Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reflections of the Family of Suicidologists

When I arrived at my hotel on Tuesday evening, I was weary from a long flight from Denver to Orlando and looking forward to a quiet restful evening. No sooner did I drag my bags through the rotating doors when I was greeted by a half dozen other weary travelers with big smiles and warm hugs. I said, “I guess I am in the right place.”

Photo by edanley

You see, about 1,000 of us suicidologists traveled across the country, some as far away as Australia to come together for the annual American Association of Suicidologists’ conference. Even though most of us only see each other once a year, we are like a tightly knit extended family. In fact, it was difficult to get to all of our sessions in time because inevitably we would cross paths with at least two or three old friends every time we moved from room to room and the hugging and chatting would delay our arrival.

What makes this conference so special to me is that everyone works together. We have researchers working alongside clinicians. Families bereaved by suicide loss and suicide attempt survivors are working alongside those advocating for public policy change. People working for the military are listening to what is happening on our college campuses. We have support and compassion for people who have just recently lost a loved one to suicide, and we honor those who have dedicated their lives to the cause. Brilliant thinkers listen intently to understand so they can ask better research questions and understanding their findings. Passionate advocates and counselors soak up best practices to improve their efforts. And at the end of the day, we get together over a couple of beers and laugh.

Another reason this field inspires me is that we are a dedicated and scrappy group. With fire in our bellies we continue to try to figure out one of the most tragic human experiences. And we don’t give up. When funding gets cut, we get ultra-resourceful. When the media turn away from the good stories we have to tell, we keep knocking on the door. We are able to persist through hardship because of our unwavering commitment to saving lives and because of the support we get from one another. Even though we are in tough economic times, our association’s growth continues.

Highlights on the conference include:

• Asking two of my friends to sign books they had written that were just published within the last month (Thomas Joiner, The Myths of Suicide and Michelle Linn-Gust Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families through Suicide Grief)

• Seeing the Clinician-Survivor task force take off – integrating the divisions of research, bereavement and clinical practice to open the conversation of how mental health service providers cope with the impact of suicide loss, personally and professionally

• Presenting with colleagues on topics we care about such as:
  • Reaching men at risk for suicide who don’t seek help
  • Assimilating the benefits of spirituality into suicide prevention, intervention and Postvention 
  • Looking at the challenges and opportunities of working in systems like college campuses, workplaces and the military
  • Helping those bereaved by suicide become “survivors in action”
[Picture is of the memory quilt made in honor of my brother Carson Spencer (1969-2004)]

On our last evening of the conference, those who had lost loved ones to suicide gathered in a circle in reflection. Memory quilts lined the walls around us as we “lit” battery powered candles (the hotel was afraid of the fire hazard of lighting real ones) and Iris Bolton led us in a ritual where we said the names of our loved ones out loud. We cried, held hands and were witness to each other’s grief. Never forget. Never give up. See you next year.


If you were at this conference with me over the last five days – please share your highlights in the comment box.

If you want to learn more about joining the American Association of Suicidology: CLICK HERE

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Suicide Prevention as a Social Justice Issue

A new social movement is emerging, and it’s gaining momentum. As I speak at conferences and on campuses from coast to coast, I find that audiences first tilt their heads with intrigue and then nod with enthusiasm as I explain what it means to position suicide prevention as a social justice issue.

We can easily understand that suicide is a mental health issue. When authorities report that an estimated 90% of people who die by suicide suffer from some diagnosable mental illness or substance abuse condition, we can clearly see the link between the two. However, if we only view suicide through the mental health lens, we will be very limited in our ability to create systematic change. When we look at suicide prevention through this lens, the change agents are the mental health service providers, who work with individuals who are suffering; one on one, one at a time.

In order to take a more “upstream” approach to this, we need to think more broadly and conceptualize suicide prevention as a public health issue. When we view suicide through this lens, we can plainly see that many systems are involved in creating change – schools, workplaces, healthcare systems, justice, faith communities and more. Everyone can play a role in suicide prevention. We can also learn to appreciate that change begins through an emphasis on bolstering protective factors like social connections and resilience as much as it does on medication and treatment.

But, I would argue, even this perspective falls short. Because if you haven’t been touched by suicide directly, you are usually unaware of its widespread and devastating impact and therefore, less inclined to allocate your energy toward targeting this particular health issue over others. What is needed is a social justice approach to suicide prevention. We can take notes from the breast cancer movement that has modeled for us how to create a tipping point of change by bringing the strength of community solidarity to engage a wider circle. Breast cancer survivors are bolstered by others who cheer their courage and stand with them through their struggle. Those who have lost their battle to breast cancer are remembered with honor. Many who have not been touched by the impact of breast cancer are moved by the energy of the large walks and moving testimonies of healing and recovery and want to know how they can help.

So what are the aspects of injustice we need to fight against? For one, we have a grave imbalance in the way we treat mental health conditions and the way we treat other physical disorders. Because of this imbalance, people with mental health conditions often have a terrible time accessing adequate care. There are too few mental health treatment options and most of them are too costly for the average person. As my colleague Dr. Doug Johnson once said to me, “We have a psycho-social injustice problem. We have Americanized mental illness – by looking for quick fixes and ignoring the emotional impact of marginalization.”

In addition, we have developed dysfunctional narratives in our country about mental health conditions that get reinforced in careless media reports and lead to further isolation and hopelessness. People are genuinely afraid to reach out to get the help they need to survive – if that is not a social justice issue, I do not know what is.

For more information about how we all can get involved: -- a clearinghouse of resources for college campuses -- suicide prevention for the workplace -- sustaining a passion for life through suicide prevention, social enterprise and support for emerging leaders

NOTE: Balloon picture is from a recent "Out of Darkness Walk" in Denver, Colorado. Hundreds of people gathered together in solidarity to honor loved ones lost to suicide (remembering each with a balloon released in silence) and walked to raise money for suicide prevention.