Tuesday, March 25, 2014

“Lighting the Way Forward”: The National Summit on Lived Experience in Suicide Prevention

By Eduardo Vega and John Draper, Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force co-leads, and David Covington, Zero Suicide Advisory Group co-lead, National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention

On March 5-6, a landmark meeting occurred between two groups of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (Action Alliance). Members of the Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force (SAS TF) met with leaders of the Zero Suicide Advisory Group (ZSAG) to discuss, in detail, how the values, insight, and expertise of people with lived experience of suicide can create better supports and services to reduce suicide for those in clinical care. Held in San Francisco through the support of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline), the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Summit on Lived Experience in Suicide Prevention may be the first time in history that a major national care initiative such as Zero Suicide has engaged with people ‘who have been there’ to strategize directions for fostering healthier communities and preventing suicide death.

The Summit involved leadership from the Action Alliance’s Executive Committee and Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force, including John Draper and Eduardo Vega, and the Zero Suicide Advisory Group, including David Covington, CEO & President of Crisis Access, LLC, and Becky Stoll, Vice President for Crisis and Disaster Management, Centerstone of America. Members of the SAS TF from around the nation participated actively throughout the Summit. Reflecting the Summit’s significance and importance, Richard McKeon, SAMHSA’s Suicide Prevention Branch Chief, Jerry Reed, Director of SPRC, and Sally Spencer-Thomas, AAS board member and director of the innovative Carson J. Spencer Foundation, were also active participants.

The meeting of these two groups was one of intense dialogue and progress, and a true spirit of mutual interest was fostered through discussion of each other’s work.  As Vega, co-lead for the SAS TF pointed out, “Today we are a team. We are finding ways to support each other’s efforts and bringing our energies and values into alignment. In doing so, we are radically changing thinking about suicide prevention, setting the stage for innovation that brings the expertise of attempt survivors into focus with that of our healthcare providers.”

A major focus of the meeting was a pivotal technical document “The Way Forward”, soon to be released by the SAS TF, which lays out recommendations for policies, practices, and programs to support people experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings and for the engagement of people with this ‘lived expertise’ in services and systems change. This document, in development for over two years by SAS TF members, builds on the 2012 National Strategy on Suicide Prevention and provides a core values framework that advances the conversation.  Bringing its recommendations into focus with the priorities of Zero Suicide is a bold concrete step for change in the way services and providers think about prevention of suicide. As Covington, co-lead of the ZSAG, remarked, “Wherever Zero Suicide is developed, we need lived expertise to be ‘baked in, not bolted on’ to the project.”

Draper, director of the Lifeline, who brings his leadership to both the SAS TF and ZSAG, outlined the value of the collaboration directly: "'Zero Suicide' is a goal that we can aspire to only if clinicians and persons who have a history of suicidal thoughts or actions collaborate in ways that enable choice, trust, and shared responsibility. This meeting was a perfect model for the kind of collaboration that will build connectedness, hope, and meaning for persons seeking help for suicidal thoughts in clinical systems of care."

In addition to strategic directions for collaboration and support, summit attendees discussed crucial issues related to the field of suicide prevention, including: risk, community intervention practices, stigma and prejudice, and other historical challenges to progress. For example, although mental health service providers have developed extensive dialogue with their service ‘consumers’ over many years, and lived expertise in the area has resulted in many new and transformed programs, the suicide prevention community has historically had very limited dialogue with people with lived experience of suicidality. This history of disengagement was broached openly.

In the words of Leah Harris, communications director for the National Empowerment Center, who is also on both the SAS TF and ZSAG: “After my suicide attempts, I experienced re-traumatizing treatments from systems that were supposed to help me. For years, I also felt the attempt survivor’s voice was not valued in suicide prevention. But that is changing. Today, we built trust, and a lot of healing took place."