Highlights From #AAS16, Part 1

Image: Don’t Let My Love Grow Cold Chicago by Chris Smith on Flickr.  ||  

Since diving into suicide prevention work a few years ago, it’s safe to say I’ve learned a lot. The great bulk of that new knowledge comes from my therapeutic work, as each new client teaches me about their life and how they survive it. While this information is indeed invaluable, it’s just as important to stay up to date on the research providing a backbone to all that practice. And while poring over academic journal articles and therapy textbooks is something I actually enjoy, there’s just nothing quite like a national conference in terms of providing an overview of the exciting scientific and clinical developments of the entire field, straight from the mouths of its most prominent leaders.

Fortunately for me (and 1112 others in attendance), that’s where the American Association of Suicidology‘s national conference comes in. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to attend the conference for the last two years now – last year in Atlanta and just last week in Chicago – and decided this time around to share what I felt were the highlights of the event. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus this post on plenary sessions only, and will hope to discuss some of the smaller breakout sessions I attended in future posts. Here are my thoughts on three highlights from the first two days of the conference.

Look Upstream

The theme for this year’s conference was “Suicidology: A Place For Everyone,” alluding to the field’s growing acknowledgement and emphasis on the importance of including survivors (of another’s suicide and/or of their own suicide attempt) alongside researchers and clinicians in preventing suicides. Another “place for everyone” inclusion this year was a focus on the public health model, as reflected by several plenary sessions on the conference’s opening day. During one such presentation – I believe it was Jerry Reed from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center – I heard a great story that I’ll remember for a while to illustrate the importance of systemic approaches to preventing suicide. It went something like this:

One day a man, walking along a river’s edge, heard a terrible scream. He soon saw a figure in the water a short distance ahead, flailing helplessly against the current and clearly in need of rescue. The man rushed into the river, heroically dragging the poor, now unconscious soul to the shore before providing CPR, undoubtedly saving their life. But a second later the man heard another scream, and as he looked up he saw another figure in the water. So, he leaped in, pulled them to shore, and again applied life-saving CPR to the victim. Then another came floating by, and another.

On and on this went, as the man rescued one person after another from the river’s edge. Indeed, he became so occupied by the act of rescuing all these people from the river, that he never even thought to ask: who is upstream, pushing them in?

Is Suicide Really A Choice?

David Covington was the first to kick off #AAS16’s ‘Ted-style’ 15 minute talks, and his was easily a highlight of the entire conference for me. David’s thesis was that although suicide is often framed as an individual’s choice, in reality it is anything but. Rather, we must view suicide as the tragic and inevitable outcome of prolonged pain and suffering. Pain, and the body’s physiological responses to it, erodes conscious choice. An elegant metaphor: David himself, as a participant in Fear Factor, hanging from a downward-angled bar, determined to outlast his competitors by being the last to fall, and failing in spite of the total strength of his will. Not once did he decide to fall, yet he did.

I will admit the “no choice” mindset is one that I will have to ponder for a while, as it’s not without potentially troubling practical implications and philosophical loopholes. But I think that’s exactly what I loved about the presentation: it made me think long and hard about something in a new way. I definitely recommend checking out David’s own post describing his talk.

Dr. Marsha Linehan

There’s nobody quite like Marsha; getting to watch her present is basically worth the cost of admission to a conference on its own. I get the feeling she is getting to like presenting at #AAS16 too – this was her second year in a row, and she received massive standing ovations both times. She’s just such a rock star – witness this moment of greatness after her remarks this year:

Where to begin? In one fell swoop, Linehan described the field of suicide prevention research as a disaster; claimed that hospitalizing suicidal patients doesn’t save lives but actually increases risk; predicted that robots will be doing most of our therapy soon; called out universities for shying away from suicide and fragilizing graduate students; and literally said, “we’re not gonna get a bunch more hotty-toddy PhD’s” in reference to the need to actively involve non-professionals in suicide prevention.

To get a fuller sense of her talk, check out this storify archive put together by Carl Dunn.

For now though, I’ll simply have to agree with Bart:

I have lots more to digest from a great #AAS16 conference – hope to write more soon!