Training to Become a Volunteer Advocate for Suicide Prevention Felt Like a Gift
January 2, 2024 – 3 min read
By Terri Lavely
This Volunteer Spotlight Story originally appeared in AFSP’s 2022 Annual Report. To read other inspiring Volunteer Spotlight Stories, and learn more about our exciting work, click here.
In January of 2016, I lost my 18-year-old nephew to suicide. The loss was devastating.
I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility. How could I not have seen he was struggling? I am a mental health professional, primarily working with adults with developmental disabilities. I am also an attempt survivor, which at the time was my family’s best kept secret.
Most heartbreaking was watching my son’s grief process. The boys were only five months apart. They grew up together, best friends since birth. My son slipped into a depression and refused to talk about his loss. I had already lost my nephew, and was so fearful I might lose my son, as well.
I went into full caretaker mode, not fully dealing with my own feelings, more focused on what others needed. I felt good about being the person they could trust and lean on, but I was neglecting my own mental health needs.
That fall, my family attended an Out of the Darkness Walk in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was the first time I felt like I was surrounded by people who understood what I was going through. There were hugs, tears, smiles and laughter. It was okay to open up to these perfect strangers, because they knew and understood.
I connected with the Vermont chapter in 2018, when I attended an Advocacy 101 training.
Advocacy 101 teaches volunteers how to safely share their personal story to advocate for legislation at both the state and federal level. It empowers everyday people to have a voice, and encourage changes to systems that will positively impact people. The training was held on my birthday, and it felt like a gift to learn how to advocate and make a difference. We learned about the current legislative priorities for our state, and how to connect and follow up with our elected representatives. I left that training feeling like I could share with the President of the United States if I needed to, and feel no anxiety about it.
Since that time, I have assisted in delivering the Advocacy 101 training each year. I also meet with our local representatives 1:1 when we are working on getting bills passed.
When you share your story, you open the door for conversation. It surprised me how willing our lawmakers were to share their own personal experiences. One Representative I met with shared that she had lost her son to suicide. Trust and vulnerability are significant components of these conversations, on both sides.
I feel lucky to live in Vermont, where we all know each other. I take time to grab a cup of coffee with my Representatives, and email my story with bill briefings to stakeholders.
More recently, I had the pleasure of attending AFSP’s annual Advocacy Forum, where we ask for support on bills being passed on a federal level. The event is normally in person, where we all go together for meetings on Capitol Hill. Although virtual during the pandemic, the impact was significant. I was able to mentor two newer volunteer advocates. It was amazing to watch them share their story for the first time with three Senators' offices.
I was also part of a team this year that testified for both the House Appropriations and Senate Appropriations committees. One of the things we were advocating for was funding in Vermont for implementation of the new 988 number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, to ensure that crisis response resources are prepared for the expected increase in call volume. The bill we advocated for also included mental health support for older people and Veterans, a full-time Suicide Prevention Director for Vermont, and state-wide suicide prevention education. I am pleased to say that thanks in part to our efforts, Bill H.740 was passed!
Being an AFSP Volunteer Advocate has helped me process my own personal experiences, and be braver in standing up for my own needs, those of my family, our community, and all humans. We’re all in this together.