I just came back from Phoenix, where I spent the past several days at the American Association of Suicidology's (AAS) annual conference. For those of you not familiar, suicidology is the study of suicide. AAS is an interdisciplinary and multilevel organization dedicated to promoting the understanding and prevention of suicide, as well as supporting those affected by it. I'm pretty heavily involved in this organization, and really focused on finding a place at their table for those of us with lived experiences of suicidal thoughts and actions.
In 2015, I won the Paul G. Quinnett Lived Experience Writing Contest. This year, I won the Transforming Lived Experience Award. They're the first lived experience awards ever given out by AAS, and I was the first person to receive both. I'm so proud of these accomplishments, but I don't mention it to brag; I bring it up because this is proof that progress is happening within the field of suicidology.
Folks with lived expertise are finally being heard—not only by each other, but also by other people who really need to hear them—clinicians and researchers. Clinicians work the front lines and have a deep impact on mental healthcare, while researchers ask questions and test hypotheses to build our knowledge base. These communities inform one another, and outcomes are applied in clinical settings, for better or for worse. Somehow, even though those of us with lived experience have first-person, intimate knowledge of suicidal crises, we have historically been left out of this conversation, and that's got to stop.
When I first attended the AAS conference in 2014, the organization had finally established a division for us. This was a huge step forward. AAS led the way for other national suicide prevention organizations to include the voices of lived experience in their work. It was even in The New York Times! That year, I was on an amazing panel with Sam Nadler, Craig Miller, and Misha Kessler that people called "groundbreaking" and "historic," but it happened in one of many breakout sessions in the afternoon. People had to make the choice to pay attention to us.
In 2015, with the advent of the Quinnett Award, lived experience was given a voice on the plenary stage. There were no competing events: if you were participating in the conference at that moment, you got to hear what I had to say—and I had a lot to say. I was damn angry that year, as the incoming President, Dr. David Miller, discounted the importance of lived experience in front of a thousand conference attendees. I was the only winner of the Quinnett Award who was present that year.
At the 2016 conference in Chicago, two of the three Quinnett Award winners, Ashley Loftin and Zachary Kluckman, were in attendance. Again, there was no competition. Their voices were heard. This year in Phoenix, Quinnett Award winners Jess Stohlmann-Rainey and Tracey Medeiros had their moments in the spotlight.
And, for the first time, the Transforming Lived Experience Award was given, and I shared my thoughts on the history of suicidology and the importance of our narratives to the success of the field:
Did you know that Ed Shneidman started this whole suicidology thing by looking at suicide notes? And what are suicide notes, if not direct communications from the people most directly affected by suicide? The voices of people lost to suicide, often in their last, distressed moments. But their voices, nonetheless.
Those voices were the first brick in the foundation of suicidology, but we built and built, brick by brick, for 50 years, and somehow we lost sight of that. We decided that first brick must have been unstable, or structurally unsound, and we built and we built. We buried it, and we tried to forget.
We willfully built a narrative of silence, oppression, and discrimination. There are people here, in the very field dedicated to saving the lives of suicidal people, who think that those of us with lived experience—and those we’ve lost—could never and can never be “normal.” What is that about? Why is it that—again—because it bears repeating, in the field dedicated to preventing suicide, we’ve spent so much time quashing the voices of those who have lived through suicidal despair? How is it that we’ve been discriminating against the people we claim to want to help?
We all know damn well, too, that there are many, many more people with lived experience in this room than are able to actually stand up and say so. This isn’t a hunch. I know it because I see you, and I’ve heard you. It’s in the meaningful eye contact. It’s in the extra tight hugs. It’s in the private conversations that start with, “I could never truly be open about this because of what it might mean for my career…”
Origin stories are important. History is important, and it circles back. It repeats, whether we want it to or not. So here we are again, 50 years into suicidology, and the voices of those of us with lived experience demand to be heard. Not quite like in the beginning. Not from ephemera—not from notes. But right here, right now, living and breathing and hearts beating.
It’s time for us to get over ourselves and our egos and our fears. It’s time to listen. It’s time to truly include lived experience, and to truly value lived experience, and to make it easier for us to participate—and to make that a priority. Because we all, every one of us, have a singular lofty goal: to save lives. And lived experience is the single most important thing we’ve got to go on.
Look at me. I’m right here. I can tell you what I’ve been through and what made me want to die and want made me want to live. I can tell you how I continue to struggle and how I continue to survive. I can tell you how I thrive.
What I can’t really tell you is how important this award is to me—it’s an entire world—but I can tell you that I shouldn’t be the first to receive it. DeQuincey Lezine, Kay Jamison, Terry Wise, Heidi Bryan, Eduardo Vega, CW Tillman, Jim Clemons, Ken Tullis. They’re the ones who started this. They’re the ones who got out their shovels and started digging. And digging. And digging. Looking for that foundation. Because without that first brick, none of us would be here in this room, doing the work we do today, and that’s worth honoring.
I want to thank them for doing the hard work that paved the way for my own work. I want to thank my mentors and friends, April Foreman, Julie Cerel, Jonathan Singer, and the whole #SPSM crew. But more importantly—MOST importantly—I want to thank the 180 suicide attempt survivors who have been a part of Live Through This, and the many more to come, because they’re changing the landscape of how we understand suicide, and that’s changing the world.
That makes four unique opportunities every year for suicide attempt survivors and folks with lived experience to have their say at a professional conference with the people who are there to help us live and thrive and survive. We get to sit at the table as equals. There's a long way to go, but it's a damn good start.
If you're hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can't feel it—and you are worth your life. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you don't want to talk on the phone, you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. And if you want to take action, consider donating your social media data for suicide prevention research at ourdatahelps.org.