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:
http://www.peoplepreventsuicide.org/ -- a clearinghouse of resources for college campuses
http://www.workingminds.org/ -- suicide prevention for the workplace
http://www.carsonjspencer.org/ -- 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.

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