Throughout the year we pause to recognize many different moments, including those of celebration and those where we honor people we have lost. September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month when we remember those we have lost to suicide and recognize the work that needs to be done to support people with mental health disabilities. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the US.” This month, we come together to talk about mental health, suicide, and the profound need for prevention.
Suicide Prevention Awareness Month is more than just a collection of days on a calendar—it’s a collective call to action. In this month’s blog, we are honored to have Kelly Davis, the Vice President of Peer and Youth Advocacy at Mental Health America share her experience and insights on suicide. Let Kelly’s story be a reminder of why spreading awareness, encouraging open dialogue, and fostering empathy are powerful tools in suicide prevention.
The content provided in this blog includes sensitive information related to mental health and suicide which can be distressing and triggering for some individuals. Please proceed with caution. Your safety and well-being are important to us.
My name is Kelly Davis, and I am the Vice President of Peer and Youth Advocacy at Mental Health America. I am a multiple suicide attempt survivor and have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. My work in mental health advocacy is driven by lived experience and my belief in the power of people and communities for healing and making the world a better place.
Why is it important to engage and amplify youth in the mental health space?
Most mental health challenges begin early in life and increase as a person ages. In my personal experience, my mental health struggles and suicidal thoughts go back to elementary school. However, I did not have the language or ability to express my emotional pain to others around me. I was eventually connected to mental health services after a suicide attempt in middle school and spent much of my adolescence in a wide range of mental health services.
It was not until college, when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, that I felt like I began my recovery journey. My transformation was rooted in peer support, self-help skills, holistic well-being practices, and disability accommodations. Unfortunately, I found in my personal life and advocacy that my perspectives on what would help were dismissed because I was young and had no credentials. Yet, when I talked to other young people, they reported identifying similar solutions and an ability to see what hurts and helps in a way that adults could not.
The world is far different than ever before, and mental health systems and services were not designed with youth and young adults in mind. It has been my experience, both personal and professional, that young people have critical insight into their needs, and any strategy to address youth mental health will not be successful without their input, partnership, and leadership.
In what ways have discussions and perspectives on suicide prevention changed over the course of your career?
Conversations about suicide prevention have changed dramatically since I started mental health advocacy a decade ago. Historically, suicide prevention has focused heavily on identifying risk and intervening during a crisis, which is incredibly important. In recent years, conversations have expanded beyond the moment of crisis to include societal and individual contexts.
From a societal perspective, the importance and impact of social determinants, like access to housing and poverty, have become a part of the dialogue, as it is difficult to support yourself when you cannot meet your basic needs. Additionally, conversations have expanded to emphasize the role of communities, social connection, and belonging as the environment supporting a person can be just as, if not more impactful, than resources for the individual.
In what ways have they not that necessitated change?
While there has been progress, there are many areas for growth, including expanding our understanding of suicidal thoughts and access to a wider range of supports. Many people experience thoughts of suicide or things like wishing they would go to sleep and not wake up. However, this does not mean the person is actively suicidal and should be treated as if they are in an emergency.
As someone who continues to experience thoughts of suicide, I have learned to recognize them as an indication that I feel overwhelmed by pain instead of a sign of immediate danger. While all thoughts of suicide should be taken seriously, we should hold room for a broader range of experiences. This expanded focus includes addressing how we train people to respond to people discussing suicide. For example, when we respond to all disclosures as a threat, people may not feel supported and may be less likely to ask for help in the future.
Additionally, there needs to be increased conversation about alternatives to crisis centers and inpatient services, including peer-run respites. Peer-run respites are community environments led by peer specialists that serve as alternatives to inpatient psychiatric units. This option can help people heal in a comfortable space and has been demonstrated to reduce the use of higher-intensity services like emergency departments and inpatient services.
How does your lived experience and expertise inform your mental health leadership and advocacy?
My lived experience shapes how I understand problems and solutions in mental health– specifically in a space that has historically privileged clinical knowledge over other forms of knowledge. As someone who has experienced the limitations of traditional and often disempowering approaches, I can make recommendations that may not be obvious on the provider or academic side.
An example I frequently give is from my work focused on mental health disabilities on college campuses. While a university may offer a range of resources and identify a need to invest in awareness campaigns, a student will likely tell you all of the barriers, like burdensome documentation and limited access to mental health providers, that are actually preventing them from obtaining needed resources. We cannot adequately fix the challenges without understanding what people are experiencing. Attempts to do so may miss massive parts of the solution, like in the example of campus disability services. Just as my own lived experience has informed my advocacy, it has also led me to elevate the leadership of others with lived experience as well.
What is the significance of peer-led and survivor-led supports in suicide prevention?
Peer-led and survivor-led supports meet people where they are, understanding many of the challenges of that lived experience, like navigating a return to employment or school, communicating with family members, or experiencing harmful or limited mental health services. At a time when you can feel extremely isolated, rejected, and alone in the world, peer-led and survivor-led approaches provide a community of people who have been there, hope for the future, and insight into different approaches to healing and well-being based on a person’s self-identified needs and beliefs.
As more BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth and youth with disabilities continue to speak out about their distinct mental health struggles – tied to experiences of racial trauma and historically-rooted marginalization – how do you approach advancing equity and intersectional, culturally competent systems-change through your work?
We will never get to the core of many people’s struggles without addressing inequities and oppression. In my work, this means calling out the reality of discrimination in the foundations of systems and resources and amplifying the voices of individuals from impacted communities, like BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled/youth with disabilities, in all conversations about policy, practice, and research. A focus on equity also includes investing in community-led resources that are transformative yet have been historically excluded from research and funding. By advocating against injustice inside and outside of mental health services and centering marginalized communities’ lived experiences, we can progress toward a world where healing and liberation are possible.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or experiencing emotional distress, please reach out for help immediately. This blog is not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
If you are in crisis or need immediate assistance, please contact:
Emergency Services: In case of an emergency, dial your country’s emergency number (e.g., 911 in the United States).
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: In the United States, you can call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) for confidential support available 24/7.
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, free, and confidential support.
Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741 in the United States for free, confidential text support with a trained crisis counselor.
Local Crisis Centers: Seek assistance from a local mental health crisis center or helpline, which can often provide immediate help.
Remember, you are not alone, and there are people who care about your well-being. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional for support.