As national leaders in suicide prevention, we can say with all urgency that our field can learn a lot from the fight against cancer.
A bittersweet irony of Robin Williams’ death by suicide was the support he gave to the fight against cancer, which, like suicide, takes millions of lives. He was a strong backer of St. Jude’s Research Center and Stand Up to Cancer, and he visited patients and brought joy into lives that would be cut short as unfairly as his was.
We once whispered about cancer, but the movement to fight it has become enormously effective in getting the public involved in support, fundraising and advocacy. Now many people, whether or not they’ve been directly affected, stand shoulder to shoulder with people who are fighting for their lives.
How did this transformation happen? The cancer prevention movement advanced science and relentlessly promoted stories of hope and recovery.
The suicide prevention field indeed, all of us who despair at deaths by suicide can do this, too. And we are starting to see signs of an emerging social movement to make it happen.
This year alone, much has been achieved to embrace the full circle of people living with the experience of suicide and suicidal thinking, from those who have lost loved ones to a growing number of suicide attempt survivors who are “coming out” through projects like Livethroughthis.org and saying that going on to live a full, meaningful life is entirely possible.
We have several challenges ahead.
Consider the way we talk about suicide. We don’t say someone “committed cancer” or shrug and say cancer is a choice. We don’t demonize people with cancer.
Consider the treatment of suicidal thinking. With any health issue, we expect that our medical teams will have state-of-the-art skills in detection and treatment. That’s not true with suicide.
Only two states, Kentucky and Washington, require that mental health professionals be trained in working with suicidal people. A patient’s death by suicide is one of many professionals’ greatest fears, and yet the majority are underprepared to assess and manage suicide risk, let alone give support in recovery.
Cancer doctors don’t make their patients sign a contract not to die, and yet some mental health professionals still use “no-suicide contracts” instead of working together on plans for support and safety. Other professionals fear that working with suicidal clients will end up in a lawsuit, so they “pass the hot potato,” and suicidal people feel rejected within a system that otherwise urges them to ask for help.
Consider our response to suicidal thinking. When someone discloses they have cancer, the response is usually an outpouring of support. When someone discloses they survived a suicide attempt, the response is often discrimination and avoidance.
The irony is that our world, and especially the mental health world, is full of gifted professionals who’ve been suicidal and don’t dare say so. Imagine if their talent and influence could be applied to this health issue to offer role models of recovery and perseverance.
As the compassionate but challenging therapist in the movie “Good Will Hunting,” Robin Williams counsels Matt Damon on life, love and grief before telling him, “Your move, chief.”
Now it’s our move. Let’s honor Williams’ memory, and that of everyone who has struggled with suicidal thinking, by fanning the flames of a new movement.
Here is what has happened this year alone:
- The country’s oldest suicide prevention organization, the American Association of Suicidology, this year founded a division for people who’ve been suicidal. Suicide attempt survivors spoke at four separate keynote conference sessions and received multiple standing ovations.
- The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s attempt survivor task force last month published the federally funded, unprecedented report “The Way Forward,” a sweeping call for change in the way suicidal people are treated.
- The Center for Dignity, Recovery and Empowerment, directed by an attempt survivor, has emerged as a national leader in innovative programs for people who’ve been suicidal, with a major goal of eliminating prejudice.
- Finally, the Action Alliance’s new “Zero Suicide” national health care initiative dares us to imagine a world free from the tragedy of suicide and to behave as if we cannot lose one more life in isolation and despair.
How can each of us become part of this movement?
- Reach out and ask others, “Are you okay? What can I do to support you?” Let them know they are not alone and that you can help them connect to targeted resources like ManTherapy.org.
- Promote the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). Contact your local crisis call center to see how you can help with fundraising, volunteering and advocating.
- Participate in suicide prevention work like community walks, town hall meetings, crisis line support and more. Make sure to engage people who know what suicidal thinking feels like.
- Donate to suicide prevention organizations and encourage others to do so.
- Learn the facts about suicide and the strategies that have been shown to prevent it.
- Bring others into the circle: your employer, educators, faith leaders and so on. Make suicide prevention a priority.
- Speak to your elected officials and demand resources to support dignified treatment and eliminate discrimination against people who are asking for help.
- Ask your mental health service provider about their training in suicide prevention. Ask your behavioral health system if they know about “Zero Suicide” and “The Way Forward.”
As a society, we’ve stood up for so many other important health issues. It’s time for us to stand up to suicide. The silence simply isn’t working.
#standup2suicide #zerosuicide #wayforward
By members of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention:
- David Covington, LPC, MBA, co-chair, National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Zero Suicide Advisory Group
- Dr. John Draper, co-chair, National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Attempt Survivor Task Force
- Dr. Mike Hogan, co-chair, National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Zero Suicide Advisory Group
- Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, co-chair, National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Suicide Loss Survivors Task Force
- Eduardo Vega, co-chair, National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Attempt Survivor Task Force
Note: Special acknowledgement to Cara Anna (talkingaboutsuicide.com) who provided invaluable guidance and support in developing the final version above.