Suicide Prevention

Local filmmakers unite to form a new mental-health foundation

The Damon and Stella Foundation for Mental Health is an unusual sort of non-profit organization, dedicated as it is primarily to producing public service announcements (PSAs). But then the circumstances that created it were most unusual—and tragic—when namesakes Damon Ivey and Stella Barrett took their own lives within days of one another in early 2006.

"My sister-in-law [Stella Barrett] committed suicide on Jan. 3, 2006 in Orlando, during a family New Year's celebration at Disney World," explains Executive Director Josh Gildrie. "She had been suffering and struggling for a long time, until finally she bottomed out."

Two weeks later, Stella's husband, Dario Gildrie, called an old friend, Phillip Ivey, to relay the bad news. As fate would have it, Ivey's teenage son, Damon, had also taken his own life, no more than a week after Stella.

"Grief turned into an attitude of, ‘This is unacceptable; what can we do about it?'" says Josh Gildrie. "We looked at our skill set—we all work in some aspect of television and film. So we decided this is what we're good at doing, focusing on being a mouthpiece for other people doing good work in the area of mental health."

The Gildrie brothers are co-owners and executive producers of DASH Networks Inc., a local company that produces commercials, documentaries, and cable television programming; Ivey is a well-travelled hair designer for film and TV. In establishing Damon and Stella, they set a goal of raising $10,000,000 by 2012, and they're rolling out the fledgling foundation in two phases. Phase one calls for the production of three public service announcements featuring popular entertainers.

For the three PSAs, Ivey and the Gildries enlisted Randy Travis, who is also celebrity spokesman for the foundation; Billy Bob Thornton, with whom Ivey had worked on a couple of feature films; and Debbie Carrington, an actress many will recognize from her appearance in several "little person" roles.

"We met Debbie while we were in California shooting Billy Bob's (PSA)," says Gildrie. "She had a friend who committed suicide, and her story was heartbreaking. We immediately shifted gears, and filmed her telling her story.

"All of the spots share the startling statistics about suicide, try to bring those to light. Then Billy Bob's takes the angle of telling what it's like to completely lose your perspective. And of course Debbie's is a narrative about losing a friend."

The PSAs should begin airing locally in July. In the meantime, the Foundation is seeking to make major media buys so the spots will appear in major markets nationwide. "This is where it gets expensive," Gildrie says. "We want not only the free time that PSAs get, but we want to buy some choice air time to make sure the message is getting to where it needs to be. Otherwise it gets to be filler at 2:30 a.m."

The Foundation is considering an initial $100,000 buy, which would get PSAs into the homes of major markets nightly for a two-week span. Gildrie says their starting fund-raising goals may have been too ambitious, but he's not worried. The foundation has received support from several of the Gildries' industry colleagues, as well as from St. Mary's Health System locally. The Damon and Stella Foundation has also been chosen as one of six charitable organizations that will split proceeds from a fall event entitled the "Million Dollar Run"—an attempt by ultra-marathon runner Rick Singer to break the existing cross-country run record.

In the meantime, Gildrie says they're still working on phase two—networking and making connections with mental-health providers. "We want to take what we've done to folks who have resources, and direct people to them," he says. "So when people reach that point where they literally have a gun pointed at their head, and say, ‘I have no idea what to do,' we can tell them where to go."