Columns | Northwest Herald

The suicide story: Sharing to understand and prevent

Speaking of the importance of storytelling in suicide prevention, Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, president of United Suicide Survivors International, shared strategies for cultural change in her keynote at the McHenry County Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Recovery Conference.

The annual conference on Sept. 9 at McHenry County College was hosted by McHenry County Mental Health Board and Suicide Prevention Task Force at MCC.

Spencer-Thomas explained that she lost her brother Carson to suicide in 2004, at that time she had been working 16 years in the field of mental health, nine of them as a clinical psychologist. Since her brother’s death, Spencer-Thomas has built her life and career on furthering an understanding of suicide to prevent it.

“Storytelling is powerful,” Spencer-Thomas said. “Sharing the story of suicide can aid the teller in healing, the story can help the listener understand and, a good story can change culture. Giving mastery over the many voices of the self allows for empowerment. Powerful tales can sweep away old myths and become the preferred story. A good story can provide dignity in the face of fear.”

For every person who dies from suicide, Spencer-Thomas said, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020 an estimated 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.2 million attempted suicide. There were 45,979 suicides in 2020. This tells us that the overwhelming majority of people who are staring death down will survive – and many actually thrive.

The suicidal intensity becomes an alarm bell alerting them to the fact that they need to make serious changes in their life. Many people grow through their suicide experience. They get sober, they have spiritual awakenings, they leave toxic situations, and much more.

Change through storytelling, said Spencer-Thomas, requires consideration of several key concerns. As one prepares to tell their story, she encouraged her audience to evaluate these questions: Am I ready to tell? How do I know if it helps me or hurts me? What are the consequences to others? What parts do I keep to myself? What is my motive? What is changed by my story?

She cautions storytellers from using shocking and upsetting details, pejorative language, glamorizing or romanticizing the suicide, as well as description details on the means of the suicide death or attempt or on the location.

Survivors seeking to share their story may benefit from connecting with National Speakers Association or Toastmasters to assist in story structure and message as well as tactics for public speaking.

Spencer-Thomas has helped start multiple large-scale, gap-filling efforts in mental health include the award-winning Man Therapy campaign and is a lead author of the National Guidelines for Workplace Suicide Prevention.

In addition to Spencer-Thomas, breakout sessions were offered on various topics including Diverse Identities and Mental Wellness, Running a Grief Support Group, Suicide and the LGBTQ+ Community, Supporting Youth Voices and Men’s Mental Health, Ensuring Resilience and The Value of Connections in Substance Use Disorder Recovery.

McHenry County Mental Health Board Executive Director Leonetta Rizzi detailed statistics on suicide nationwide – it occurs every 11 minutes and is the second leading cause of death in teens. In McHenry County, the annual average has been 26 deaths by suicide per year for since 2019. In 2022, there have been 27 deaths through August. The prevalence of death by suicide in McHenry County is in white men.

“Our McHenry County data on mental illness, deaths by suicide, and suicide attempts show that we have work to be done in these areas and I encourage you to join us in these efforts since one life lost is one life too many lost to this public health issue,” Rizzi said. “Suicide is preventable with focus on prevention, recovery, and protective strategies for individuals, families and communities.”

On a local level, McHenry County Suicide Prevention Task Force is hosting an event on the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, Nov. 19, to provide an opportunity to share stories. Survivors of Suicide Loss Support Group is offered for those who are not ready to share their stories publicly but are needing assistance for their loss. Never Walk Alone is a local fundraising event for Suicide Prevention to be held at The Dole in Crystal Lake on Sept. 24. For more information visit

More information and resources for individuals and families can be found at the McHenry County Mental Health Board website:

Contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you are experiencing mental health-related distress or are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support. Call or text 988, a confidential, free, and available 24/7/365.

• Sue Dobbe-Leahy represents Dobbe Marketing in Crystal Lake.