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Before Tampa visit, To Write Love On Her Arms founder talks suicide, shootings and finding hope

Jamie Tworkowski, the founder of To Write Love On Her Arms, a Melbourne organization aimed against suicide and self-harm, will speak at the Attic in Ybor City on Sept. 18, 2018. Photo: To Write Love On Her Arms
Monday 10 September 2018 05.00

In the run-up to World Suicide Prevention Day, Jamie Tworkowski sounded like he was running a bit ragged.

"Really, the whole month leading up to (Sept. 10) is kind of the busiest we get," said the founder of Melbourne self-harm awareness charity To Write Love On Her Arms. "It’s a time that a lot of people are introduced not just to suicide or depression or mental health, but specifically to the work we do as an organization. So much of our focus is on communication. It’s on letting people know they’re not alone and it’s okay to speak up. It’s okay to ask for help."

After a dozen years connecting with young minds at music festivals and through social media, To Write Love On Her Arms — the name and organization were inspired by an Orlando teen who was suffering from depression, drug addiction and self-inflicted cutting — is still looking for new ways to get the word out.

On Tuesday, Tworkowski and To Write Love will stop at the Attic in Ybor City to launch a short club tour featuring slam poet Sierra DeMulder and musician JP Saxe. Unlike the large concerts and college lecture halls where Tworkowski, 38, is used to speaking, the intimate events are meant to be "a trial run for us," he said. "If it goes well in the Southeast, we could do it in other places."

The timing might be just right.

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To Write Love rose to prominence through the music world, as its brand became synonymous with the Vans Warped Tour and the many acts who passed through it each summer. Florida bands like Underoath and Anberlin helped bring Tworkowski’s message of compassion to the masses; the organization has since provided outreach in more than 100 countries and donated more than $2.1 million to treatment and recovery programs.

Today, the issues that impact To Write Love pop up in the news almost every day, from mental health to drug addiction to self-harm and violence. Whether it’s a celebrity suicide like Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade, or a mass shooting in Orlando, Parkland or Jacksonville, Tworkowski is out there trying to make sure message of hope don’t get lost in the noise.

"We all relate to pain," he said. "Even if you don’t struggle with depression or an eating disorder or anxiety or addiction, we all relate to grief and sadness and the reality that life is hard a lot of the time. We’re just trying to invite people into the idea of, What if we didn’t fake it? What if we realized we could speak openly about how we’re feeling?"

The challenge in 2018 is not to let that message get politicized. While nonprofit To Write Love strives to be apolitical, Tworkowski leans left on most issues, including gun control. In March, he spoke at a March for Our Lives rally in Melbourne.

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"If we’re talking about gun violence, it’s not just murder. It’s not just school shootings," he said. "When you look at the numbers, suicides are a big part of that. To me, if you’re going to care about mental health and suicide and wanting people to get help and stay alive, you do have to think and care about access to guns."

At the same time, he still wants to reach people who might not agree with that message.

"This work we do is rooted in compassion and rooted in wanting everyone to have a seat at the table, and wanting people to feel safe and included," he said. "We just want to stand for decency."

He’s also aware of the potential danger in sensationalizing suicide through TV shows like 13 Reasons Why, or even coverage of real-life suicides like Chester Bennington or Robin Williams.

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"What we try to do is not just focus on the individual who passed away, not dive into their story, not dive into the circumstances of their death," he said. "We know there’s going to be plenty of articles about the celebrity who is lost to suicide. And it’s certainly tragic. We try to offer words and ideas and even tweets for someone who can relate to that sort of pain."

Whenever he books a speaking engagement like the one in Tampa, Tworkowski isn’t sure how many attendees have entertained thoughts of self-harm. But he suspects most of them at least known someone who has.

"With everything we do," he said, "we just want people to be encouraged, in the hopes that if someone’s struggling, and they end up at this Tampa show, they walk away feeling like they can take a deep breath, and like it’s okay to be honest. Maybe they feel less alone."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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