If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.
We can all easily understand that suicide is a mental health issue. However, if we only view suicide through the mental health lens, society will be very limited in its ability to change the issue. Because change is then reliant only on the mental health system and only on those who can access mental health care.
If we were to view suicide as, let’s say, a public health issue, many systems are now involved in creating change: schools, workplaces, health care systems, faith communities and more. Now everyone can play a role in suicide prevention. That is, if they care. Because if a person hasn’t been directly affected by suicide, they may be unaware of its impact and less inclined to help. I would argue, then, that this is where even this “all-hands-in” perspective falls short.
Suicide prevention needs a new approach—one that uses the strength of community to engage a wider circle. Consider, as an example, the LGBTQ movement. Many who haven’t been affected by the injustices the LGBTQ community face have been inspired by the energy and strength of the movement. They see the energy of the large parades and moving testimonies and want to be a part of it.
This is what we need to do for suicide prevention: make it a social justice issue.
Why is Suicide a Social Justice Issue?
We have a grave imbalance in the way we treat mental health conditions compared to physical conditions. People living with suicidal thoughts and feelings often have difficulty accessing care at all, let alone adequate care. There are too few effective treatment options available with expertise in suicide crisis response and grief support and those that are available are too costly for the average person.
Harmful, stigmatizing narratives get reinforced by the media and pop culture, leading people with suicidal thoughts to further isolate and feel hopeless. These are the injustices that lead to suicide being the 10th leading cause of death in this country.
People are genuinely afraid to reach out to get the help they need to survive. If that isn’t a social justice issue, I don’t know what is. 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.”
When it comes to suicide prevention, our “quick fix” in the U.S. is often to put people on involuntary holds in hospitals rather than focus on the “emotional impact of marginalization,” or, the experience of feeling hopeless because your community has told you that your suffering is your own fault. These are the societal factors to suicide that a 3-day hospitalization can’t fix.
Advocating for Systemic Change
When people become marginalized, they are often told that they and their experiences do not matter. Advocacy allows those who have been marginalized to publicly state: “This is who I am. This is how the dreams of mine and others like me have been systematically destroyed.” Advocates can also paint a vision by saying, “This is the change I see possible.”
The World Health Organization defines mental health advocacy as something that has been developed “to promote the human rights of persons with mental disorders and to reduce stigma and discrimination. It consists of various actions aimed at changing the major structural and attitudinal barriers to achieving positive mental health outcomes in populations.” We need to repurpose this definition for the cause of suicide prevention, because even within the mental health field, suicide is stigmatized. We need suicide prevention advocates who will:
Give a voice to those who have been silenced. Specifically, to our suicide attempt survivors and suicide loss survivors. By sharing stories of hope, we move hearts and create a roadmap to recovery. One project that does this well is the Live through This project. Founder Dese’Rae Stage takes portraits of suicide attempt survivors and records interviews with them about their journeys.
Mobilize bystanders and connect populations. There is great suicide prevention advocacy effort within the construction industry. Because their rate of suicide is so high, they are making suicide prevention a health and safety priority by getting organized through the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. We need to do this in more communities, in more high-risk populations.
Stand in solidarity. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention coordinates hundreds of “Out of the Darkness” walks across the nation. Thousands pull together and walk to remember loved ones lost to suicide.
Build momentum. This year, national partners in suicide prevention like the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the American Association of Suicidology and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are uniting around a single message for National Suicide Prevention Week: #BeThere. This coordination of a single call-to-action helps build support and momentum.
Act against injustice. Suicide prevention advocates can help shift discrimination and champion policies through legislative action. For example, we can testify before our legislators about the need for better suicide intervention training for mental health providers. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers tools to help.
Everyone can play a role in suicide prevention whether or not you’ve been directly impacted by suicide. Together, we can change the hearts and minds of influencers and decision-makers. We can engage media in positive stories of hope and recovery. We can rally around a brighter future.
When we pull together, the community we build is powerful. Making meaning out of our suffering shifts our narrative from “survivor” to “advocate.” So, keep going, for as long as the social justice work is calling you. We need you.
If you'd like to get more involved in becoming part of the army fighting against suicide, join United Suicide Survivors International and participate in our monthly webinars to become a suicide prevention change agent.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
or text “NAMI” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and an impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a difficult battle with bipolar condition. Her goal is to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority in our schools, workplaces and communities. Spencer-Thomas has also held leadership positions for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the International Association for Suicide Prevention, the American Association for Suicidology, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Connect with Dr. Spencer-Thomas by visiting her website: www.SallySpencerThomas.com.