3 Ways to Integrate New and Needed Voices into Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Promotion

Reach Hearts Maya.png

Let’s Face It, We Often Operate in a Bubble.

Sometimes I think we aren't making enough progress in suicide prevention and mental health promotion because we spend too much time talking to ourselves. Don’t get me wrong — I love spending time with this tribe. We are a scrappy, passionate, and mighty group of brilliant thought leaders, compassionate clinicians and fierce advocates. But compared to other causes, our tribe is small.

We Push Others Away.

When new groups finally show up interested in supporting our cause, we often shame them because they are not using our preferred language or safe messaging. Our clinical words and research terminology can often create unnecessary barriers to communication and connection. We fight with other groups over scare funding resources and get resentful when they “win” and we “lose.” At our conferences, in our media outreach and through our trainings, we tend to continue to only engage the “usual suspects.”

And then we lament that no one is paying any attention to our cause.

If we are truly going to have success in turning our passion for recovery and healing into a celebrated national movement, we cannot expect others who are outside our daily circles come to us. To them our worlds are often daunting and confusing, filled with jargon, mysterious treatments and horrific public narratives. 

How Can We Be More Inclusive?

We must intentionally get out of our comfort zones and reach out to other causes, champions, and communities — because together we are better. 

My three recommendations to help make our cause be more effective:

Seek First to Understand.

Spend time listening to the new and needed voices outside of the "usual suspects" of suicide prevention and mental health promotion. New conversations can include industry groups, faith communities, or racially/ethnically diverse communities. When we have earned their trust through our humility and open-minded approach, we can create a safe space for dialogue through group of one-on-one listening sessions. By connecting around compassion and a shared vision of fully engaged living, we can find new ways to collaborate.

Find Champions.

Engage influential leaders and champions in non-mental health systems who have a passion and a powerful story to tell. Whenever I work with a new system or culture, I am on a hunt for a trustworthy spokesperson. Often this person has “vicarious credibility” throughout the whole organization, regardless of title. I am also looking for an admired leader at the top levels of the system who can boldly proclaim, “We are making suicide prevention and mental health promotion priorities here, and this is why this cause matters to me.”

Balance evidence with cultural responsiveness.

The research we have to guide our intervention decisions is incredibly valuable and should be our first step as we are crafting collaborative strategies with new partners. Fidelity to these models matter, and so do the people they will be impacting. Thus, our second step is to take time to balance these evidence-based practices with culturally responsive values, language, and rituals. If we don’t, chances are good that at best our interventions will not be “sticky,” and at worst, they might cause unintended consequences that could have been avoided with a culturally responsive adjustments.

Whenever I am asked to work with partners that are new to conversations about mental health and suicide, I am filled with a sense of adventure. I expect the first part of the dialogue to be something like, “Oh! You will never get our [FILL IN THE BLANK — lawyers, construction workers, firefighters, cops, etc. etc.] to talk about mental health or suicide.”

Experience has shown me that everyone has a story to share. When people are treated with dignity and given a safe space to make meaning out of what they have been through — especially, when sharing means they can help others — they show up and they share. Their insights and recommendations make whatever “best practice” we are recommending shift from good to great. 

The best part of all? The efforts become by them, about them and for them. Their ownership of the strategy is the key element of the success.

Sally Spencer-Thomas