An Interview with the New Director of Division of Suicide Attempt Survivors and People with Lived Experience
Reposted with permission by the American Association for Suicide Prevention
Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D.
CEO & Co-Founder, Carson J Spencer Foundation
Survivor (of Suicide Loss) Division Director
DeQuincy Lezine, Ph.D.
President & CEO
Survivor of Suicide Attempt Division Director
Congratulations goes out to DeQuincy Lezine for being appointed as the first Division Director of the Suicide Attempt Survivors/Lived Experience Division. The membership is very excited to get to know him and understand his vision for how he might collaborate with other divisions to advance the field of suicide prevention. For these reasons, I enthusiastically interviewed him to better introduce him to the membership.
Sally: Who is DeQuincy Lezine?
DeQuincy: I grew up in Los Angeles, CA and got scholarship support to pursue a dual-degree in computer science and visual arts at Brown University, with the intent of going into computer animation. I eventually switched to being a psychology major, but continued my interest in graphic arts throughout college. Many people know that I formed one of the first mental health and suicide prevention student clubs. Very few know that I founded a second club promoting graphic arts. I also maintained my love for computers and technology, and have built several computers “from the ground up” including my current desktop. A guilty pleasure? I am a chocoholic, which is not so hidden, and generally have a love for desserts. I have two beautiful children – Benjamin (4 years old) and Nina (2 years old) who both challenge me and keep me going. Finally I’ll add that I like to learn - from natural history to microeconomics to carpentry to public health and policy. However, what I really enjoy is teaching, and have since mentored or tutored other students in high school. Applying knowledge to solve problems or make discoveries, and helping to inform others are true passions for me.
Sally: Tell us more about how you got to be a pioneer in the Suicide Attempt Survivor Movement. How did it start, what were the turning points in your journey? Mentors? Influential experiences?
DeQuincy: I got started in suicide prevention as a first-year student in college, after my first suicide attempt, by contacting the Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network (SPAN USA). I just didn’t find any other attempt survivors in the national suicide prevention movement. A number of groups were missing. There were few African-Americans involved, especially men. In fact, my first television interview was for a CNN special on African-American male suicide. There was also an age gap where prevention for young adults and college students was largely missing – because the focus was either on high school or adults. I thought that if people planning suicide prevention programs were going to be talking about those groups and trying to reach them, then it made sense to have someone from those groups at the table. I didn’t necessarily want that to be me, by the way.
Jerry and Elsie Weyrauch practically adopted me, so the time I spent with their daughter Susan was like time with a sister. Jerry and Elsie even attended my wedding. Suicide loss survivors were like family and that’s who I spent the most time with during SPAN USA events. I can still recall touring the national monuments in Washington with other advocates, and Sandy Martin suggesting the idea of “memory quilts” to put human faces to the stories of suicide. People like Dese’Rae Stage (Live Through This) are doing digital versions of that idea for attempt survivors now.
The most influential experience for me was being part of the Expert Panel at the Reno, Nevada SPAN National Suicide Prevention Conference. I was happy to be part of the Steering Committee that developed the conference, and met Kay Jamison there, who helped mentor me for years afterward. However, the idea that a young suicide attempt survivor could be seen as a valuable part of a very small group of experts that would shape the first national strategy was humbling. The experience itself, while extremely tiring given the long hours that we worked in a small hotel conference room, was transformative. It was probably the event that most anchored me in this field. I still recall Mort Silverman, in his introduction of the panel, describing as me as a representative of “the future of suicide prevention.” At the end of college, the memory of the Reno Conference was pivotal in deciding between a career in mental health advocacy or suicide prevention research.
Sally: What is your vision for the new Division? What do you anticipate are the greatest opportunities and challenges?
DeQuincy: I would like to see the new Division provide a way to bridge the gap between attempt survivors and suicide prevention professionals. Having experience on “both sides of the table” I know that there is much that can be learned on all sides. There is a growing attempt survivor movement that can bring energy, hope, insight, and practical ideas into the clinical, prevention, and research worlds where AAS plays a leading international role. People who have personal experience with suicide, mental health challenges, and/or substance abuse issues remind professionals about goals and priorities. I think it helps to have people like me in the room to say “That’s all well and good, but my brothers and sisters are dying out there. How is this going to help them?” On the other side, it is important to bring ideas about collaborative care, true safety planning, therapy specifically focused on suicidal experiences, and new understanding of what helps or harms into the community. The Division holds the potential for helping to get some of those ideas out into “the real world.”
The challenges are rooted in the difficulty that any new effort faces within an established arena, along with deeply rooted negative perceptions, bias, and stigma. It will be difficult in some circles, to establish the Division as an important contributor to the mission of AAS and suicide prevention as whole. In general, wisdom from personal experience is often considered less valid than information gleaned from scientific methods and statistical calculations. For a long time suicide attempt survivors were patients and research subjects, misunderstood and anxiety-provoking in their potential deaths, and closely associated with possible liability or litigation. On the other side, negative experiences with clinicians and researchers using physical restraints, seclusion practices, forced or coerced hospitalization and medication, debilitating side effects, dismissive or demeaning attitudes, and criminalization haunt some people who have lived through suicidal times. There are, at times well-founded, adversarial views and suspicions on both sides. It is a challenge to switch from those perspectives to seeing each other as colleagues or partners. I think we can overcome those challenges, but it will take patience and persistence.
Sally: How do you anticipate collaborating with suicide loss survivors?
DeQuincy: As I mentioned earlier, I have a long history of working alongside loss survivors. Everyone who has been personally touched by a suicidal crisis, either their own or the experience of someone close to them, has a unique view of this topic. Everyone who chooses to work in suicide prevention has a chance to gain scientific, clinical, or public health expertise through formal education. However, some types of perspective and knowledge are only acquired through the terror of being intimately involved in a suicidal crisis. There is a difference between choosing an area of interest and being thrown into it with an unexpected and traumatic occurrence. Almost every time I have had a chance to talk to a loss survivor in depth about the person(s) that they have lost I have felt a connection to that person. To know the ups and downs, the hopes and challenges, the triumphs and terrors of that person is to know a peer who I will never be able to meet in person. The specific type of experience differs between attempt survivors and loss survivors, but the ability to check “book knowledge” against personal experience is shared. With that recognition I think there are many projects that the two survivor groups could work on together.
Sally: What are your thoughts around the terminology of “survivor” and inclusion of the concept of “lived experience”?
DeQuincy: Every term lacks something and leaves one with the feeling that his or her entire experience cannot be adequately captured in a few words. The only ones who live past a suicide death are the people who are left to grieve the loss of a person afterward. The ones who survive a suicidal crisis are the ones who personally endured it. Reducing one or the other to “survivor” is an injustice because it doesn’t say what the person has survived. It would be like me saying simply that I have a Ph.D. Most people would immediately ask, “A Ph.D. in what?” To me, saying “suicide attempt survivor” and “suicide loss survivor” are more descriptive and specific terms that say someone has lived past a life-threatening event, and how he or she was connected to that event.
I do realize that I enjoy writing, and being particular about words and meanings. It is why I recently switched from focusing on the single “suicide attempt” or “suicide” to the “crisis,” which can be a longer period and may encompass thoughts, feelings, actions, temporary recovery, and ambivalence. “Crisis” is also an imperfect term, but the concept of acknowledging difficulties before and after an event is appealing to me.
“Lived experience” can mean many things, which is both a benefit and a drawback. It is beneficial for coalition building because it can be inclusive of a wide-range of suicidal experiences to join an effort. For example, it can be said that loss survivors also have lived through the suicidal crisis. Beyond this, it helps connect people in suicide prevention with leaders and authors in mental health recovery and advocacy, who regularly use the term “lived experience.” However, the more scientific / clinical side of me feels that the term is too broad. I think that having the division name reflect both specific and broad terminology helps strike a balance between the two.
Sally: How can members get involved in your mission?
DeQuincy: Over the years a fair number of suicide loss survivors have disclosed their personal suicidal crises. That should not be surprising of course. We know that suicidal behavior runs in families. We know that suicidal people often have suicidal friends. We also know that a suicide attempt or suicide can be a catalyst for suicidal behavior in some who are already at risk. We have come far as a field, but telling others that you are a suicide loss survivor still takes courage. Telling others that you have experienced a suicidal crisis yourself requires even more nerve. However, even if you choose not to disclose, you can get involved in our mission by joining / adding the Attempt Survivor / Lived Experience Division as an interest.
One of the projects that Franklin Cook and I have been working on (in our laughable “spare time”) is clearly defining the shared vision of developing and valuing peer support in suicide prevention. Inclusion of both loss survivor and attempt survivor voices in many spheres depends on having professionals consider personal experience as a valid source of knowledge and/or expertise. Even within academia there is contention about how to value qualitative research which emphasizes information that comes from “just” talking to people. This is a critical point. Suicide loss survivors and suicide attempt survivors are the groups that have the largest proportion of members who pay dues and conference expenses without any organizational support. Many pay out of limited incomes. They regularly serve unpaid on Boards and Committees and projects. If our collective voices are valued and we want to recruit more members with that experiential wisdom, then that valuation should be shown through pay for services and/or discounted dues and conference fees.
Sally: Anything else you’d like to tell us?
DeQuincy: As Chair of the new division I offer thanks to everyone who supported the formation of our division, and I am looking forward to exploring the huge potential for collaboration between the two divisions. I would also like to offer a personal “thank you” to all of the suicide loss survivors who have become like family to me over what is nearly two decades of working together.
About DeQuincy Lezine: DeQuincy Lezine, PhD, has been active in national suicide prevention efforts since 1996, including roles in the development of national and state suicide prevention plans. He is the author of Eight Stories Up (Oxford University Press) and the primary author for The Way Forward (Suicide Attempt Survivor Task Force). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About Sally Spencer-Thomas: As a psychologist, mental health advocate, and survivor of her brother’s suicide, Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D., sees suicide prevention, intervention and postvention from many perspectives. She is currently the Survivor (of Suicide Loss) Division Director for AAS and CEO for the Carson J Spencer Foundation ( www.CarsonJSpencer.org). Sally@CarsonJSpencer.org | 720-244-6535.