The Jed Foundation (JED) annual gala in New York City never fails to impress. The beautifully choreographed event at Cipriani’s in Lower Manhattan draws participants of all kinds, from celebrities and well-heeled patrons to behavioral health advocates and young people from across the country. But behind the production and couture is a non-profit start-up with a remarkable influence on the mental health and well-being of high school and college students — and one of the country’s most significant and little-known success stories.  

This year’s gala was particularly inspirational, breaking records in attendance and fundraising while featuring personalities such as TV anchor Savannah Sellers and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who bestowed a lifetime achievement award on his friend and former college classmate, Phillip Satow. The gala honored the twenty-fifth year of the country’s leading non-profit dedicated to protecting emotional health and preventing suicide in young people, as well as the retirement of Satow, its co-founder, who has moved from Chairman of the Board of Directors to Chairman Emeritus and Board member. 

Phil and Donna Satow launched The Jed Foundation in 2000 in acknowledgement of the life and sudden death of their youngest child, Jed, who died by suicide two years earlier when he was a student at the University of Arizona. What the Satows chose to do with their unimaginable grief would change how colleges and universities view their role in protecting their students from tragedies such as Jed’s.

JED’s work in the past twenty-five years has not only provided an evidence-based model for suicide prevention, it has brought to the surface the important and sensitive truth that, for many, the college years are the most developmentally challenging of their lives. 

In accepting his award, Satow told the story of when, shortly after Jed’s death, the president of his son’s university asked him and his wife Donna the question that would lead to the launch of the Foundation. “What can I do to improve the safety of my 30,000 students?” Satow, who was already a highly successful pharmaceutical executive, responded in the best way he knew how: he and Donna devoted themselves to finding an answer to the question. 

Satow’s first “kitchen cabinet” was made up of medical professionals, suicide prevention experts, and business colleagues. After years of raising awareness and developing JED’s Comprehensive Approach to Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention for Colleges and Universities, the organization began offering JED Campus. Launched in 2013, the program engages colleges and universities in collaborative work with a dedicated JED Campus Advisor over the course of four years. After conducting an initial needs assessment, the Campus Advisor draws on the data to create a strategic plan with actionable opportunities that span seven domains: develop life skills; promote social connectedness; identify students at risk; increase help-seeking behavior; provide mental health and substance misuse services; follow crisis-management procedures; and promote means safety. 

In April 2024, JED published an impact report detailing improvements to student mental health at schools that completed JED Campus titled A Decade of Improving College Mental Health Systems: JED Campus Impact Report. A decade of data (2013 to 2023) from JED Campus schools and the Healthy Minds Network survey were analyzed and found schools that completed JED Campus saw statistically significant improvements in student mental health at the end of the program. Students at participating institutions were 25% less likely to report a suicide attempt, 13% less likely to report suicide planning, and 10% less likely to report suicidal ideation. Students whose schools make more progress on their JED strategic plans are more likely to demonstrate improvement. 

JED Campus is now in over 450 colleges and universities in the United States, reaching 5.6 million students, with the core of its programming expanding into high schools and school districts throughout the country. In 2022, JED received a $15 million grant from Mackenzie Scott, which Satow hopes will triple the number of students it reaches over the next several years, someday reaching more than 50 percent of colleges and universities. JED has recently doubled its staff from 40 to 95 to cover its expanding programming, which includes webinars and trainings, original research and reports, consulting services, public awareness campaigns, youth mental health resources, and policy, advocacy, and government relations work on the local, state, and federal levels. 

Shortly after the gala, Satow spoke with LearningWell about these accomplishments, including living up to expectations, proving the organization’s impact, and finally being able to answer the University of Arizona president’s question. 

LearningWell: Did you believe back in 2000 that the Jed Foundation would grow to this size and scope?

Phillip Satow: In many ways, yes. This was a hope that I had after I lost my son, when I thought about how many other kids were in similar situations and how many other families would be affected by a loss like ours. And here was a college president, obviously a very bright man, and he had no constructive idea what to do. And it dawned on me that we could have an incredible impact if we could establish a safety net under thousands of kids across so many campuses.

Shortly after Jed died, I brought together a number of experts and posed the question that I was asked by Jed’s college president.  They responded by suggesting the applicability of a model, sourced from the U.S.  Air Force and published in The British Medical Journal, with outcome data that showed it actually reduced suicide. So we had a model with evidence, and when we first started, one of the things we thought about was how broad our approach should be. Should we think horizontally or vertically? Should we bring this information to one school at a time, or should we bring awareness to all campuses in the United States and let them know a prevention model like this could really work to reduce suicide on their campuses? We ended up going horizontal, and even though we were small, we wanted to make sure that as many college counseling centers we could get to would have this information. I really did have that dream.

It would be very hard for many presidents not to feel obligated to call on JED, because we know we can indeed make a difference on their campuses.

LW: For a non-profit, JED is very entrepreneurial. You started outside of higher education and now serve so many colleges and universities and high schools. Do you ever think about how what you built can be applied in other scenarios? 

PS: I do, often. The idea for the model was far-sighted in many ways. In boundaried communities, you have leadership in a position to say, “Here is our policy that I am asking you to follow.” If you look at suicide in general in the United States, so many occur in boundaried communities like prisons and large health care systems. I believe there is something to our model that allows it to be applied more broadly than in colleges or in other academic spaces. We now consult with corporations and other organizations like national fraternities and even professional sports organizations. 

LW: What were some of the big milestones for you in JED’s 25-year history?

PS: I think there were a few things that really changed our growth trajectory. The decision to put “boots on the ground” made a big difference. At first, we put our model out there, but it was up to the schools to implement it. Over time, we decided it was important to have people assigned to schools and committees formed that we could collaborate with. That became the JED Campus program. Another major milestone for us came about due to the pandemic, which of course made things difficult for us, as for everyone, but it did bring the JED message alive – that mental health was an important priority for schools. And the third area that really distinguishes us is our data collection effort. We have an extraordinary amount of data that we can continuously display as evidence of our impact. From the beginning, we were always looking to collect support data for our impact framework.  I think that’s what sets us apart.

LW: When did you feel as though you had an answer to the question Jed’s college president asked you? 

PS: We had a subjective feeling as we were rolling out the JED Campus program into hundreds of schools but in the last couple of years there’s been real evidence of this. The American Council on Education released a survey in 2021 that showed that over 70% of college presidents reported that student mental health was their number one priority. Our impact report really shows how the needle has moved. Students at JED schools were 25% less likely to report a suicide attempt. This is all real data that shows how much has changed since 2000. 

LW: What directions do you see JED going in now?

PS: There’s much more to do in the college space. I think that, with the data we have, it would be very hard for many presidents not to feel obligated to call on JED, because we know we can indeed make a difference on their campuses. There are also around over 20,000 high schools in the United States, and we have a lot of work to do there. We’ve just launched a partnership with AASA, The Superintendents Association,  with the goal to help many K-12 school districts implement a comprehensive approach to mental health and suicide prevention

I think we will end up expanding significantly, but at the same time, we don’t want our success to hamper us. I know from my business career that if you take on too much, you may not do anything very well. And when we’re talking about kids’ lives, you’ve got to do everything superbly. So, I think the real challenge will be how we successfully assure high quality control in all those thousands of high schools and colleges. I don’t think anyone wants to see JED, as we continue to expand, be an organization of hundreds of employees.  We’ll need to use the latest technology in every way possible in order to provide excellent support in each school we serve.

LW: What do you think has been the secret to JED’ success?PS: First of all, it’s the people, starting with John MacPhee, our CEO for 12 years. Also our medical and clinical personnel, and of course, our excellent development department. We have also used leverage very well to scale our work – our partnership with AASA, The Superintendents Association, is an example. We are not just doing this one-school-at-a-time, and that has really benefited us. And the last thing would be our focus on outcomes data. Most organizations in the mental health field don’t have the data to prove that what they’re doing works. I think the fact that I came from the pharmaceutical industry (as did John) was helpful in that regard. We know that, in the health care world,you can’t promote anything that doesn’t have data to support it. I think that’s been a highly important concept that has been transferred to our work at the Jed Foundation.