Musings from the 49th Annual American Association of Suicidology Conference

By Susan Millender, GPS Executive Director


I am attending the American Association of Suicidology Conference this week, along with more than 1,000 loss survivors, researchers, mental health therapist, substance abuse treatment providers and other professionals in the field of suicide prevention. After suicide hit close to home in our own King County youth and family peer support network twice in the past two years, I felt it important to gain more information and talk with others about the prevention work going on in their communities. More than a few King County teachers and school administrators have shared their concerns about the mental health crisis of students they support and about the families who have lost sons and daughters to self-harm in their districts with us at the outreach events we’ve participated in during the last four years. Both the 2012 and 2014 Healthy Youth Survey point to increases in depression, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among King County youth ages 12 to 18.

What I’ve learned this week is that we are certainly not alone in our local area, when it comes to suicide. Suicide remains the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Most people who are suicidal do not receive treatment. Suicide is surrounding by silencing stigmatization and shame, a fact that is all too clear from the differences in recent newspaper headlines: Robin Williams Commits Suicide; Alan Rickman Loses His Battle With Cancer. Suicide is responsible for claiming 41,149 lives in 2013. The death rate in our country is the highest in 25 years, according to Dr. Marsha M. Linehan, University of Washington’s director of Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics (BRTC).

Dr. Linehan’s presentation entitled ‘Real Change Is Possible’ has surely been one of the highlights of this conference for me. She’s nothing if not a strong champion for change and a great holder of hope for recovery. Dr. Linehan believes it’s necessary to “cast a wider net to prevent suicide’.   Within that belief and based on the research she has done proving the effectiveness of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) in treating suicidal behavior is Dr. Linehan’s  conviction that “ you do not have to be a therapist to teach DBT skills.”  She asserts that DBT is better compared to expert therapy in reducing suicidal behavior and that “you can’t rely on therapists to do everything”, therefore she advocates for starting to teach people who are not therapist, particularly parents, DBT.  Her goal is not keeping a person from taking their own lives but, teaching a person how to build a life that she/he experiences as worth living and that she/he wants to live!

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Linehan and other innovators who’ve shared much during the week. Today we must build the suicide prevention of tomorrow. I am excited to share more creative and empowering ideas with all of my colleagues upon my return to King County!