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

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