Maria’s battle to end suicide in Manizales

By Elodie Malbois

Maria del Pilar, credit: Maria del Pilar


Maria del Pilar Aristizabal

Maria del Pilar was one of the ‘human books’ at last year's online conference Creative Leadership in July 2020. She is a Caux Peace and Leadership Programme alumna and participated in Mandela Mile 2020. She talks to Elodie Malbois about her passion for leadership and her fight against suicide in her home city, Manizales, Colombia.

Two years ago, Maria del Pilar went out dancing with one of her friends, Laura, who was ‘the funniest person’ she knew. Two weeks later, Laura committed suicide. Maria couldn’t understand how such a young and lively person would want to end her life. She was horrified when friends who were supporting her through her grief confided that they had attempted suicide themselves or even had suicidal thoughts at that moment. The sudden awareness of the prevalence of suicide among young people in her city was like a cold shower. She discovered that Manizales had the highest rate of suicide in Colombia, yet nothing was being done to prevent these premature deaths.

Many in her position would have thought that there was nothing they could do to prevent suicide in young people, but not Maria. At one workshop that she attended after Laura’s death, she was invited to think about what she would regret not having done when she was 50. ‘I started crying,’ she says. ‘It was so clear to me what I had to do. I wanted to start a business to support young people of my city who could commit suicide. I knew the leadership part, but not the mental health part. But I did know that if we supported young people with leadership tools it would help them.’

Feeling driven to do something, she took stock of what she had: ten years of volunteer work with young people and the countless leadership workshops which she had attended. The leadership tools she had learned had had a powerful effect not just on her own life, but on the lives of the young people at the reformatory where she had been volunteering. ‘With the right tools, young people start changing their lives and they thrive, no matter their circumstances,’ she says.

She put together a workshop, which she started delivering at a high school in Manizales, and found that the students talked to her about their lives and feelings. ‘They could relate to me because I am a young woman. As a teenager, if you have someone who you can speak to every week and who supports you and helps you discover and strengthen your talent, then you can start thriving.’

They could relate to me because I am a young woman. As a teenager, if you have someone who you can speak to every week and who supports you and helps you discover and strengthen your talent, then you can start thriving.

She called her workshop the Life Academy. Columbia University in the US identified it as a social initiative with high impact in the world and gave her the opportunity to go to New York and learn how to improve her processes, methodology and evaluation. When she came home, she formalized her workshop plan and applied to the education secretariat for permission to conduct 12 workshops in one semester at the school with the highest suicide rates. At the end of the semester, she found that the workshops had reduced suicidal tendencies by 91 per cent.

Elated by this success, she started to scale up her initiative. She now has a team of 10: she is the only one who is paid. They plan to become a fully sustainable social enterprise, delivering leadership workshops to all 35,000 students in her city. A result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have also put their workshop online and hope that by next year anyone around the world will be able to buy it in Spanish or English.

In addition to the Life Academy, Maria has developed a new initiative, Salvemos Vidas (save lives),  with the support of her coach and buddy from the Mandela Mile programme. She put out a call for volunteers via a social media campaign and more than 100 people responded. They have been trained in active listening and how to speak with people with suicidal tendencies. Those volunteers now call all the students of the two high schools with the highest rates of suicide every two weeks, to check on them and support them. If they see that a student is at risk, one of the volunteers starts to see him or her more often; if the risk is high, they let the family know, so that the student can benefit from mental health care. If this pilot is successful, they hope to scale it up to cover all the city’s high schools.

Maria’s vision is to combine the Life Academy and Salvemos Vidas to end suicide in Manizales. In the meantime, she will be going to the UK to study business, and will offer the Life Academy workshop in London, where suicide rates are also high. Each UK school which pays for the workshop will be supporting a high school in Manizales.

I am not afraid any more. Challenges are opportunities to go forward.

At the beginning, Maria knew nothing about social entrepreneurship, but she did not let that bring her down. ‘When you start a business, you have a lot of fears, but I have a lot of friends as well. I confront my fears with my friends who give me support. When you are trying to change the world, you really need your crew.’   Nothing can stop her: ‘I am not afraid any more. Challenges are opportunities to go forward. I know there are going to be a lot of challenges. But I am super-excited to go through them.’

Obviously, the leadership workshops she attended delivered: she is glowing with passion and confidence. She says: ‘Leadership is a commitment to yourself to know yourself better every day, to embrace all that you are and to have the strength to be all of that and to serve the world. This gives you confidence in yourself. And even when you are not confident, leadership provides you with the tools to recover confidence so you can share your superpower with the world.’ Her superpower is her extraordinary amount of energy: she handles it carefully, focusing on activities and people that fuel rather than drain it.

If you don’t know what your superpower is, she advises: ‘First, you have to trust that you have a superpower. Do more of the things you enjoy or enjoyed when you were a child. That will guide you towards your passion and then you can use it to serve the world. I am a big dreamer, but if you want, you can start with small steps. You can start by helping your family, your neighbourhood, your city. It only takes one person to start changing the world. Believe in your superpower and go deliver it to the world.


Discover this year's conference on Creative Leadership (25 - 34 July 2021) and stay tuned for registration from 1 June onwards!


Photos: Maria del Pilar


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