Loss, Identity, and Advocacy

Corbin J. Standley is a board member and secretary for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Michigan chapter. He is also a Ph.D. student in ecological community psychology, researching the socioecological risk and protective factors for suicide.

Nov. 2, 2018- Eight years ago, my life was changed forever.

On June 30, 2010, I lost my older brother, David, to suicide. He was 21-years-old, and had a tremendous influence on me. The anniversary of his passing has caused me to reflect on the last year of my life, and to think about my chosen profession, my personal identity, and how advocacy has helped to inform both.

David struggled with mental health conditions for much of his young life. For that reason, I knew early on that I wanted to study psychology. After pursuing my undergraduate degree in psychology, I am currently a member of the Ph.D. program in ecological-community psychology at Michigan State University.

Undoubtedly, this path was laid out for me as a result of my loss.

Those of us in research—as in many other fields—are often discouraged from disclosing certain aspects of our personal lives, including our losses. Our work is meant to come first. This can be conflicting for psychologists, as so many of the issues we research and seek to resolve are emotionally charged. After all, we wouldn’t be doing this work if we weren’t passionate about it.

A professor and colleague of mine, Dr. Rebecca Campbell, discusses this in her book, Emotionally Involved. “By emotionally engaging our work, we can gain a closer and potentially insightful perspective.” In other words, our emotions and our experience can serve as an invaluable intellectual resource in the work that we do.

I was somewhat surprised to hear many personal stories at a recent American Association of Suicidology conference. Many presenters, including AFSP’s own vice president of programs, Dr. Doreen Marshall, spoke about their own connection to suicide. It was encouraging to hear so many stories similar to my own. It also forced me to confront some tension I’ve felt in my identity. Of course, much like my journey in healing from suicide loss, resolving these tensions is an ongoing process that may never be fully complete. The hope, however, is that in recognizing them, I can be more purposeful in my work moving forward.

My dual identity as a researcher and suicide loss survivor presents tension between my personal and professional identities, which becomes difficult to navigate at times, as these identities are often at odds with each other. For me, the lines between my personal and professional lives are often blurred, even between different aspects of my professional self, as both a suicide researcher and a budding community psychologist. My own research focuses on the socioecological risk and preventive factors for suicide, yet the fields of suicidology and community psychology don’t often intersect. I believe this comes at the expense of meaningful advances in suicide prevention.

Events such as AFSP’s Advocacy Forum reignite my passion for the work and illustrate its importance. The event, held annually, offers attendees an opportunity to share research and engage members of Congress in discussions on suicide prevention. My personal experience informs my research, which in turn informs my advocacy, hopefully generating new ideas and theories that can help advance suicide prevention in the right direction.

At the Advocacy Forum, I had the opportunity to use my story as both a researcher and a suicide loss survivor to advocate for suicide prevention and mental health legislation at the national level, on behalf of the AFSP Michigan Chapter. Together with over 250 fellow advocates, we arrived in Washington, D.C. for an incredible, empowering experience.

I was able to tell my story and advocate for change, and in doing so, get the full attention of our Congressional members. Shortly after my return to Lansing, I received a call from Representative Mike Bishop’s (R MI-08) office thanking me for meeting with his legislative aide, and informing me the Congressman was now co-sponsoring HR 2345: The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, which has now been passed.

On the last day of the AAS conference, Dr. Mike Anestis paraphrased Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eloquent words that, “The arc of science bends toward progress.” I wholeheartedly agree, but I would add that the arc bends because people bend it.

We have an obligation to use our voice to make a difference. Hopefully in continuing to support education, research, and advocacy, and in continuing to share our personal stories, we can continue to bend that arc.

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