Thursday, October 2, 2014

One World Connected: Making Suicide Prevention a Global Imperative

September 7, 2014
Sally Spencer-Thomas

For the past two weeks I have had the immense privilege of traveling internationally to participate in some of the most exciting global suicide prevention initiatives of the year. The events have left me humbled, inspired and feeling deeply connected to something big and important. First, I attended the 15th European Symposium on Suicide and Suicidal Behavior (ESSSB15) in Tallinn, Estonia and then I had the tremendous honor of being invited to the World Health Organization’s launch of the World Suicide Report in Geneva, Switzerland. Both of these experiences have left me with the tangible impression of “one world connected” – the theme of this year’s National Suicide Prevention Week (9/8-9/14, 2014) and World Suicide Prevention Day (9/10/14).

The theme of connection is potent. When it comes to suicide prevention, having a strong sense of community and belonging is one of the most powerful protective factors against suicide. When people feel connected to something larger than themselves, they are often able to weather life’s hardships much better than those who feel isolated or who believe that they have become a burden to those who love them. This sense of connection happens between individuals; it also occurs in the global community.

In fact, connection, inclusion and collaboration were themes that emerged from both meetings from the highest levels of our world’s mental health leaders. From ESSSB15 we heard loud and clear the need to “bring the first person into our research” because we had lots of study about the “suicidal mind” but little understanding. Leaders called to action: bridge the communication gap between researchers and people with lived experience and to acknowledge the importance of compassion and empathy, dialogue and partnership. We need to get beyond studying suicidal behavior and find positive outcomes of change. As Jerry Reed, the Director of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, said, “We talk a lot about deaths, but we need to talk about hope and recovery.”

Equally emphasized was the message of new and needed voices in the work of suicide prevention. Many talked about the role of making suicide prevention a central focus of health care; about the priority to engage parents and educators and to involve those that support our unemployed and underemployed.

At the World Health Organization’s two-day meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Shahkar Saxena, Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse of WHO made clear his call to action from opening remarks to the 100+ delegates from over 30 countries, when he talked about the purpose of the meeting: implementing an action plan through collaboration, “One World Connected.”

For a copy of the First World Suicide Report:

Lifting up the voices of lived experience was also a priority of this ceremonial launch of the World Suicide Report. The day began with powerful testimonies from both a suicide attempt survivor from the UK and a suicide loss survivor from Kenya. Both attributed the power of compassion as the critical element to what helped them survive their dark times.

Dr. Danuta Wasserman from Sweden, the current President of the European Psychiatric Association said, “We must listen to the voices of lived experience because they challenge what we think we know.”

Dr. Kathleen Lynch, Minister of State for Primary and Social Care in Ireland reiterated the “One World” theme when she said, “This is not about the other. It’s about us. We need systems of kindness.”

Finally, Michelle Funk, Director of Mental Health Policy for WHO underscored the importance of human rights and social justice as we move into the next chapter of the suicide prevention movement. She facilitated an important conversation about strengthening leadership and governance in the movement to build capacity and improve sustainability in our efforts. Together the international partners attending committed to improving opportunities for peer support and practical recovery models. Still, in 25 countries, suicidal behavior remains criminalized and many countries, including the US still use coercion, seclusion and restraints as a method of “treatment.” Clearly, we have much work ahead of us.
Perhaps the most moving part of the whole 10-day experience was the presentation Matthew Johnstone, founder, illustrator and source of inspiration for the viral campaign called, “I had a black dog, his name is depression.”

Matthew illustrated the images, which became both a book and a viral video now reaching almost 4,000,000 people:

He talked about the power of illustration to demonstrate experiences that are often beyond words. Experiences of despair and hopelessness, but also experiences of connection and recovery are depicted with charm and accuracy. As the conclusion of the meeting, Johnstone announced the launch of the new video, “Living with a Black Dog” for the supporters and carers of people living with depression:

This new video launched just three days ago and already has over 6,000 views.

On the plane ride home yesterday, I reflected on the intensity of our field, the potential we have when we reach out and support, and the incredible momentum we are starting to generate from the power of collaboration and the courage of lived experience; I am humbled and in awe. One World Connected.