Reconnecting With Life

Presencing Institute
Field of the Future Blog
10 min readJun 20, 2023

Meet the Team Prototyping New Approaches to Teenage Suicide Prevention

Written by Randi Kaeuferread Spanish translation here

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Now read about how those two actions helped in the creation of a powerful prototype to prevent teenage suicides.

Every year the Presencing Institute (PI) hosts its u-lab 2x journey, a 4-month innovation lab for change-makers to deepen and accelerate their prototype ideas from concept to action. In February 2022, Monica and Stephan Bissig in Switzerland, Tania and Fernando Campos in Brazil, Simona Cattabiani in Portugal, and Eduardo Magallanes in the U.S. embarked on this journey as a team, with one clear goal: to identify new, systemic approaches for suicide prevention in teenagers. At the start of the project, they didn’t know exactly what to expect. But with curiosity, and applying the Theory U methodology, an innovative prototype emerged that started to generate unexpected results. In fact by detecting suicidal messages before it is too late through a novel algorithm, and by focusing on listening, understanding, and establishing meaningful connections with suicidal youth, the prototype has already resulted in hundreds of messages from suicidal youth in Brazil alone stating that this initiative has helped to save their lives.

Suicide is a global, heart-wrenching issue that demands urgent attention and effective solutions. Close to 800,000 people die by suicide every year and it is the second leading cause of death in young females aged 15–19 years, after maternal conditions, and the third leading cause of death in young males aged 15–19 years, after road injury and interpersonal violence. However, this subject is often shrouded in silence and discomfort, making it difficult to address effectively. Nonetheless, united by their personal experiences and a shared intention, the u-lab 2x team discovered powerful insights and leveraged the principles of connection and empathy, as described by Theory U, to develop their prototype.

Connecting With the Purpose

Monica, Stephan, Tania, Fernando, Simona, and Eduardo feel a particular emotional connection to the topic. “We have been confronted with the phenomenon of suicide more times than we wanted to”, Stephan reflected. Simona shared: “I lost my brother to suicide, he was 22. And 6 years ago, I lost my goddaughter to suicide, again at 22. When this happened, I remember I just felt that I needed to do something.” Tania and Fernando had a similar experience: “5 years ago, our son Matheus, 14 years old, committed suicide.” Now it has become a calling in their life to prevent further loss and alleviate suffering for other people.

While all six of them have been on this quest separately, volunteering at NGOs and suicide prevention lines, their journeys merged in the beginning of 2022 when Stephan and Simona were looking for a core team to join them in u-lab 2x. During a different certification, the two of them read an article about Theory U and “were very intrigued by this opportunity to shape the future through this novel approach.” Fernando, however, was not as enthusiastic initially: “When I received the invitation to join the team, I only accepted because of Monica and Stephan. They are such good people, but I didn’t believe in the tools.” He continued: “In the beginning I had no idea about Theory U and honestly, I thought it was just another theory that has so many steps and then nothing happens. But I was to be surprised!”

The Power of Connection

By closing our eyes and taking a deep breath, we can truly connect to ourselves, to each other, and to the larger system.

Stephan remembered that “the first module of u-lab 2x specifically targeted building the team and taking the space and moment to focus on connecting with each other.” Even though the team is spread around the globe and thus only met virtually, Eduardo says that they were able to “generate a good bonding and feeling of belonging.” Fernando added: “We started as partners, but are more than friends now.”

This connection is a fundamental aspect of Theory U, as it helps us foster transformative change: building relationships based on empathy, trust and a shared purpose, as well as creating spaces for dialogue and collaboration. Through deepening connections, Theory U aims to tap into collective wisdom and to co-create innovative solutions to complex challenges.

Creating this kind of connection in the beginning of the process was key to this team: “I think that the intention for us was a parallel process with what was going on in the tool. Our intention was to reconnect people to life, and creating a connection between us was essential in getting us there” Simona explains. The empathy and understanding that was fostered among the team members, enabled them to truly listen to each other’s experiences, concerns, and aspirations, and creating a safe space for open dialogue and mutual respect.

Fernando was humbled by this effect: “The egos here are so small. Nobody cares if the reason is with me or whoever — the subject is key. U-lab 2x helped us let go of our egos.” He continued: “Otto [Scharmer] said it very well: from ego-system to eco-system. This is the journey that we have been on, and I don’t think we could have ended up with the quality of prototype that we have, if we had been stuck in ourselves, if our group was an ego-system.”

Reconnecting with Life.

Insights and Leverage Points for Change

By closing our eyes and taking a deep breath, we can sense the system and see what is truly needed.

As the group delved deeper into their journey, they started a series of co-sensing exercises, which are about moving beyond our habitual ways of perceiving and listening, and instead, opening ourselves to new possibilities and insights outside of our preconceived assumptions. During this co-sensing the team encountered powerful insights that shifted their understanding of the problem:

“We started to draw the constituencies from suicidal youth — youth, friends, family, school system, therapeutic system, etc. Maybe I am speaking for myself, but we thought that the youth was in the middle and then there was the surrounding system. But what we found out, and that was a very powerful first insight, was that actually, the youth itself is outside the system and everybody else is inside. So, we realized that there was a disconnection from the get-go”, Stephan remembered. “Then we went through the Social Presencing Theater method, and we gave voices to these constituencies. We started to see a need for youth not to get fixed or get solutions. We were surprised by this!”, Stephan continued.

He remembered a particular moment from the Social Presencing Theater exercise that is stuck in his head and embodies this realization: Simona was playing the role of the youth and she was looking up and said: “Stop, you all, trying to fix me, stop looking at me as a problem case. Start to actually just be there for me and listen without judgement.” These two insights propelled them to reframe their approach, emphasizing the importance of listening, empathy, and connection over attempts to fix or solve.

Eduardo realized the power of Theory U in getting to these insights: “When you get into a serious topic like suicide, which is sometimes even a taboo that people don’t want to talk about, it is so powerful to go through all the dialogues that are generated in the co-sensing, co-presencing, and co-crystalizing. There is no way that you remain isolated as an outsider. These tools are the way that you really feel connected to the topic, even though you are not close to someone who took his or her own life. It really feels so personal after these processes. You can translate this to any other endeavor, but especially in this one, only like this you can really start contributing to it.” Some insights are simply not obtainable through logic and rational thinking. And this is where Theory U tools can really make a difference.

Monica described this beautifully: “In the beginning, every time we met, we were trying to find solutions with our minds. Then we took some deep breaths, and we helped each other to trust the process, to just follow our hearts.”

The Prototype Emerges

By closing our eyes and taking a deep breath, we can give space to whatever wants to emerge.

Drawing from their insights gained during the u-lab 2x journey, the team developed a prototype that focuses on genuine connection and understanding instead of ‘fixing’. “We utilize the internet, specifically Twitter, to connect with youth who are experiencing significant suffering or disconnection”, Fernando explained. “We created a robot algorithm to search for words that indicate such suffering or disconnection in tweets. These are then analyzed by our volunteers, and we reach out to those individuals offering support and connecting them to an NGO”, he further explained. This prototype emphasized the power of direct and genuine connection in preventing teen suicide. By focusing on listening, understanding, and establishing meaningful connections with suicidal youth, they aimed to provide a supportive environment that would help individuals reconnect with life and find hope.

The unique aspect that differentiates this prototype from the traditional work done by NGOs is that often “NGOs are not proactive, they are waiting for suicidal people to contact them. Our approach is to go to them. Somebody puts something on Twitter and opens a door with it, we are going to enter, we are going to listen”, Fernando explained. You would be surprised how straight-forwardly people literally say ‘I am going to kill myself’ on social media. This is where this prototype takes a complementary role in the existing support services and proactively offers help and support.

Since going live with the prototype in July 2022, messages identified as suicidal have passed the 150,000 mark per month. And the number continues to increase. These messages are being further screened by volunteers, and the team is approaching 10,000 direct response messages going out on a monthly basis to offer proximity and support. “The u.lab process has led us to experiment with a subtle yet fundamental shift in preventing teen suicides: from ‘We can help fix you’ to ‘We hear you. You’re not alone. Here’s a number you can call, and we can talk’. And the results are very promising!” — says Eduardo. And Fernando continues: “There are already hundreds of messages coming back from people who reached out to the NGO to start treatment against suicide, including messages saying, ‘you saved my life’.”

In a world where suicide remains a deeply concerning issue, this team’s journey serves as a powerful reminder that genuine connection, empathy, and understanding have the potential to save lives. By rekindling hope and offering support, they have set forth on a path to reshape the landscape of teenage suicide prevention, reminding us all of the profound impact we can have when we choose to reconnect with one another and embrace the power of shared humanity. As Monica put it: “we are just following our hearts.”

The Journey Ahead

The team acknowledges that their work is far from complete. They hope to scale up this pilot that is currently limited to Brazil. If you are interested to help with one of the following, please reach out to them:

  • People in tech willing to improve the robot and/or language recognition algorithm
  • Individuals who are able to share the prototype with other NGOs around the world
  • Someone who can directly connect the team with the relevant decision makers at big corporations, especially major social media players such as Twitter
  • Anyone who can provide relevant expertise for data analysis, machine learning etc, and/or additional funds for cloud hosting and other running costs for effective screening of suicidal messages

Update: An Unexpected Barrier — Twitter Changes its Policies

Under new Twitter policies restricting access to data, the team and the currently 57 volunteers working in Brazil are experiencing an unexpected barrier to continuing their work. Twitter now will charge a large fee to users and organizations to access the data base needed to analyze public tweets; the amount per month (from previously free) is 5,000 USD. There are exceptions for some groups doing important work and the Team has applied with Twitter for this exception but has yet to hear back from them. Please reach out to Fernando at Espaço SER: if you have suggestions on how to navigate this or are able to help.

A special thank you to Monica, Stephan, Tania, Fernando, Simona, and Eduardo for the intriguing and heartfelt interview, and to Stefan for holding the space so wonderfully.

Written by Randi Kauefer, Interview by Stefan Day. Editors Emma D. Paine and Rachel Hentsch.

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