On April 2, Jack Raife of Aspen died by suicide. He was 18 years old.
He’s remembered by his family as someone who went about life with an unapologetic sparkle. He was born in Aspen and raised by two loving parents in Basalt. His sister, Makena, 21, described him as her best friend.
On Saturday, Jack’s family held a memorial service honoring his life and their love for him. Family and friends gathered at Aspen Glen to celebrate his life, releasing (biodegradable) balloons in his honor after a service celebrating his life.
Kathy Potter, Jack’s mother, is dedicated to turning her pain into power by starting the Jack Raife Memorial Fund in partnership with AspenOUT. The memorial fund will provide scholarships to queer youth in need of long-term mental-health resources. Jack came out as gay when he was in seventh grade. As of Saturday evening, the fund had raised more than $40,000.
“We’re going to turn our collective pain into power. And that’s what Jack would want. Turn our pain in to power. That has become my personal mission for not just Makena and me, but for all of us in this terrible loss,” Potter said to the crowd gathered to remember her son.
Friends and loved ones shared memories of Jack during the service. And between speakers, everyone bopped along to Mariah Carey’s holiday hit “All I Want for Christmas is You” — one of Jack’s all-time favorite songs.
He was a gifted pianist and would perform with Makena in their living room – and even once at Belly Up in 2020. Strong female belters like Adele and Whitney Houston were Jack’s songstresses of choice.
“Literally the most dramatic songs you can think of, those were our songs,” she remembered with a giggle.
Makena said her brother was the funniest, most flamboyant person she knew. Still, Jack endured a years-long struggle with mental illness. The family left no stone unturned in seeking treatment for him.
“He was just too good for this world,” she said. “I know he’s at peace, and that’s what matters to me.”
AspenOUT is a non-profit organization based in the Roaring Fork Valley that provides support and services to the LGBTQ+ community.
Kevin McManamon is the executive director. He said that just because Aspen and the valley seem like a progressive place does not mean queer youth always feel totally safe.
“National news makes it really hard for kids to be who they are,” he said, referencing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation introduced across the country.
He said it is hard to fully capture the scope of young queer people in the valley, as many wait to come out of the closet until after they leave their family homes. But for anyone struggling, he encourages them to reach out to AspenOUT for help connecting someone in need with therapists specially trained in LGBTQ+ issues.
According to Mental Health America, an estimated 50 million people were experiencing mental illness, with close to 5% experiencing severe mental illness in 2020.
Mental illness can impact anyone. However, individuals who are experiencing poverty, victims of abuse, those with disabilities, and individuals in marginalized communities are at higher risk for suffering from mental illness, according to the World Health Organization.
According to The Trevor Project, one of the largest mental-health organizations and suicide-prevention services for LGBTQ+ youth, “rates of suicidal thoughts have trended upward among LGBTQ young people” between 2019 and 2022.
In their 2022 survey of nearly 34,000 LGBTQ+ youth ages 13-24 across the United States, they found that 45% of LGBTQ youth considered attempting suicide in the past year.
The organization has a crisis line that is available 24/7 and a peer support network for queer youth between the ages of 13 and 24 years old.
Sarah McGuiness, a therapeutic and educational counselor who spoke at Jack’s service, told The Aspen Times that it’s important to check in on your loved ones, even those who do not show signs of mental illness.
“I think that the most important piece for people to understand is that — if they’re struggling — there is help available,” she said. “Whether you find it online, down the street, at school or through your doctor’s office, it doesn’t matter. It is available,”
She said she recognizes that checking in with friends and loved ones regularly and advising them to seek professional help when necessary is incredibly important; but for some, it won’t prevent a suicide from happening. No one is at fault.
“Suicide is a highly impulsive behavior,” she said.
Years of research shows that “suicides tend to be fairly impulsive acts during short-term crises,” and “can be caused by multiple factors that sometimes may not be perfectly clear to the public or even friends and family,” according to Vox.
However, suicide is preceded by mental illness. And there are plenty of resources available to those who are struggling.
If you are considering suicide, seek help through the national suicide prevention lifeline at 988.
The Colorado Crisis Services can be reached by dialing 844-493-8255 or you can text “TALK” to 38255.