NEWS

NFL Player Solomon Thomas Talks Suicide Prevention

Solomon Thomas signs a photo for Las Vegas student

City of Las Vegas

Key Takeaways

  • After the loss of his sister, NFL player Solomon Thomas started a foundation to spread awareness about suicide prevention.
  • Talking about suicide to young people can help normalize reaching out for mental health help.
  • States around the nation can follow the lead of mental health and suicide prevention organizations.

Solomon Thomas played college football at Stanford University from 2014 to 2017. His dream of playing in the NFL came true when he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. 

After four years with the 49ers, Thomas signed on with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021. 

While he puts all his heart into his role as the team’s D-tackle, off the field, Thomas is passionate about spreading awareness regarding suicide prevention. He recently partnered with the city of Las Vegas to talk with teenagers about mental health, as part of the city’s commitment to supporting mental wellness. 

Thomas was asked to participate in the city’s efforts because he started the foundation The Defensive Line in 2018 after losing his sister to suicide. The foundation aims to support schools in their efforts to prioritize suicide prevention and mental health for all students.

When Mental Illness Hits Home

Thomas and his older sister Ella shared a special bond from the get-go. They played basketball together and watched movies together and often talked about life.

Ella always made her brother feel cared for, supported, and loved. And Thomas says Ella extended her kindness to everyone who crossed her path.

“Ella always made you feel like the most important person in the room no matter what it was. Her energy and spirit would light up a room. And no matter who it was, Ella had no judgment. She’dalways make sure to lift people up and bring people together who would normally never be together and make sure that they felt loved and important,” Thomas tells Verywell.

In her teen years, Ella began struggling emotionally, socially and academically, and during her freshman year of college, she informed her family that she was depressed. In 2015, she revealed that she had been raped in college, and was battling PTSD. Over the following few years, Thomas witnessed his sister suffering from symptoms of PTSD, but he did not realize how much pain she was in.

In January 2018, at 24 years old, Ella died by suicide. “All of our lives, we’re taught to suppress our emotions and not be a burden on anyone else, so a lot of people hide their emotions, especially young children, and it bottles up over the years,” says Thomas.

Solomon Thomas, NFL player and mental health advocate

All of our lives, we’re taught to suppress our emotions and not be a burden on anyone else, so a lot of people hide their emotions, especially young children, and it bottles up over the years.

— Solomon Thomas, NFL player and mental health advocate

He says many people misunderstand mental illnesses such as depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder as feelings people can control and get over.

“They are not something you can just fight through…or push through. There is a chemical imbalance in your brain, where you can’t just be happy. You can’t just calm down. You can’t just act one way.… It’s a scientific disease,” says Thomas.

He calls for society as a whole to end the stigma.

“After my family and I suffered the loss of Ella, we saw how big of a problem there is in this world with mental health and the stigma around it and the lack of education, the lack of knowledge, the lack of resources and help that people don’t know about.… It’s on all of us to really come together and help each other, be emphatic, love one another, be kind, and understand you never know what someone’s going through,” says Thomas.

Turning Loss Into Advocacy

Since the tragic loss of his sister, Thomas has used his foundation to fight the epidemic of youth suicide

“[Ella] wanted to help young girls who are sexually abused, and students and children who struggled with mental health, so I try to carry on her mission and do the work she wanted to do in this world. She’s living through me every day,” says Thomas. 

Solomon Thomas, NFL player and mental health advocate

Ella wanted to help young girls who are sexually abused, and students and children who struggled with mental health, so I try to carry on her mission and do the work she wanted to do in this world. She’s living through me every day.

— Solomon Thomas, NFL player and mental health advocate

His foundation provides resources to schools to help their mentors teach students how to develop coping mechanisms and how to talk about mental health.

“[We want] to get into places where young children and people are [like] in the classroom, on the field or in the locker room and make sure we’re teaching the mentors of these young children how to talk about mental health and create a safe environment for mental health, and where to go for resources,” says Thomas.

The foundation particularly hopes to reach out to young people of color, as the National Institute of Mental Health reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death in Black children aged 10–14, and the third leading cause of death in Black adolescents aged 15–19.

“We wanted to be where the suicide rates were the worst and that is in people of color communities—they have the highest rate of suicide. We want help all people and are for all people, but we wanted to highlight where it’s worst,” says Thomas.

Collaborating with Lady Gaga’s #BeKind21

This year, Thomas partnered with the city of Las Vegas, as part of Born This Way Foundation’s annual #BeKind21 campaign, a global movement that calls on the public to practice an act of kindness each day from September 1st to September 21st to build kinder, more connected communities.

“We love the Born This Way Foundation and all the work they do. They do so much in Vegas and around the world. The #BeKind21 program of doing something kind for someone else—I want people to be kind to themselves and to each other to help end suicide,” says Thomas.

Maya Enista Smith, executive director of Born This Way Foundation says research from the foundation found that kindness has an inextricable link to mental wellness and is beneficial both for the recipient and giver.

“Not only can kindness put a smile on someone’s face, but our research shows kindness can make people feel safe, validated, and less alone, and can even increase their desire to stay alive,” Smith tells Verywell.

While it may seem simple, small acts of kindness, such as checking in on someone, listening when someone has a problem, and expressing to someone that you believe in them and want them to do their best, can have an impact on your and their day, she adds.

Psychologist Sheldon A. Jacobs, PsyD, LMFT, agrees. He is a board member for Hope Means Nevada, a community-driven initiative to eliminate teen suicide in Nevada by reaching and teaching teens and adults the practices of mental wellness.

Jacobs joined Thomas in embracing #BeKind21 this year.

“Being kind to ourselves and to others and how that impacts mental health is huge. We can’t be kind to others if we’re not kind to ourselves,” Jacobs tells Verywell.

One of Hope Means Nevada’s slogans is “It’s OK to NOT Be OK.”

“This means we all struggle with mental health at some level in our lifetime, so it’s important that we try to normalize mental health as much as possible. And so, it’s ok to reach out and get help,” he says. 

Sheldon A. Jacobs, PsyD, LMFT

This means we all struggle with mental health at some level in our life time, so it’s important that we try to normalize mental health as much as possible.

— Sheldon A. Jacobs, PsyD, LMFT

Jacobs helps Hope Means Nevada carry out its mission of suicide prevention using a peer-to-peer approach, where students in schools are trained on how to talk to their peers about mental health and suicide prevention, and learn about mental health resources they can turn to.

He says peer involvement is impactful and empowering. In fact, students in Nevada helped to pass a bill in their state, which requires that all student ID cards include contact information for mental health support, including a local or national suicide prevention hotline.

“I think other states can follow our lead in getting creative with their messaging to connect with young people where they are. Also, we’re having conversations in schools, on the playgrounds, and at high school football games—in places we normally wouldn’t have them because if the messaging is coming from peers in places students are comfortable in, that’s where the power lies,” he says.

Thomas agrees, noting that connecting with kids in a way they will understand is more important than ever. “[Especially] with the pandemic happening and COVID, we are really struggling as a society, especially young children. No one had to go through what these kids had to go through this last year,” he says.

The best way to help children during these times of uncertainty and during any stressful time is to teach them to treat their brain like they treat their body, adds Thomas. “People don’t understand that physical health and mental health are the same thing. It’s not one or the other. It’s a whole health of the body. They’re all impacted,” he says Thomas. “[I want kids to know that] if I am mentally suffering, I need to go to therapy, I need to work on my meditating or journaling, whatever helps me.”

He plans to continue spreading this word through The Defensive Line for as long as he can. “I love being able to use my platform to do good in this world,” says Thomas “I don’t have forever, so I want to take advantage of using my platform to help as many people as I can and change the world the best I can.”

What This Means For You

Following the lead of mental health and suicide prevention organizations can help bring understanding, empathy and help for those suffering from mental illness.

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