From Awareness to Action: Kickstarting a Revolution in Suicide Prevention with Social Courage

It seems fitting that on this day — July 4th — I should write a little something about kickstarting a revolution.

June was overwhelming for many in my suicide prevention tribe — the scientists, advocates, clinicians, crisis call-takers, peer supporters, and many people with all forms of lived experience with suicide — as many of us were called upon to respond to the seemingness constant barrage of tragic news about suicide and trauma. During the past month I found myself traveling and speaking all over Colorado, California, Texas, DC, Florida and Louisiana — often times waking up in some hotel room not knowing where I was or what day it was, teetering on the brink of complete exhaustion.

Pounding the Drum of Death Data

More than just the sheer activity many of us engaged in during the month, we also found ourselves drained by the implications of the news.

We continue to brace for the impact of that month, a month where the celebrity suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain dominated headlines and a disheartening report from the CDC told us our suicide rates are climbing at a fairly significant clip. The world leaned back in to the conversation we’ve been having about suicide and suicide prevention — as the world tends to do when the news is so high profile. But here’s the rub…

We are mostly just pounding the drum of death data.

It’s like driving by a gruesome car crash on the highway. Everyone is passing by, craning their necks in a voyeuristic way, feeling upset in that moment, and feeling relieved it wasn’t them. Then when the traffic picks up again, and the crash is in the review mirror, most go back to their lives without another thought about what they just experienced. 

Now I am as guilty as just about all of my fellow suicide prevention advocates in pounding that death data drum. When we hear the tragic stories of suicide loss and the daunting statistics, we can feel a sense of urgency. 

“How horrible!” We exclaim. “Someone needs to do something about this!”

Then we just bow our heads and sigh. Because we don’t know what to do.

The urgency is not enough. Awareness is not enough.  It’s not enough to move hearts, we need to move feet. And I am convinced this is not going to happen by pounding the drum of death data. We need all of you to show your social courage and get in the ring with us.

Revolution of the Heart

Social Courage — Answering the Call to a Revolution

This morning as I was pondering this blog I took my morning walk with my dog Rocky around the little lake where we own a cabin, and through my headphones I listened to Krista Tippett interview America Ferrera and John Paul Lederach on the topic of social courage on her “On-Being” podcast. Lederach stated that social courage shows up in two ways:

  1. When we reach out to things that are not known and that may pose a threat to things you believe, and

  2. When we see our own community dehumanizing others and we speak out to that dehumanization.

Now he was talking about all types of social injustice here — but these ideas apply to the suicide prevention movement specifically. When we lean in to the conversation about suicide, we face our own fears about our own mortality and the lives of others we love. Suicide challenges some core notion that “good things happen to good people” that many of us walk around with. This core belief can sometimes lead us to dehumanize people who have died by suicide or who have lived through suicidal intensity. Confused by this cultural distancing, silence and shame follows, and we do nothing. The status quo is costing us the lives of our family members and friends. 

How about instead of being shrouded in the confusing darkness of death, we shift our light to the hopefulness of individual and collective resilience, advocacy and healing?

Social movements are fueled by “a few unbelievable people who refuse to let things be as they are” (Lederach) who then build an intimate and powerful web of change agents. 

What gave me hope during this last month were the countless members of my tribe that stood before the media and said, “There is another story to tell here” and amplified the voices of people who had been silenced. Together we must continue to lift up these voices.

  • The voices to the people who have lived through their suicidal crisis and can share insights into that level of despair and what is helping them stay.

  • The voices of the scientists who are discovering which interventions (medications, therapies, public health interventions) save lives.

  • The voices of the policy-makers who are helping us pass legislation that supports healing and prevents further harm for people experiencing their worst day.

  • The voices of the countless mental health providers and peer specialists who bear witness to this unspeakable pain and help share its load with compassion, collaboration and competent care.

  • The voices of suicide loss survivors who model the way through the unspeakable grief of suicide.

These are the unbelievably inspiring voices of my tribe. 

Let’s face it, no one gets rich and famous in the world of suicide prevention. Most of us are in this because of something else. Most of us have a story to tell.

America Ferrera reminds us “This is a storytelling moment.”

We need to shift the story, and we need all of you to be a part of it.

Calling All Global Warriors of Hope — Let’s Start a Revolution

How we spend our time and money reflects our values. Here is how you can move your feet and walk alongside my tribe of suicide prevention advocates to make the needed changes in our communities:

1) Get Revolution-Ready.

I’m not talking about reading up on risk factors and warning signs for suicide. I’m talking about immersing yourself fully in an authentic effort to unpack your own misperceptions and fears about suicide and to build skills that increase competence and confidence needed to enter into conversations about suicide. For communities you can start with any one of the following trainings: QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer), safeTALK, ASIST and Working Minds (suicide prevention for the workplace). 

If you are a mental health professional — don’t rest in complacency and over-confidence in the things you may have learned about suicide in graduate school. New evidence-based approaches are coming forward all the time (and much of what we were taught a decade ago is not useful). You are a critical line of defense in this battle — we need you to be fully prepared when we hand over our most vulnerable. 

Just like with CPR, all of us must regularly refresh our suicide alertness and intervention skills to keep them as sharp as possible.

2) Fight against the Upstream Causes of Suicidal Despair.

  • Battle the dehumanization that often comes with discrimination, prejudice, sexual assault, trauma, bullying, poverty and many other tragic human experiences that drive people to feel alone and unworthy.

  • Battle depression, anxiety, addiction and other mental health conditions that increase our hopelessness.

  • Battle the fear and misperceptions that prevent others from reaching out with compassion to those who suffer.

  • Battle the barriers that prevent people from reaching out and accepting the life saving care they have access to.

  • Battle the inhumane crisis response procedures like restraints, isolation and forced “treatment” that often feel more like trauma than help.

3) Bolster our defenses.

  • Connect: “The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness,” former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote in the Harvard Business Review. I believe the main way we will win the war against suicide is by strengthening our true social connections; places where we feel safe being vulnerable, where we can be our authentic selves, and where we can listen with empathy. How can we do a better job of this in our schools, workplaces, faith communities and other systems?

  • Donate: We have many evidence-based programs that build resilience and help people through tough times, the problem is many are woefully underfunded. We have scientists posing important questions and prevention advocates with innovative ideas, but little funding to carry out the research to see if we are on the right track. With a little investigation, you can determine how you (and your companies) want to vote with your philanthropic dollars: Nationally or locally? Research, treatment, prevention or grief support?

  • Volunteer: We need you. In our crisis centers. On our boards. Supporting our walks and events. Get involved.

Closing Prayer for Our Country and Communities: A Womb Not a Tomb

I have heard the stories of our despair: Our collective hopelessness and the personal darkness many of us fight alone at night. The only way through is for us to pull together, hold each other up, and find the collective strength to put one foot in front of the other. This is what we do when we are at our best, America. 

In closing, let’s consider that our individual and cultural darkness is a womb, not a tomb, and let’s breathe together and push.

Excerpt from Valerie Kaur’s Sikh Prayer for America, shared November 9, 2016

In our tears and agony, we hold our children close and confront the truth: The future is dark.

What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?…

What if all the mothers who came before us, who survived…are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: You are brave. What if this is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future?

Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.”

Now it is time to breathe. But soon it will be time to push; soon it will be time to fight…”