Skip to content

Are you in a crisis? Call or text 988 or text TALK to 741741

¿Estás en una crisis? Llama o envía un mensaje de texto al 988 o envía un mensaje de texto con AYUDA al 741741

Advocating for Hope: Supporting Suicide Prevention on Capitol Hill at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Annual Advocacy Forum

April 29, 2024 – 5 min read

By Donna Birkholz

The author Donna Birkholz, left, with Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, middle.

It’s April, which means I’m beginning to plan for my upcoming participation in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Advocacy Forum in Washington, D.C. Each June, Volunteer Advocates from AFSP chapters all over the country travel to D.C. to meet with our members of Congress and encourage their support for impactful policies related to suicide prevention and mental health. This year will be the 15th year AFSP is hosting this important event, and the Wyoming Chapter of AFSP has sent me to participate in the Forum every year since 2017. It is an honor and a privilege to be a voice for the people of my state, which is consistently among the states with the highest suicide rates in the nation.

The first person I knew who died by suicide was my friend Ted, a high school friend I considered a mentor and role model who, like me, was involved in “extemporaneous speaking,” competing in speeches about politics and current events. In the years since then, I have lost other friends and family members to suicide. However, I also have friends and family members who have struggled and even attempted suicide, but who have survived and gone on to lead happy, productive lives. I know there is hope, and I want more people to be able to tell stories of hope, rather than stories of loss. That’s why I initially became involved in AFSP, first by supporting the Out of the Darkness Walks as a donor, and then by participating in a local Community Walk, myself. I was then inspired enough to become an active AFSP volunteer, as a committee member for our local Walk.

I learned about the Advocacy Forum, an annual event taking place in Washington, D.C., in which AFSP Volunteer Advocates from across the country joined together for meetings on Capitol Hill to make a difference at the federal level. AFSP Public Policy staff guide Advocacy Forum attendees in understanding AFSP’s public policy priorities and being able to explain them to our legislators, as well as how to effectively share our personal stories and connections to the cause in a way that illustrates the need for their support. When we meet with our legislators during the Advocacy Forum, we have data to support our legislative requests. Our goal is to bring our experiences and voices together in one bipartisan message to legislators about the importance of suicide prevention and mental health.

The author Donna Birkholz, left, with Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, middle.
The author Donna Birkholz, left, with Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, middle.

The first Advocacy Forum I attended, I was nervous. I knew one other person in the room: a fellow Volunteer Advocate from Wyoming. Almost immediately, though, I realized I had found my “home” in AFSP. I looked around and saw a room filled with people like me. We were survivors of suicide loss, or people with lived experience, or mental health professionals. We were college students, at-home parents, business owners, first responders, and Veterans. We were straight, and LGBTQ+, and people of different ethnic backgrounds. Some of us were brand-new to advocacy; others were experienced. But we were all united in our commitment to being effective voices for suicide prevention legislation.

My friend Lisa describes the first Advocacy Forum as “like drinking from a firehose" because there was so much information! But as we studied and learned about the legislation we’d be supporting, I began to feel more comfortable. I realized that on this topic, my fellow advocates and I were the experts because we had personal experience related to this cause; and when we didn’t have an answer, we could rely on the Public Policy office to get that information to us (and then to the legislator or staffer with the question). We rehearsed our conversations and worked as a team to prepare. The evening prior to our legislative meetings, we were determined and ready.

The next morning, we walked to Capitol Hill as a group, encouraging each other and discussing the logistics of our upcoming meetings. During the meetings, all the information we’d learned about the legislation came easily as we discussed the importance of the legislation, and we could see the impact sharing our personal stories had; we made true connections with staffers and legislators, many of whom were connected to the cause themselves. I realized that in advocacy, I could use the interests and skills I’d developed all those years ago, with Ted, to help bring an end to suicide. At the end of the day, exhausted yet jubilant, we returned to the hotel with our fellow Advocates. We knew we were making a difference, building relationships, and literally “being the voice” to save lives and reduce suicides. I knew I’d be coming back.
During the years I’ve attended, Advocacy Forum participants have seen many wins including the establishment of the 988 dialing code for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, as well as securing millions of dollars in funding for research at the National Institute of Mental Health and funding for suicide prevention programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We have also advocated for mental health parity, suicide prevention for Veterans and Service members, increased suicide prevention in emergency departments, and substance use services, among many others.

As I anticipate this year’s Advocacy Forum, I look forward to seeing the familiar faces of returning Volunteer Advocates, and to meeting new ones. I look forward to watching nervous faces relax into determination and confidence. I look forward to all of us working together to learn the importance of the legislation we’ll be supporting, and exchanging ideas and advice for advocacy at the state level, as well.

If you’re interested in becoming a Volunteer Advocate, you can start small  and in fact, small actions make a big difference! It’s easy! Just sign up here. You’ll receive emails any time your voice can help with state or national legislative efforts. You can email your legislators in support of effective suicide prevention legislation. (Sometimes, I pick up the phone and call, too). You can then, if you wish, share the information on social media so your friends and family may also contact legislators about the bill. Signing up makes it easy. Volunteer Advocates can also help with their local State Capitol Day events, meeting with state legislators. It’s all a matter of how much you want to get involved.

I now feel I’ve come full circle through my advocacy with AFSP. I am applying my interest in politics and policy, as well as the public speaking skills I first learned with Ted at high school speech meets, to help support meaningful improvements in mental health and suicide prevention policies nationwide. I do it in memory of the people we’ve lost, like Ted, and for all those affected by this leading cause of death.

Together, we are true citizen advocates, helping our senators, representatives, and their staff members connect pieces of legislation to the people whose lives they impact. Our individual voices and our stories are more powerful than many of us imagine. Together, they are unstoppable.

Learn more about this year’s Advocacy Forum: 15 Years of Advocating to Save Lives.