In elementary school, an acquaintance died from an overdose of medication. Because of this person’s background, some people believed the death was from an intentional overdose. I was saddened and confused by her death. That was my first experience with death. I had seen her that week. We, as kids, were never told whether her overdose was unintentional or intentional. But hearing people suspect that the death was intentional gave me my first exposure to suicide, as well as to people “whispering” about suicide.
Suicide is heartbreaking and can be difficult to understand. Suicide outreach can be difficult due to the silence, secrecy and labeling associated with suicide and suicidal self-harm. Many families want to keep information to themselves when a family member expresses suicidal ideation, attempts suicide, or dies by suicide. There are cultures and communities in which suicide is not considered a real problem; or is not considered a problem to be shared with people outside the community. This is why suicide outreach needs to be culturally aware of varying perspectives including environments in which suicide, suicidal self-harm, and mental health conditions tend to be ignored and shamed.
The need for cultural awareness made me interested in research and community activism for suicide and suicidal self-harm. I am a sociologist and criminologist. Sociologists and criminologists have theorized about and studied suicide for centuries. I began reading more about suicide and suicidal self-harm while in graduate school at VCU in Richmond, VA (where I am from).
In 2004, while taking a qualitative research methods course for an NCSU doctorate, I did fieldwork with Jane Ann Miller (who is now Public Health Program Consultant with N.C. Division of Public Health, Injury and Violence Prevention in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services). I greatly appreciate Jane Ann Miller helping me to attend mental health and suicide presentations and panel discussions. I learned a great deal from the practitioners and researchers. However, I recall one practitioner saying suicide is the “most selfish thing.” I was quite shocked by this statement. That statement highlights different perspectives and also the need to be careful when speaking about suicide to avoid labeling and stigmatizing people who have thoughts of suicide, people who have attempted suicide, people who have died by suicide and survivors of suicide. This furthered my interest in suicide outreach and suicide research. My 2010 doctoral dissertation examined the relationship between measures of Black political attainment and Black socioeconomic status on counts of Black suicide and counts of white suicide.
When I moved to Winston-Salem, NC in the summer of 2010, I became a trainee in the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training at Wake Forest University. Being trained in ASIST gave me access to outreach and research on mental health and suicide. I became a walker, donation recipient, and volunteer for the Triad Out of the Darkness Walk. Years later I became part of the NC Suicide Prevention Plan Consulting and Working Group sponsored by Injury and Violence Prevention Branch and UNC Department of Health Behavior.
Soon thereafter I joined the Board of Directors for the NC chapter of AFSP. There is tremendous value in being part of this chapter. This has taught me a lot about suicide from the standpoints of outreach, prevention, volunteerism, research, and survivors of suicide. People are working to eliminate silence and shaming; and increase understanding and outreach at the local and national levels. We welcome everyone to get involved through volunteerism and activism. Thankfully, I was the Volunteer Coordinator for the 2014 Triad OOTD Walk and am the Volunteer Coordinator for the 2016 Triad OOTD Walk. I am also the faculty advisor for the Salem College OOTD Campus Walk—we have had two Campus Walks and look forward to our 2017 Campus Walk. I am grateful for these experiences. They provide opportunities for learning and community activism for suicide, suicidal self-harm, and mental health.
Suicide awareness and suicide outreach are important and I strongly support individuals and organizations that take part in these efforts. My work also emphasizes cultural variations in suicide, suicidal self-harm, and mental health—these are not objective topics that are void of variation. I do presentations (both in the community and for professional conferences) and write guest articles to address such variance. Examples of my writings include “The Larger Implications of the Death of Darryl Hunt” in Winston-Salem Journal and “Self-Harm and Suicide among Blacks: Redefining and Re-categorizing Behaviors” on criticalmassprogress.com.
I believe people should support suicide awareness and suicide outreach. And we need to reach different, diverse audiences. All humans are culturally diverse. We are all diverse in experiences and perspectives. We all have demographics (including but not limited to gender identity, sexual identity, age, physical health, mental health and race and ethnicity) that can impact our thoughts and behaviors. I am grateful for this diversity and grateful that AFSP reaches different, diverse audiences at the local and national levels.