front as well as direct. More than 18 months later, Jess' story is being told.

It helped her pitch that Jazz had already made a short film with 80 million views on social media.

Dear Suicidal Me was a calling card for Voices of Hope, a non-profit organisation aiming to break the stigma around mental illness, when it relaunched in 2017.

The film featured people - including Jazz - who survived suicide attempts. They read out their goodbye notes, then explained how glad they were to be alive.

Jazz had founded Voices of Hope with close friend Genevieve Mora in 2014. That's how Jess found out about Jazz.

After an initial burst of activity, Jess died, Jazz "lost it" and "everything crumbled". Jazz planned another suicide attempt but a police officer found her just in time. She hasn't looked back.

Dear Suicidal Me blew up and now Jazz and Gen juggle fulltime work with a burgeoning international interest in Voices of Hope.

About 60 per cent of their followers are domestic, the rest concentrated in the US, Australia and UK, where things took off after they met Prince Harry and Meghan last year.

Gen kept Voices of Hope ticking while Jazz was busy with filming and speaking engagements. Jazz has two managers, one to run her life, the other her talks.

"I normally do something every week, a school or conference. I spoke at a financial industry conference - 400 suited CEOs - and made them all cry. I spoke to a motorcycle gang in Wellington, these big patched-up guys, and they cried too."

Jazz has always enjoyed speaking. She won the speech cup a lot at school. When she pitched at Doc Edge she channelled the communicators at her church.

Christian faith underpins Jazz's work. She's a member of the Equippers church where she met her mentors.

"That community has been incredible. I went from the psych ward and straight back into church. They knew me before that. I'd done Bible college in 2014. When I came back there was nothing but love and it was very confusing to me because that's not how I thought the world would react."

That helped break Jazz's belief that she was unloveable, a burden. That enabled her to fight back. And that's one of the key differences, she thinks, between her and Jess.

Jazz often wonders why she's still here and Jess isn't.

"It's been a constant question throughout this process. Especially looking at her diaries and seeing how similar so much was. But there is stuff in her life that I never experienced that is massive."

Jazz realised that while Jess was surrounded by amazing people who wanted to help her, they all had different bits of the story. Jazz ensured everyone in her support group had the full picture. If she got into trouble they would all know what to do.

She's also grateful that one of her mentors, Esther, pushed her with hard questions.

"What saved my life was me. People were there but what they enabled me to do was learn to fight for myself, speak against core beliefs – 'I am unloveable', 'I'm a burden'.

Prince Harry and Meghan met Genevieve Mora and Jazz Thornton (second and third left) from Voices of Hope in Wellington last year. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prince Harry and Meghan met Genevieve Mora and Jazz Thornton (second and third left) from Voices of Hope in Wellington last year. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"We always spoke about the future. Eventually I got to the point where I believed that maybe I could have a future and that's when I learnt to fight for myself."

Jess' future is her legacy, the chance that Jessica's Tree will create lasting change in the way we think about suicide.

Jazz's future and legacy are unknown but she's hoping to work fulltime on Voices of Hope.

"I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams that this is what I'd be doing … but now it's, okay, cool, let's impact more people, let's go into the millions, let's make a worldwide organisation, why the heck not? This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

"Our big-time goal is to have our own production company so we can fill every single creative stream with hope-filled content. Feature dramas and docos, series, publishing. I think that the creative industries influence everything, how people respond, what they take in and a lot of the world's issues come from that, so if we can impart hope into every aspect … One day you want your job to be finished."

Given the influence of the creative industries, she wants a more consistent approach to mental health from media. She argues that good work done during events like Mental Health Awareness Week was undermined by the "hounding" of Jami-Lee Ross after he spoke of his own mental health struggles.

"For a very long time we were focusing on our stats and where mental health wards are failing.

"That was important because people needed to know this is an issue, but now I see people who are struggling and they are looking at these articles and I'm thinking, 'if that was me … what's the point in asking for help?'.

"We want to convey that no matter what you're going though it's possible to get through, but also that suicide is everyone's responsibility. It takes a society to change the statistics."

I suggest the growing interest in Voices of Hope, the launch of Jessica's Tree and the looming documentary feature could make her an international poster-woman.

"I look at Emma Gonzalez [US school shooting survivor turned advocate for gun law reform]. If being able to do that would help millions more people I would love to. But I've always told Esther that the second this looks like it's become about me, pull me immediately."

It's a fine line though. "Which is why it took me so long to agree to be in the series because I was like, 'it's not about me, it's not about me, it's not about me'.

Jazz Thornton became a close friend of Jess before becoming inspired to make a film about her death - and what we can learn from it. Photo / Supplied
Jazz Thornton became a close friend of Jess before becoming inspired to make a film about her death - and what we can learn from it. Photo / Supplied

"Constantly being in the media is hard … I know that we're in it for the right reasons which is good, but I have people that will pull me up the second that it's not."

Once a "massive extrovert who had to be around people", Jazz now spends her downtime binging on Netflix. The last thing she finished was stalker drama You.

"I just love going home and being by myself. Fun tends to be work for me. It all kind of integrates into one thing which is probably not a good thing but it's how I operate."

She's confident she can cope, with the aid of her mentors. But now she's finished her apple, celery and mint soda there's a final publicity blitz ahead, encouraging friends and supporters to push Jessica's Tree on social media.

We finish, as we should, talking about Jess. This is her story and carries her name.
Her family and friends saw the series before launch.

"I was nervous because you don't know how they're going to respond and they've trusted you with this story. But they all felt like they were put well on screen and Jess' story was told well which was the most important thing."

What would Jess think of it?

"She would love it. She always wanted her story to be told and for it to impact thousands of people so that kids don't have to go through what she went through and I know that's what it's going to do.

"There's always been a sense of 'I'm still here and I owe it to her to do something about this'."

'I DIDN'T WANT ANYONE TO FEEL BLINDSIDED'

The makers of Jessica's Tree went to extraordinary lengths to protect vulnerable viewers.

They showed it to the Ministry of Health, Mental Health Foundation and multiple helplines, with several drafting in extra staff for today's launch.

"I don't know how many screenings I've done but I didn't want anyone to feel blindsided," says director Jazz Thornton.

"We expected at every screening for someone to say something negative. We haven't had a single negative comment. Not one."

Jazz was motivated by the backlash against Netflix suicide drama 13 Reasons Why.

"I went through every single critique and ticked the boxes off. We knew that if we wanted this to have the impact that we needed, those working with people that are struggling needed to feel like they were pre-equipped. Most people working in this area will know that it's coming."

It's not just viewers the production team considered. A detailed plan was drawn up to ensure the family and friends of the series' subject, Jess, were okay during the launch period. Counselling was available to everyone involved in the production.

As broadcaster, the Herald takes its responsibilities seriously. There will be close monitoring of social media comments and key staff were briefed on protocols for dealing with requests for help. As is standard, all related content carries information about helplines.

WHERE TO GET HELP

Need to talk? 1737 Free call or text 24/7
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans: 0800 726 666

If it is an emergency and you feel you or someone else is at risk, call 111

Australia - Lifeline: 13-11-14
America - Suicide prevention helpline: 1-800-273-8255
UK - 1-800- SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) and 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)