by Noah Whitaker
Noah J. Whitaker is the coordinator of the Tulare & Kings Counties Suicide Prevention Task Force, and the Community Outreach Manager for the Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency. He writes a monthly column for KRL on mental health and suicide prevention.
Suicide is a complex behavior just as we all are complex individuals. A suicidal person can be a person at any point on our walk through life. There are greater risks and protective factors present, but suicide can occur among all races, ages, religious affiliations or philosophies (or lack thereof), economic statuses, ages, and professions. It is important to remember this complexity when thinking about approaching prevention efforts. Each person, organization, service club, and governmental agency brings unique perspectives and strengths. Due to this complexity, collaboration is invaluable. But how do you form a collaborative?
Efforts have to start somewhere. To assist you in thinking about approaching the effort, I’ll propose a simple model that begins with an individual or organization, and grows outward in three basic layers. This is not a comprehensive model, but rather a simplified illustration to help initiate activity.
The genesis of action can begin with a single person or organization wanting to make a difference. Often, this process begins with a person who has been touched by suicide. This person may have friends, family, or coworkers who are willing to support their advocacy. But, an individual motivated to create change cannot work in isolation. In order for their efforts to grow they must find and nurture partnerships. Outreach must take place to find these allies, and agreement must be established as to the goals and objectives of these efforts. I would argue that due to the complexity of suicide, the more diverse the partnerships, the stronger the efforts can become due to a variety of strategic advantages that each partner brings to the table.
“Suicide is a problem that touches the lives of many Americans. Many of us know a friend or a loved one who has attempted or died from suicide. Perhaps we have considered or attempted suicide ourselves. Some of us may have been affected as a result of a suicide in our community, school, workplace, or place of worship.”
– Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA, VADM, U.S. Public Health Service, United States Surgeon General
If we have agreement on that simple statement, then we can create an effort to help address the problem. That statement not only helps us to identify the problem, it also suggests who some of our potential partners could be. To think about prevention, it is helpful to look at the primary layers and associated entities that can be involved in responding to attempts, and those involved in completions. These are entities like the Coroner’s Office or Medical Examiner, funeral homes, insurance companies, lawyers, school personnel, mental and behavioral health service providers, licensed clinicians, faith-based organizations, crisis response teams, law enforcement, ambulances, and similar groups. These are typically the groups that have immediate contact with the situation. These are partners that can help with better information, more compassionate response, emerging practices and tools, are involved in postvention (responding in the aftermath of a suicide). One of the greatest strengths of this layer is access to those touched by suicide.
“Postvention is also prevention for the next generation.” – Dr. Edwin Shneidman
After looking at these primary layers, the secondary layers can be explored. This next layer can involve individuals that were touched by suicide. This can include the close friends, families, classmates, co-workers, clinicians, spiritual leaders, or anyone deeply touched by loss. These groups are commonly referred to as “survivors of suicide loss,” or “loss survivors.” Any of these people could have experienced a deep trauma, or respond in unexpected ways. This group can also include those who have thought about suicide, survived an attempt, or know someone who had an attempt. This layer has unique insights, motivations, and needs that help better refine and identify those who are at risk. One of the greatest assets of this second layer is the passion for advocacy.
Looking into the broader community we approach the third layer, which moves beyond those directly involved in or touched by suicide. Here we can think of the different organizations that a person might touch throughout a day such as their place of school, work, faith, civic activities, recreation, and engagement. These partnerships can be broad and vast reaching. They can include media outlets, service clubs, businesses and governmental entities, PTAs and school-based groups, and nearly any other partner you can imagine. Some of the most meaningful work our efforts have engaged in have been with groups like tattoo parlors and urban artists (sometimes referred to at graffiti artists). Each of these groups have an ability to not only bring their unique strengths, but they also touch the broader society in unique and sometimes pocketed ways. One of the greatest contributions from this group is their diversity of reach.
Examining those directly impacted by suicide as well as the three simple primary layers, the daunting task of identifying partners becomes a more approachable action. A simple letter of introduction stating the problem in the community, a desire to affect change, and an invitation to a place at the table can go a long way toward initiating cohesive efforts. Our local efforts took a “round table” approach, much like King Arthur, embracing the basic concept is that all segments of the community are touched by suicide and should have a voice in efforts to build hope. Each segment, such as faith-based organizations, law enforcement, survivors of suicide loss, etc. is allotted a voting position, and all have a say in decisions. There is a lead coordinating entity, but all members are equal.
Keep in mind that the diversity of a collaboration is the fuel of its strength, but can also be a potential barrier if the inherent weakness of a collaborative is not also addressed directly. The largest weakness is that different groups can have opposing goals that can impede participation in your collaborative. This opposition might come from groups like law enforcement and urban artists. If those groups agree to set aside their differences in the context of these efforts and focus on the common goal of saving lives, some amazing things can happen. If the groups are able to maintain their focus and find ways to work together, they can yield far stronger results than as separate groups.
Here is an example of law enforcement working with urban artists and students to make a unique impact in their community: vimeo.com/191563529
So, if you are the person or a member of an organization that wants to approach the topic of suicide and suicide prevention, what is stopping you from reaching out to build a collaborative in your community?
If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800) 273-8255.
If you would like to learn more about the SPTF, refer to the contact information below.
For Non-Crises Information Related to the SPTF:
Suicide Prevention Task Force
C/O Noah Whitaker
5957 S. Mooney Blvd.
Visalia, CA 93277
Coordinator’s Email: sptf@tularehhsa[dot]org
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.