By Susan Millender, GPS Executive Director

 

I was fortunate to be able to attend this year’s AAS Conference in Chicago, IL, March 29th – April 2nd.  The association’s 49th Annual Conference theme was ‘Suicidology: A Place for Everyone’ and the program offerings delivered on that promise for me and more than a thousand others – students, loss survivors, researchers, clinicians, preventionists, attempt survivors and others in attendance.

Not only did the conference program provide myriad experiences and perspectives on suicide but it also challenged the traditional approach to suicide prevention. In his Presidential Address, David N. Miller, PhD., AAS president, advocated for promoting a public health approach to suicide prevention. Dr. Miller, Associate Professor, Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, University at Albany, State University of New York, said suicide prevention would benefit from casting a wider net through the public health approach – organized measures to prevent disease and promote health and prolong life among the population as a whole. There have been no national public health campaigns. Instead the focus has been placed on select interventions with people at risk and tertiary interventions with individuals exhibiting suicidal behaviors.  Dr. Miller likened our current approach to the story of the man walking a beach littered with star fish, picking up one at a time and throwing each one back into the ocean in an attempt to save them.

Dr. Miller pointed out that most people who are suicidal do not receive treatment. Suicide claimed the lives of 43,000 people in the United States last year.  While Dr. Miller agreed that ‘means matter’ and studies have proven that firearms restriction and bridge barriers can reduce deaths by self-inflicted violence, he decried failure to mount concerted efforts to reduce the number of deaths by suicide by launching a national public health campaign. A national public education campaign making use of social media and technological advancements could help with dispelling myths and de-stigmatization of suicide. Our attachment to shame and stigma only serves to deepen illness.

In a world where anyone can be brought to their knees by toxic stress, violence, trauma, job loss, we are all vulnerable to brain illness. Perhaps the greatest myth is that people want to die. Those who have lost their battle are people who have succumbed when all their strength was fully, completely gone.   More effective prevention efforts might be better focused on universal interventions aimed at all individuals in a given population – to cast a wider net and save more star fish.