Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reflections on 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:

o Reaching men at risk for suicide who don’t seek help

o Assimilating the benefits of spirituality into suicide prevention, intervention and Postvention

o Looking at the challenges and opportunities of working in systems like college campuses, workplaces and the military

o 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 18, 2010

The Peak Payoffs of Persistence

Last night was one of those nights when my taste buds far outpaced my stomach. Randy and I were celebrating 15 years of marriage in glorious Estes Park, Colorado when we found ourselves in Mary's Lake Lodge where ever y dish was more magnificent than the one before. Gorging on hearty homemade, multi-grain bread, succulent crab cakes, and savory seafood stew, I found I had no room left for even a chocolate covered strawberry. And now, the morning after, we faced a bad food hangover. Our distended bellies kept us up all night and threatened to ruin our plans for a great day of hiking up Lily Mountain. As we lay in a way-too-comfortable bed, we faced our first decision of the day: to give into the consequences of our poor choices and roll back into our food-induced coma, or to start the day anew and get the blood flowing again. Like all things that first appear like an insurmountable challenge, the most important task is just the commitment to give it a go – we put the feet on the floor and started moving.

As the glorious Colorado sunshine beckoned us outside, we packed up our wiry mutt Apache and started out to the trailhead. April hiking at 9,000 feet above sea level can be a little unpredictable – warm air temperatures don’t necessarily mean you won’t be fighting snow and ice the whole way up the mountain. The climb wasn’t epic – just an afternoon jaunt up a decent piece of vertical, but with the slush, we found ourselves sliding back a food for every two we advanced.

At high altitudes, fatigue comes quickly, and soon the burning quad muscles and labored breathing reminded us how hard we were working. We passed another couple who had pulled off to the side of the trail. The less than ideal conditions had defeated them and they were refueling before heading back down.

“One foot and then another.” I reminded myself not to get discouraged as my hiking boots sank ankle deep in the slush with every step. Randy, Apache and I lumbered on until we reached a cascade of boulders that required us to scramble up using both hands and feet and lots of concentration.

“This is it!” I thought, “We must be close to the summit. One more push to the top.”

The dog inspired us with his bold leaps up the snowy crevasses, and we followed his lead. Getting good hand holds where we could, we pulled ourselves up one boulder at a time. And then, in an instant, there it was – the breathtaking 180 degree expanse of snow capped peaks breaking through to the stunning cobalt sky. The rush if it all poured over me as I stood on the summit looking at the steep drop of on all sides. The strong heart beats were now sprinkled with exhilaration, and I remembered, “Oh yeah, this is why I do this.”

You don’t get the rush when the journey is easy.

When we can conquer the negative voices that tell us that the million little things that aren’t going are way are going to crush us, the taste of our victory is even sweeter. I closed my eyes and took a big sip of the moment to savor the reward in every cell of my body, so that when I need it I can remind myself later: when I am frustrated by the hassles of daily life, I know there is great payoff in persisting to the peak.

For more about great places to hike in Colorado with dogs:

Sally Spencer-Thomas
"Up on the High Wire: Mental Resiliency during Tough Times"
  • Be Bold
  • Belong
  • Be Well
  • Believe

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Suicide Preventon 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.