Reflections on Suicide Prevention Month

Suicide Prevention Month—September—is invariably a busy time for those of us who work tirelessly on behalf of suicide prevention. This year’s Suicide Prevention Month was a particularly busy one for me. I found myself presenting virtually via online webinars around the world—from Tehran to Mexico City, on to the United Kingdom, Rome, and a stop in Bielefeld. After many months of limited travel due to the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic, I took my first business trip in over a year and a half to New York City for a Strategic Planning Committee meeting of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Upon my return home, I took another virtual trip to do a featured presentation at a conference in Mississippi and to later speak on a panel on clinical suicidology. I finished out a busy Suicide Prevention Month by meeting on Zoom with my colleagues in Tianjin, China to plan a first-of-its-kind national conference in mainland China for suicide prevention (where I have the honor of serving as the Conference Co-Chair President). This meeting will be held in early November with a stellar lineup of international presenters and leading scholars in China. Even though I mostly stayed in my study at home in Bethesda, it was a whirlwind month of international activity.

An International Suicide Prevention Community

Over the month, each “visit” moved me in different ways. In Iran, I was a rare American presenter and they seemed thrilled to have me. I felt a deep connection with their concerns about college students who are suicidal, and I was able to share our research efforts within our NIMH-funded CAMPUS trial.

Mexico is launching the first major suicide prevention effort in the nation, which includes training a number of providers in CAMS. In turn, we at CAMS-care have worked hard to translate our training materials into Spanish, with CAMS-care consultant Dr. Keith Jennings providing our first-ever successful training in Spanish. In a kickoff event earlier in the month, I was asked to speak to a Mexican crowd of over 80 via Zoom. I was moved by many speakers from the government, academia, and the clinical community who expressed their excitement for this historic development in their country.

My presentation in the UK was part of a series with a colleague from Australia, and hundreds turned out from “across the pond” to hear the presentation from a stellar lineup of speakers. And my colleague, Professor Maurizio Pompili, once again invited me to present at a conference that he holds every year in Italy with luminaries from around the world.

In Germany, I was delighted to give a keynote address on the heels of the release of the 2nd edition of the Guilford Press book on CAMS, newly translated into German. We excitedly await the outcome of a German randomized controlled trial of CAMS on an inpatient unit with results coming out by the end of the year. I got up at 4 AM the next morning to do a workshop on CAMS at the German conference, which they seemed to appreciate.

Finally, the meeting about the conference in China was very exciting. In a matter of months, the team has put together a superb program of outstanding speakers, figured out the scheduling challenges of many time zones, and tackled formidable translational challenges. Having been to China twice, I find the translation aspects particularly difficult, but my colleagues in Tianjin are up to the task. Their motivation and energy for this first-ever national conference are palpable. Like Mexico, they see this effort as historic for their country and believe it is just the beginning of a major national focus on suicide prevention.

Meeting the Moment – Together at Home and Together Abroad

My trip to New York was both exciting and anxiety-provoking as I have mostly stayed at home during the pandemic. But, taking the train and seeing fellow travelers follow Covid-related precautions was reassuring, and it was amazing to finally be in the same room with good friends and colleagues who I had only seen online for the past year and a half. It was special to be together again; we considered the state of the field and how AFSP will respond to the challenges and opportunities the movement is facing. And, all of us agree—there has never been a time like now for mental health and suicide prevention. It feels like a watershed moment in suicide prevention, and we aim to advance the cause within our strategic planning work. My presentation at the University of Mississippi went well and I heard about the challenges of suicide prevention and mental health services in that part of the country.

Perhaps it is the pandemic, or maybe it is being on sabbatical, or maybe just the heady whirlwind of connecting with so many like-minded colleagues around the world, but I finished up Suicide Prevention Month feeling particularly reflective and appreciative of the field.

My takeaway? Despite all the current divisiveness, contentious polarization, antagonistic political battles, and international rivalries, there is a genuine desire to understand suicide-related suffering to better prevent the deaths of treasured loved ones, friends, family, and colleagues. No one is immune—no group, no religion, no culture, and no country is spared the universal heartbreak of suicide. It is a transcendent and universal issue.

Suicide prevention stirs a remarkably common bond that rises above borders. We choose to stand united in our desire to learn and decrease suicide-related suffering. With these reflections, I find myself valuing the deep and enduring sense of our common humanity. There is a remarkable connectedness within this common cause, no matter where we live or what we believe. And given the state of the world today, and all the suffering related to suicide, this common bond is a very good thing.