As many state legislatures wind down and prepare to adjourn for 2021, this time of year provides us with an opportunity to look back on the successes of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s state advocacy efforts across the country and reflect on how far we’ve come. This year, for the first time ever, AFSP chapters across the country held 51 virtual State Capitol Day events -- one in every state and in Washington, D.C. Thousands of advocates across the country registered to participate in their state’s event and collectively supported 174 pieces of state legislation for suicide prevention and mental health with 40 of these bills becoming law, making 2021 our most successful year yet.
One AFSP Chapter that exemplifies this progress and success is Oregon. As a result of the dedication and perseverance of local field advocates, AFSP has become a lead voice in Oregon’s suicide prevention efforts statewide and played a large role in the enactment of several mental health and suicide prevention laws over the last three years. This includes a crucial law to require mental health providers to complete regular suicide risk assessment, treatment, and management training that finally passed in June after years of hard work and consistent advocacy efforts by the AFSP Oregon Chapter and our partner organizations.
The following blog, written by AFSP volunteer Angela Perry, provides a personal perspective on what it means – and how it feels – to be a suicide prevention advocate:
In 2018, I did not know what it meant to be a suicide prevention advocate. I didn’t think my voice or my story as someone with lived experience mattered. In the last three years, I have discovered just how powerful (and simple, and frustrating, and ultimately rewarding) it can be to be an advocate, fighting for legislation we know may save lives.
I got my first taste of suicide prevention advocacy when I attended the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s annual Advocacy Forum in 2018, and was instantly hooked. I was terrified initially of sharing my story – the good, the bad, and the ugly of being a survivor of suicide loss and someone who lives with chronic suicidal ideation. Why would anyone, let alone Members of Congress, care what I have to say when I struggled to see my own worth?
But that is just it: sharing my story empowered me, and gave a voice to all the others who have been in similar situations and life experiences. After we returned from that Advocacy Forum in Washington, D.C., I and the other volunteer advocate I attended with decided we NEEDED to bring a similar program back home to Oregon. In February 2019, AFSP’s Oregon Chapter hosted our first annual State Capitol Day. We were able to connect with nearly all our local representatives that first year, and made close connections with a handful of them.
Fast forward a year, and we were asked by the Oregon Alliance to Prevent Suicide if we would be interested in helping to push forward a piece of legislation that had been tried two years prior. Cue that old animated School House Rock song, I’m Just a Bill – literally. I Googled what it meant to help push forward a piece of legislation and that was the top search.
That legislation, House Bill 2315, related to continuing education for mental health professionals to receive specific training on suicide risk, assessment, treatment and management, was in my mind a no brainer. Why weren’t mental health professionals already required to have that training? The bill had failed to make it through the legislative process in previous sessions because of pushback for a wide range of trivial reasons.
After several phone calls between members of the Oregon Alliance, the AFSP National Public Policy Office, and Representative Andrea Salinas’ office, I was guided to help refine my personal story in order to testify (virtually...thank you Covid) for the bill in December of 2020. I had no idea of the process at first. You are speaking to a group of Representatives who have been voted in from across your state, and whomever else has an interest in watching the public hearing.
As with most things where I have to speak in front of – well, anyone – I was anxious, to say the least. As I shared my story that day, rather than look at the faces of people watching, I stared at a sticker on my computer. When I was done, I looked back at the faces of those watching on the Zoom screen – and saw that ALL of them were wiping their eyes. My words – my story – hit home, demonstrating exactly why this particular piece of legislation was indeed lifesaving.
There were other professionals who were able to rattle off statistics – facts and figures showing why the bill was so important. But my personal story put a real, human face to those numbers.
I am more than a statistic. My aunt Jean, who died by suicide, is more than a statistic. My friend Ryan, who died by suicide, is more than a statistic. My friends and family members who live with mental health challenges and who are the strongest people I know, are ALL more than statistics.
Sharing my story for four minutes and a handful of seconds helped the committee decide to sponsor the bill.
In February of this year, at our third State Capitol Day, we were therefore able to advocate for the passage of the bill through both the House and the Senate. The bill passed through the House with zero no votes in April, and passed the Senate with only a single no vote in May. It was signed into law by the Governor on June 1.
The law will take effect in September!
While I am still learning the legislative process, I want to share just one thing with you all. Your story matters and you can make a difference if you are simply willing to use your voice! AFSP’s National Public Policy Office is amazing at helping to simplify and educate you to be the best advocate possible, to make the biggest difference. There are State Capitol Days held all across the country through local AFSP chapters. Volunteering can be as simple as filling out a few boxes online through the AFSP Advocacy Action Center when things come up to vote or are heading to different committees.
The work of suicide prevention advocacy is happening year round. You do not have to wait for any particular date or time. If you want to become a volunteer advocate, like me, all you have to do is visit http://afsp.org/advocate to get started! It really is that simple. Together, we can help #StopSuicide.