“Where are you coming in from?”
Sooner or later, that’s the question everyone got asked when they met someone for the first time at the 50th Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology in Phoenix, Arizona.
I found my way to the 50th Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology, or AAS, from the veteran service space. More specifically, I heard about the AAS at a working group meeting for the Be Connected Program.
The Be Connected program is an Arizona-grown collaboration of public and private sector partners, in support of all service members, veterans & their families statewide. Some of those partners include the Arizona Coalition for Military Families, the Veterans Administration and the Arizona Department of Veterans Services.
To say the least, I was intrigued by the AAS. I downloaded the 65(!) page PDF of the Conference. One particular sentence stood out: “Volunteer opportunities at the 50th Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology in Phoenix, Arizona.”
Completely ignoring everything I had learned in the Army about volunteering, a week or so and a few emails later I found myself in downtown Phoenix at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Living in the Phoenix area, I was close enough to drive to the conference, and a few life lessons came in handy.
Amy Kulp, the Interim Executive Director of the AAS, and the rest of the organizational staff provided a warm welcome. In between the volunteer assignments, there was plenty of time to listen. People described what organization they worked or volunteered for; students described the course of their studies and where they hoped those studies would take them to work when completed. And sooner or later, the topic got around to where you had come in from in order to attend the event:
Because at the 50th Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology; everyone knew why you were there.
I set an alarm on my phone so I didn’t miss the AAS Board Meeting & Greet, where people who were at the AAS Conference for the first time could meet the Board of Directors of the organization.
Dr. Julie Cerel, the incoming President of the Board, welcomed all the new people to the conference. She introduced other Board members such as Dr. Bill Schmitz, the Past-President of the AAS Board, and Amelia Lehto, the Crisis Centers Division Chair.
Dr. John Draper, the Prevention Division Chair, also welcomed us. He said that for him, coming to the AAS Conference was not only an opportunity to learn and network, it was kind of like coming home to an extended family, and he hoped that we might be able to think of the AAS in the same way.
Dr. DeQuincy Lezine was there to offer his perspective as the Chair of the Attempt Survivors/Lived Experience Division of the AAS. Amelia Lehto contributed insight from her position as the Chair of the Crisis Center Division.
Anthony Wood, Chair of the AAS Board of Directors and the founder of #SPSM, Spsmchat.com was there to lend insight from his research on the intersection of social media and mental health.
Social media was a big deal at the conference. AAS has a social media division, and in true #Twitter fashion, the 50th Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology became shortened & hashtagged into #AAS17.
Speaking of the social in media, the irrepressible Dr. April Foreman, AKA @DocForeman, was also at the First Timer’s Meet & Greet to enlist recruits into the AAS Twitter army. I was sworn in as a Tweep on the spot. (Pro Tip: The chow was WAY better in the AAS17 Twitter army.) I met a Texas go-getter: The Unstoppable @LisaSul from @StopTXSuicides.
AAS17 seemed like such a small, oddly constructed word to contain the 1400+ people that attended the 50th Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology; or to be the lodestone for the over one million social media Impressions that AAS17 generated.
But, if there was a secondary MVP Award for words at the conference, AAS17 would probably grab that honor, right after the “S” word. A lot of people try to not use the “S” word in polite company; or, if used in polite company, the “S” word is generally spoken in the same hushed tones that used to be reserved for the “C” word.
You know the “C” word: C-a-n-c-e-r, another whispered one-letter consonant that refers to a condition responsible for ending a lot of people’s lives. But you know, the “C” word is a condition of the body; and if we as a society are going to spend enormous amounts of time and financial resources on the “C” word, then surely, the “S” word should also rate a little time and effort. In fact, there was a filmmaker at the conference that had created a movie with an eponymous title about the reason we were all there:
Several people, a great many, actually, have written books about those they have lost. These people are “Loss Survivors,” and if you have to ask the origin of that term, well, you may not be as familiar with the “S” word as is a loss survivor; whether in polite company or otherwise.
Social and other stigmas for loss survivors can be devastating. They also experience intense feelings along the lines of “What did I do so wrong that someone chose self-inflicted death over remaining in this life with me?”
Some people have written about their own attempts. These people are “Attempt Survivors.” They, too, experience extremely intense social stigma; isolation from the community, and even their own families is not uncommon. Here, at this gathering, loss & attempt survivors are drawn in by the community to find something they might not find somewhere else; unconditional care and understanding.
At AAS17, these survivors walked the halls of the Hyatt Regency hotel. For brief instances, their loss would reassert on some of their faces as plain as the words and pictures on the covers of their books; images of one moment, drawn again in Time for those who would not forget. Some people at AAS17 wore inspirational T-shirts and carry bags with slogans and other messaging on them. Some people decorated their clothing and conference attendance badges with stickers and pins of various kinds.
But these are not just baubles or trinkets: They are badges of the honored.
What is it about this choice a person makes to end their own life? Is it the irrevocable nature of self-inflicted death that makes the subject so difficult to approach, let alone deal with? In a world full of omnipresent reminders of our own mortality, the very concept of choosing to hasten the end of your own death may seem, regardless of the return address on the package, an insult to the gift of life.
Perhaps it is the irrevocable nature of the act itself that fixes it forever in the mind. When someone considers and follows through on ending their own life, the survivors may be unable to fully comprehend the depths of what it took for the lost to make that decision. And no amount of reasoned thought or informed conjecture can ever substitute for the few minutes we desperately crave with the lost to ask how else we failed them, what more we could have done:
Or just to ask them why.
The many reasons people will end their own lives is a complex issue. There are almost always multiple causes, including psychiatric illnesses, that may not have been recognized or treated. However, most of these illnesses are treatable.
But people also kill themselves because their emotional pain is so intense that they cannot see any other way out. When a person is in such intense pain, many of them will do anything to stop it.
And if you doubt the truth of that statement, my friend, let me share with you a little piece of country wisdom from Mary Chapin Carpenter: “The stars might lie; but the numbers never do.”
Those sobering numbers can be found at the Centers for Disease Control.
I had no expectations of the conference because those can often be the dressier version of assumptions; and I had learned a long time ago to not make that mistake. I didn’t pick up on many assumptions at the 50th Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology in Phoenix, Arizona, nor did I perceive a whole lot of expectations.
However, the atmosphere of the conference was one of anticipation, mixed with a profound sense of urgency, and I understood that sense of urgency very well. I had come to the conference in search of knowledge & wisdom I could take back to the fight against active military & veteran self-inflicted death.
Although I had come to AAS17 from the veteran space, I had known on an intellectual level that self-inflicted death is not just an active military and veteran issue. But throughout the course of the conference, as I met people and attended sessions, I came to a greater knowledge and depth of understanding of how the issue affected whole populations.
I watched in the morning plenary sessions as the incoming President of the AAS, Dr. Julie Cerel, who along with Dr. Bill Schmitz and many other presenters gave awards to deserving recipients that had made a difference in diverse aspects in the field of Suicidology.
There was Iris Bolton and her book, My Son, My Son: The title alone speaks more to the pain of those left behind than most people could say with all their words in the rest of their lives.
And there were TED-style talks when people like Dr. Robert Neimeyer, Dr. Bart Andrews, and Dr. Cheryl King took the stage. I watched years of doctor-patient confidentiality transform into audience-doctor anticipation that something very special was about to happen:
I was not wrong.
Dr. Bart Andrews looked out into the audience and dared everyone present to envision a time when the rate of self-inflicted death had fallen so much that most Suicidologists had been put out of work; and he challenged us to work toward being a part of that future.
Dr. Cheryl King asked us a poignant question in regards to teenage males killing themselves:
Why some and not others?
And Dr. Robert Neimeyer, who probably understands grief and loss as well or better than any human being on this planet, described it in beautifully constructed language: “Grief is a place where the world of meaning, once inhabited, now lies in shards at our feet.”
These dedicated clinicians drew upon their years of experience to not only outline the scope and depth of the issue; but to put a human voice on the tragedies taking place every day, and to share these insights:
It was time for those engaged in the field of Suicidology to focus not solely on the clinical and research aspects of their respective fields, but to place greater emphasis on those with lived experience.
It was time to begin thinking about the people they served not solely as patients with mental or behavioral health conditions; but instead, also, as people with lives that could be lived.
And on the fifth day of the conference, Dr. John Draper opened his TED-style talk with the defining sentence of the 50th Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology:
Dr. Draper went on to inspire by example, skillfully weaving that Nietzsche quote into a compelling narrative of converting research into reasons and metrics into meaning as he made this visionary argument:
It was time to stop asking only the question of what might make a person want to die; and time to start asking what might make a person want to live.
Before I went to the 50th Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology, I already knew that changing into a costume doesn’t make a person become anything more than they already were. But I came to believe that the right person, at the right time and in the right circumstance, can answer a phone call at a crisis center and become a superhero.
I learned many other things at the American Association of Suicidology conference. Some of these things I had first learned from caring professionals at a VA clinic and later, at a Vet Center; back when I first began my own journey back toward life from a dark and lonely place.
I learned once again that leadership is not a quality that comes only from the command of war fighters. I learned anew that courage has many faces, and that heroism is not something found only on the battlefield. I learned that there are many ways that a person can face death; their own, and that of others.
And at the 50th Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology, I came to believe that one of the most profoundly moral choices that someone can make is to dedicate their entire professional life to easing the mental and psychological suffering of human beings on the brink of suicide.
The word suicide was used one time in this essay.
That was done to reflect a human tendency to avoid the topic of suicide. It was done to illustrate the tendency to talk around the topic of suicide by using terms like “S” word, and to minimize or stigmatize the experiences of attempt and loss survivors. The other members of the American Association of Suicidology and I invite you to become a part of the community that is working, right now, to change that conversation. Because most, if not all of you, have either already dealt with or, at sometime in your life, may have to deal with suicide.
By supporting or joining the American Association of Suicidology, you can join both the conversation and contribute, right now, to action against suicide. And while the AAS does not provide direct services, if you are a suicide attempt or loss survivor, the AAS website has many resources for you to find the help you might need in your journey toward life.
Maybe we’ll meet at AAS18, and if we do, we can tell each other where we’re coming in from:
We’ll both know why we’re there.
If you are in crisis right now, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
If you are a veteran, you can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) AND PRESS 1:
TEXT to 838255
I appreciate you taking the time to read my story. If you liked it, you can hit me up on Twitter.