Suicide Prevention as a Social Justice Issue

SEP. 11, 2017

By Sally Spencer-Thomas


We can all easily understand that suicide is a mental health issue. However, if we only view suicide through the mental health lens, society will be very limited in its ability to change the issue. Because change is then reliant only on the mental health system and only on those who can access mental health care.

If we were to view suicide as, let’s say, a public health issue, many systems are now involved in creating change: schools, workplaces, health care systems, faith communities and more. Now everyone can play a role in suicide prevention. That is, if they care. Because if a person hasn’t been directly affected by suicide, they may be unaware of its impact and less inclined to help. I would argue, then, that this is where even this “all-hands-in” perspective falls short.

Suicide prevention needs a new approach—one that uses the strength of community to engage a wider circle. Consider, as an example, the LGBTQ movement. Many who haven’t been affected by the injustices the LGBTQ community face have been inspired by the energy and strength of the movement. They see the energy of the large parades and moving testimonies and want to be a part of it.

This is what we need to do for suicide prevention: make it a social justice issue.

Why is Suicide a Social Justice Issue?

We have a grave imbalance in the way we treat mental health conditions compared to physical conditions. People living with suicidal thoughts and feelings often have difficulty accessing care at all, let alone adequate care. There are too few effective treatment options available with expertise in suicide crisis response and grief support and those that are available are too costly for the average person.

Harmful, stigmatizing narratives get reinforced by the media and pop culture, leading people with suicidal thoughts to further isolate and feel hopeless. These are the injustices that lead to suicide being the 10th leading cause of death in this country.

People are genuinely afraid to reach out to get the help they need to survive. If that isn’t a social justice issue, I don’t know what is. As my colleague, Dr. Doug Johnson once said to me, “We have a psycho-social injustice problem. We have Americanized mental illness by looking for quick fixes and ignoring the emotional impact of marginalization.”

When it comes to suicide prevention, our “quick fix” in the U.S. is often to put people on involuntary holds in hospitals rather than focus on the “emotional impact of marginalization,” or, the experience of feeling hopeless because your community has told you that your suffering is your own fault. These are the societal factors to suicide that a 3-day hospitalization can’t fix.

Advocating for Systemic Change

When people become marginalized, they are often told that they and their experiences do not matter. Advocacy allows those who have been marginalized to publicly state: “This is who I am. This is how the dreams of mine and others like me have been systematically destroyed.” Advocates can also paint a vision by saying, “This is the change I see possible.”

The World Health Organization defines mental health advocacy as something that has been developed “to promote the human rights of persons with mental disorders and to reduce stigma and discrimination. It consists of various actions aimed at changing the major structural and attitudinal barriers to achieving positive mental health outcomes in populations.” We need to repurpose this definition for the cause of suicide prevention, because even within the mental health field, suicide is stigmatized. We need suicide prevention advocates who will:

Give a voice to those who have been silenced. Specifically, to our suicide attempt survivors and suicide loss survivors. By sharing stories of hope, we move hearts and create a roadmap to recovery. One project that does this well is the Live through This project. Founder Dese’Rae Stage takes portraits of suicide attempt survivors and records interviews with them about their journeys.

Mobilize bystanders and connect populations. There is great suicide prevention advocacy effort within the construction industry. Because their rate of suicide is so high, they are making suicide prevention a health and safety priority by getting organized through the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. We need to do this in more communities, in more high-risk populations.

Stand in solidarity. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention coordinates hundreds of “Out of the Darkness” walks across the nation. Thousands pull together and walk to remember loved ones lost to suicide.

Build momentum. This year, national partners in suicide prevention like the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the American Association of Suicidology and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are uniting around a single message for National Suicide Prevention Week: #BeThere. This coordination of a single call-to-action helps build support and momentum.

Act against injustice. Suicide prevention advocates can help shift discrimination and champion policies through legislative action. For example, we can testify before our legislators about the need for better suicide intervention training for mental health providers. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers tools to help.

Everyone can play a role in suicide prevention whether or not you’ve been directly impacted by suicide. Together, we can change the hearts and minds of influencers and decision-makers. We can engage media in positive stories of hope and recovery. We can rally around a brighter future.

When we pull together, the community we build is powerful. Making meaning out of our suffering shifts our narrative from “survivor” to “advocate.” So, keep going, for as long as the social justice work is calling you. We need you.


If you'd like to get more involved in becoming part of the army fighting against suicide, join United Suicide Survivors International and participate in our monthly webinars to become a suicide prevention change agent.


If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
or text “NAMI” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.


Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and an impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a difficult battle with bipolar condition. Her goal is to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority in our schools, workplaces and communities. Spencer-Thomas has also held leadership positions for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the International Association for Suicide Prevention, the American Association for Suicidology, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Connect with Dr. Spencer-Thomas by visiting her website:


JAN, 08, 2018 01:58:29 PM
Dillan Thompson
On April 18 2018 a police officer had knocked on our door. I was nine years old barely understanding the concept of death, but i was told my mother, Audra Kay Rood had taken her own life. Ive blamed myself for years because of that. I still do to this day. Ive struggled with the same things she has and what inevitably took her life. People often say "you dont understand" or hear parents say "its just a phase, theyll grow up sooner or later" but is it really a phase? Are we just gonna stand here and wait for them to change? What if theyre wrong. What if they dont get over it? What if their parents wake up finding their young child hanging from the bathroom ceiling. Open up your eyes. Fix this. People are suffering too much because of this. Especially the survivors. All it does is pass the pain to someone else. They feel abandoned, guilty and lost to grief and plagued with the thoughts of "what could i have done differently?" Dont let it come to that. Talk to someone about it. One small action of even asking someone if theyre alright can change the whole outlook on their life. Help people with it, because most the times are not brave enough or cannot help ourselves.

SEP, 30, 2017 12:08:53 PM
Tony Salvatore
Suicide prevention has always been a social justice issue. Just consider the tens of thousands of adult white males who have died and who contuinue to die by suicide while the suicide prevention community pays little heed to the single largest segment of suicide victims in the US and many other countries. This population only attracts any interest if they are part of another high risk population, e.g., Veterans, Police Officers, Active Duty Military, SMI, Inmates, Gays, Substance Abusers, etc. Plain vanilla adult white male suicide victims (and their elder counterparts for that matter) get draw less interest despite their carnage than teenage females who are nonsuicidal self-injurers.

SEP, 12, 2017 07:24:25 PM
Interested in hearing more

SEP, 12, 2017 11:19:58 AM
Antonia Murguia
What a great article. Your idea of treating suicide as a public health issue like it really is, is exactly what needs to happen. Involving community will help take the stigma away. Your example of the LBGTQ movement is excellent.
I, as a matter of fact, am speaking about the Family's Devastation After Their Son's Suicide at Texas A&M San Antonio, this Thursday 9/14. My son took his life in 2011.
I am planning to look at your website later this week.

SEP, 11, 2017 02:31:00 PM
Lizanne Corbit
This is such a profoundly important read. As you stated, suicide is unfortunately one of those things that for many, unless they've been personally touched by it, simply can't grasp the full power of its reach. Suicide can be painfully sneaky though. Thoughts of it can easily be lurking in the mind of your friendly cashier who smiles every time you see them, or the powerhouse CEO who shows no signs of weakness. Suicide is much more far reaching than people realize and it can be incredibly isolating because it's one of those subjects people just don't want to discuss, but we must. This is a very thoughtful, informative read and one that I hope sparks many more conversations like this.

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