Feb. 1, 2019 - Nearly 400 enthusiastic participants from local chapters of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, as well as staff from across the country, converged on Dallas, Texas from Friday, January 25 to Sunday, January 27, 2019 for the 14th Annual Chapter Leadership Conference. Centered on the theme “Community Connections to Save Lives,” the event was an inspiring look ahead at the bold steps our organization is taking to further AFSP’s mission to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide.
The conference kicked off with an emotional and entertaining video showing our chapters at work in their communities. I then had the great honor to welcome the crowd along with Christopher Epperson, Chair of AFSP’s Chapter Leadership Council, and Tom Wiesle, Chair of AFSP North Texas, our host chapter. Tom warmly welcomed the crowd to Dallas, urging all attendees to enjoy some sweet tea. A chapter roll call brought a rousing chorus of cheers from all attendees, excited to be together in person for our common cause.
National Board Chair Steve Siple and Chief Executive Officer Robert Gebbia then gave remarks focused on the past year’s accomplishments in bringing the topic of mental health and suicide prevention more broadly into the social consciousness, as well as taking a look ahead at our new and ambitious goals for the future. Steve highlighted three key words: purpose, relationships, and connection, urging participants to, “Reflect on your purpose, invest in your relationships, and make new connections.” Bob further emphasized the theme of connection, noting the importance of connecting those struggling to resources; that social connectedness helps save lives; and the value of connecting loss survivors and people with lived experience into a community that heals and grows together.
A healthy sense of competition and comradery then overtook the room as Nicole Dolan, Senior Director of the Out of the Darkness Walks, presented Walk Awards to the chapters with the highest performing walk seasons in 2018. The crowd cheered each other on as the awards were announced, and Nicole shared practical tips for making 2019 the best walk season to date.
Suicide prevention starts from the personal experiences of those who have been affected. For this reason, the craft of storytelling was woven into this year’s CLC, first by representatives from the PR firm Allison & Partners, who during their “Power of Storytelling” session, shared practical strategies for driving home our messages through stories that are memorable, relatable, and sharable.
Storytelling was then seen in action during “This is My Brave — Storytelling Saves Lives,” which featured powerful, personal accounts of lived experience presented by storytellers Becky LeBlanc, Jason Wright, Joe LeBlanc, Haley Lynch, and Lauren Kenney. Emotional and captivating, their dramatic recounting of how suicide and mental health struggles have impacted their lives was riveting to watch, as well as serving as a reminder that hope and strength can flourish unexpectedly from darkness.
A variety of breakout sessions were then available for attendees to choose from, including a Media Preparedness Workshop, an overview of the latest developments related to Project 2025, a resources and programs update for Lived Experience, and more.
Saturday began with an inspiring and informative plenary session delivered by AFSP’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Christine Moutier, entitled “On Healing and Forgiveness.” Christine offered perspective on where we’ve been as an organization and where we’re going, making note of the growing sea change in the public general thinking of suicide, and how our work has laid the foundation to save lives through our continued collective efforts. She provided a thorough update of AFSP’s programs and efforts, including Talk Saves Lives™, ISP, research, firearms, workplace engagement, the Survivor Outreach Program, and more. She then framed our collective efforts through a discussion of healing, forgiveness, and connection, urging us to “walk the talk” and practice self-care as we work together in support of our mission.
The crowd was then galvanized by Vice President of Research, Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, who provided an energetic and understandable overview of AFSP’s research program, including what we have learned in the field of suicide and how we can best utilize that knowledge in continuing to improve prevention efforts. “Research is at the core of what we do,” she summed up. “We want our work and our programs to be evidence-informed. We are on a pathway to save lives, and part of the way we move forward is through our research.”
A session titled “Suicide Prevention on the Federal and State Public Policy Front,” presented by Nancy Farrell, Chair of AFSP’s Public Policy Committee; John Draper, Ph.D., Director, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; State Representative Steve Eliason of Utah; and Taryn Hiatt, AFSP Utah/Nevada Area Director highlighted AFSP’s advocacy efforts this past year, including the successful passage of H.R. 2345 & S. 1015, known as the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act. This exciting legislation included the evaluation of designating a three-digit dialing code similar to 9-1-1 for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system, enabling easier and more immediate access to help when people most need it.
Additional breakout sessions followed the Chapter Awards Luncheon, focused on topics including AFSP’s partnership with SafeSide to train primary care providers in suicide prevention, and best practices for engaging school communities for a successful Campus Walk season.
The moment everyone was waiting for, however, was the annual Chapter Awards Banquet, which provided a chance to recognize some of the outstanding efforts by specific chapters while shining a spotlight on the amazing work being done in communities all across the country.
Of special note this year was a segment honoring the incredible work of Mary Jean Coleman, former Senior Director of AFSP’s Southern Division, who retired December 31 after many years of service to AFSP. Her dedication to our organization, as well as to the suicide prevention movement, is an inspiring testament to how one person can channel personal loss into work that saves lives, and influences and inspires a new generation in the process.
The banquet then culminated in the Chapter of the Year award being presented to South Carolina, for its overall efforts in supporting our cause. The most exciting part of the banquet for me is seeing chapters cheer for each other as well as celebrating their own success.
A sense of commitment and dedication characterized the feeling in the room as Michael Rosanoff, Senior Director of Project 2025, and CEO Robert Gebbia discussed Project 2025 discussed how we are moving forward in our bold goal of reducing the national suicide rate 20 percent by the year 2025. In addition to presenting the brand new Project 2025 website, they discussed promising partnerships with organizations such as Aetna and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and how in partnering with these organizations, we can address these crucial target areas that will save the most lives in the shortest amount of time.
This year’s CLC was energized by the passionate enthusiasm of its participants. We thank all our dedicated volunteers and staff for attending an unforgettable Chapter Leadership Conference this year in Dallas; for their dedication and determination; and for the progress we’ve made in the fight to #StopSuicide. It is my great honor to come to work every day to work with such amazing people.
To learn more about the conference, be sure to check out #AFSP19 across social media.