Speaking about the importance of storytelling in suicide prevention, Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomaspresident of United Suicide Survivors International, shared strategies for cultural change in her keynote address at the McHenry County Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Recovery Conference.
The September 9 annual conference at McHenry County College was hosted by the McHenry County Mental Health Board and the Suicide Prevention Task Force at MCC.
Spencer-Thomas explained that she lost her brother Carson to suicide in 2004, when she had worked in the mental health field for 16 years, nine of them as a clinical psychologist. Since the death of his brother, Spencer-Thomas has built his life and career on deepening the understanding of suicide to prevent it.
“The storytelling is powerful,” Spencer-Thomas said. “Sharing the story of a suicide can help the storyteller heal, the story can help the listener understand, and a good story can change culture. Giving mastery over the many voices of self enables empowerment. Powerful tales can sweep away old myths and become the favorite story. A good story can bring dignity in the face of fear.
For every person who dies by suicide, Spencer-Thomas said, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020, an estimated 12.2 million American adults have seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million have planned a suicide attempt, and 1.2 million have attempted suicide. There were 45,979 suicides in 2020. This tells us that the overwhelming majority of people who watch death will survive – and many actually thrive.
The suicidal intensity becomes a wake-up call alerting them to the fact that they need to make serious changes in their lives. Many people grow through their experience of suicide. They get sober, they have spiritual awakenings, they leave toxic situations, and so much more.
Change through storytelling, Spencer-Thomas said, requires addressing several key concerns. As we prepare to tell their story, she encouraged her audience to consider these questions: Am I ready to tell? How do I know if it helps me or hurts me? What are the consequences for others? What parts do I keep to myself? What is my motivation? What is changed by my story?
She advises storytellers against using shocking and upsetting details, pejorative language, glorifying or romanticizing suicide, and descriptive details about the means of death or attempted suicide or the location.
Survivors looking to share their story may benefit from connecting with the National Speakers Association or Toastmasters to help with story structure and message as well as public speaking tactics.
Spencer-Thomas has helped launch several large-scale efforts to close the mental health gap, including the award-winning Man Therapy campaign and is a lead author of the National Guidelines for Workplace Suicide Prevention.
In addition to Spencer-Thomas, breakout sessions were offered on a variety of topics, including diverse identities and mental well-being, running a grief support group, suicide and the LGBTQ+ community, support to the voices of young people and men’s mental health, the guarantee of resilience and the value of connections in substance Use disorder recovery.
McHenry County Board of Mental Health Executive Director Leonetta Rizzi detailed nationwide suicide statistics – it happens every 11 minutes and is the second leading cause of death among teens. In McHenry County, the annual average has been 26 suicide deaths per year since 2019. In 2022, there were 27 deaths through August. The prevalence of suicide deaths in McHenry County is among white males.
“Our McHenry County data on mental illness, suicide deaths and attempted suicides show that we have work to do in these areas and I encourage you to join us in these efforts because a life lost is a life lost. too much for this audience. health issue,” Rizzi said. “Suicide is preventable by emphasizing prevention, recovery and protective strategies for individuals, families and communities.”
On a local level, the McHenry County Suicide Prevention Task Force is hosting an event on International Survivors of Suicide Day, November 19, to provide an opportunity to share stories. The Suicide Survivor Support Group is available to those who are not ready to share their story publicly but need help with their loss. Never Walk Alone is a local suicide prevention fundraising event taking place at The Dole in Crystal Lake on September 24th. For more information, visit namimch.org/mchenry-county-suicide-prevention-task-force.
More information and resources for individuals and families can be found on the McHenry County Board of Mental Health website: www.MC708.org.
Contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you are experiencing mental health-related distress or are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support. Call or text 988, a confidential, free service available 24/7/365.
• Sue Dobbe-Leahy represents Dobbe Marketing in Crystal Lake.