When Heath Saffer thinks of his childhood friend Devon Rubenstein, the memories that push their way to the front show them skateboarding on summer days.
“I was carefree, and he was the reason I could be so carefree,” he says. “He opened my eyes to what can happen when you explore.”
Saffer tells me this on a recent afternoon as he prepares to set out on an adventure that fills him with a mix of dread and excitement. It’s the kind that requires packing bear spray and squeezable applesauce packets. It’s the kind he knows Rubenstein would appreciate if he were still alive.
On Thursday, Saffer and another friend of Rubenstein’s, Omar Baloch, will begin a bicycling trip that will take them across the country and test them physically and mentally.
The two will make their way from Washington state to the D.C. region, where they grew up, and eventually to Delaware, stopping along the way to talk to young people about mental health. Their goal is to help end stigmas around those conversations and raise money for suicide prevention in honor of Rubenstein. He was 20 when he died by suicide on Nov. 13, 2015.
“I’m so nervous,” Baloch says a day before he and Saffer take their last car ride for months. “We’re most definitely stepping out of our comfort zones.”
Baloch, who is 25, and Saffer, who is 26, are not professional bicyclists. They are friends who grew up in Montgomery County, Md., and share a past loss and a future hope. They both plan to start medical school in the fall, which explains why they packed for their trip not only a first aid kit, but also a full suture kit. Baloch aims to one day work in surgery. Saffer wants to pursue neurology or psychology.
The two were juniors in college when they learned their friend was gone. They know, from their own struggles, how far those types of losses reach and how deep they cut. They also recognize that the pandemic has left many young people across the country hurting and feeling isolated right now.
“Obviously, we would like to honor the memory of our friend,” Baloch says of the trip’s purpose. “At the same time, Devon is not the only person who struggled. There are a lot of people out there who struggle. I think a big part of this is reaching those people and letting them know, you’re not alone.”
Suicide had become the second-most-common cause of death among teenagers and young adults even before the pandemic began. Then came closed schools, canceled sports and lost proms, graduations and normal college experiences.
Mental health experts, and parents who have lost children to suicide in the last year, have expressed concern that the pandemic could be causing already concerning numbers to rise. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked young adults last year if they had thought about killing themselves in the past 30 days, 1 in 4 said they had.
“The statistics don’t lie, and we can’t turn our heads from that,” says Lauren Anderson, the executive director of Our Minds Matter, which aims to end teen suicide. The nonprofit organization, which is based in Fairfax, Va., was originally named after Anderson’s brother, Josh Anderson, who died by suicide in 2009. He was 17.
“Mental health has come a long way in the past 10 or 12 years since my brother died, but it still has a stigma,” Anderson says. “It still isn’t seen the same way physical health is seen.”
She describes Saffer and Baloch’s effort as “spreading the message that mental health is important, that it’s okay to not be okay.”
For their trip, Saffer and Baloch have partnered with Our Minds Matter and the Devon C. Rubenstein Foundation. The men are self-funding their 4,300-mile ride, so that all the donations they raise through an online site for their “Cycle4Life” endeavor will go toward the two organizations. Our Minds Matter supports student-led mental wellness clubs in schools, and the men say they hope the additional funds will allow for the creation of many more clubs.
“It just widens the net of support, so you don’t have one school therapist, or two, who has to help 2,000 or 4,000 students,” Saffer says.
The idea of empowering young people to help their peers also appealed to him and Baloch for another reason. Both describe feeling powerless after Rubenstein’s death.
“I remember feeling very helpless,” Baloch says. “It was tough to accept. You always wonder, ‘What could I have done? Could I have even done anything?’ It’s certainly a regret we live with.”
Regret is a strong word. It also feels like the right word, he says.
The men plan to start riding their bikes Thursday morning and aim to reach the D.C. region by the end of June. Once here, they hope others will ride the final leg to Delaware with them.
Lately, Saffer says, one question the two have been asked often is, “What do you think Devon would do if he were alive?”
The answer is easy, Saffer says.
“He would be the first to join us,” he says, “and lead the way.”
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor at 741741.
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