5 Top Take-Aways from the International Association for Suicide Prevention World Congress in Kuching, Malaysia

Photo credit of flowers: Karolina Krysinska

Photo credit of flowers: Karolina Krysinska

Today from my dining room table, still recovering from jet lag, I am reflecting on the incredible past week I spent in Southeast Asia. The beauty of Singapore and Kuching, the kindness of the people, and the adventure of new food, new cultures and new experiences linger and bring joy to my heart; however, what I am most excited to share are my top 5 take-aways from the International Association for Suicide Prevention World Congress.

The conference took place in Kuching, Malaysia, with over 600 delegates from over 50 countries present. The theme was “Preventing Suicide: A Global Commitment from Communities to Continents." Here are the five themes I’d like to share with you:

1.     We need to honor people with lived experience with dignity. My most memorable highlight of the conference was our honoring ceremony. We changed the name from “remembrance” to “honoring” to reflect the many ways we are honoring people who have been affected by suicide: those we have lost, those who live with suicidal thoughts and behaviors, those who are left behind, and those who stand in solidarity and support. We honor the lives that were lived by the people who died by suicide, we honor the resilience of the people who are fighting for their lives, and we honor the compassion of those who stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

Our honoring ceremony was multicultural and hopeful. Opening with music and images of bodies of water from around the world, the 35 participants took their seats in quiet reflection. The program began with local woman from Befrienders Malaysia who shared her story of losing her grandfather to suicide. She did not learn that his death was a suicide until 10 years after his passing. Due to the taboo nature of the subject in her culture her family only told her he “was lost at sea.” She honors him by providing emotional support to others who are thinking about or grieving from suicide.

Jill Fisher facilitates honoring ritual

Jill Fisher facilitates honoring ritual

Jill Fisher from Australia then led the group through a ritual to build community. We each took turns writing a word of hope that helped us in our healing journey on a Malaysian tapestry. For many in the room, it was a first time they publicly acknowledged the loss of a loved one to suicide. Following this ritual, Jill facilitated a discussion and many of our participants from Southeast Asia were unable to say the word suicide but expressed their gratitude for the gathering.

Bronwen Edwards reads poem

Bronwen Edwards reads poem

I approached one woman who was crying to ask her how she was doing. She said, “It’s very sad, and I cannot talk about it.” After the ceremony, she gave me a hug and took her picture with me.

Next Bronwen Edwards, also of Australia, read this Emily Dickinson poem about a bird of hope singing in the soul:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
— Emily Dickinson

The event closed with a touching interpretive dance by Jamaican psychiatrist Loraine Barnaby. Loraine danced to Pie Jesu from the Requiem of Gabriel Faure to bestow hope that those who have passed have found peace and rest.

The goal of the ceremony was to acknowledge that while the World Congress is an academic conference, many of us have personal experiences with suicide that fuel the passion for our work. We came together to acknowledge the collective loss and despair we have lived through, so that we never lose sight of the reasons for our vocation.

2.     Our public messaging must be proactive, positive and action-oriented. On the second day of our World Congress, news broke that Chester Bennington, lead singer for the rock bands Stone Temple Pilots and Linkin Park, had died of suicide at the age of 41. We grieved with the fans and braced ourselves for the onslaught of irresponsible and unsafe messaging that inevitably follows such a tragedy (the two links here are responsible reporting examples). Chester died on the birthday of his friend and fellow rock idol Chris Cornell; Chris had died of suicide in May. Anniversaries and milestone dates can be strong precipitating events for people vulnerable to suicide.

 When the field of suicide prevention talks about public messaging, it’s almost always in the context of the type of messaging that has been shown to increase the risk of “copycat” suicides. “Safe messaging guidelines” give journalists coaching on how to report on suicide that is more likely to increase help-seeking and a better understanding of the complexity of suicide. The media exposure effect (Bart Andrew’s new term) is real, and we would argue only one small piece of our needed focus on public messaging.

At the World Congress, the consensus was this effort is critical but not sufficient. The suicide prevention community must shift our focus from the hopelessness in public messaging about suicide death to the hopeful messaging of healing, compassion and help-seeking. Together we need to reinforce a unified message that ignites positive action. This year for World Suicide Prevention Day and National Suicide Prevention Week, we will attempt to be proactive rather than reactive and pull together many public messaging campaigns into one message: Be There. This message is a call to action to people surrounding people in suicidal despair to show up, listen and express compassion. More to come next month!

2.     We must pull together as a global suicide prevention community. Dr. Shekhar Saxena, Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the World Health Organization (WHO) announced at the World Congress that a coordinated global strategy is needed to reach the sustainable development goal put forth by the WHO.

In order to achieve this community development effort, we need to dismantle the silos that exist between people with lived experience and researchers, between specialists in addiction recovery and suicide risk assessment and management, between faith communities and mental health providers, and many more.


One symbol of this unity is IASP’s Cycle Around the Globe event. The goal is to collectively ride almost 25,000 miles for suicide prevention and raise awareness of actions people can take to save lives.

I definitely felt a sense of community among my colleagues and friends at the World Congress. Whether it was through mugging for silly selfies, chatting over tea breaks or staying up late at the “Drunken Monkey” or “Culture Club” – this international family sustains my passion. I am profoundly grateful for this intelligent, driven, collaborative, supportive crew.


3.     Innovation will lead us to new solutions. At the World Congress we talked about new technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Apps and our need to continue to engage in research to examine their effectiveness. Collaborative partnerships with social media giants like Facebook are helping us move these efforts forward.

 We also talked about our need to innovate our thinking around risk assessment. Rather than think about a predictive-focused assessment (a fallacy) we need to use our clinical tools to be prevention-focused and to develop a formulation that guides treatment.



We also can innovate our lessons learned in suicide prevention to other forms of harm reduction like “homicide bombing” (renamed term from “suicide bombing” by Murad Kahn).

Finally, we can innovate our partnerships by bringing new and needed voices into the effort such as those in the rail, construction and firearms industries.


4.     Qualitative research with people who have lived through experiences with suicide is crucial.

Heidi Hjelmeland’s keynote address (live video here) and Ermenia Colucci’s special lecture both proclaimed the importance of context in understanding suicide and how best to prevent it. Screening tools and lists of risk factors are not meaningful unless they are taken into consideration within political, cultural and societal contexts. We must listen to the values and subjective experiences of people with lived experience to improve our understanding.

Click on image to see video of keynote

Click on image to see video of keynote

To that end, the International Association for Suicide Prevention closed the conference with the announcement that a new Special Interest Group (SIG) on Lived Experience was just approved by the Board of Directors. The work of this SIG will be cross-cutting through all other Special Interest Groups and will help shape policy, guide research questions and interpretations, and promote support networks internationally. If you are interested in becoming involved, contact IASP: https://www.iasp.info.


In closing, I am so humbled to have been a part of this incredible assembly. I am continually learning that wherever we are, we must periodically get out of the bubble of our local and national contexts to broaden our appreciation of what is possible in suicide prevention. All around the world, people are weaving different pieces of prevention, intervention and postvention, and when we stitch it all together, the tapestry is much more robust.

For a full Storify summary of all the live tweeting that occurred during the conference, click here.

Ritual tapestry from honoring ceremony

Ritual tapestry from honoring ceremony

NOTE: Feel free to use the graphic below in your own post. All I ask is that you link back to this article or my website: www.SallySpencerThomas.com Thank you!


Book me for your next speaking engagement! I bring the stories, science and strategy to the cause of suicide prevention. My multiple points of experience as a psychologist, mental health advocate and person with lived experience give me many perspectives and a pragmatic approach that both inspire audiences and move their feet to action.

Connect with Dr. Spencer-Thomas by visiting her website: www.SallySpencerThomas.com and following her on Facebook @DrSallySpeaks, Twitter @sspencerthomas and LinkedIn to learn more participate in her monthly podcasts, blogs and twitter chats!

About the Author:

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. Known nationally and internationally as an innovator in social change, Spencer-Thomas has helped start up multiple large-scale, gap filling efforts in mental health including the award-winning campaign Man Therapy and was a recent invited speaker at the White House. Her goal is to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority in our schools, workplaces and communities.